9 to 5 (1980) and the Liberal Fantasy of Ethical Capitalism – Retro Review

I think I experienced a different 9 to 5 than what was intended. People sold it to me as a glorious fantasy about working women sticking it to their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot of a boss. It’s about finding strength in numbers and empowering other women in your professional journey. And it’s about friends — and finding friends where you least expected to. 

The fantasy that stood out to me most in 9 to 5 was different, though. We’re living through ~unprecedented times~, with features including a global pandemic, a national racial reckoning, and baby’s first steps towards a potential American fascist dictatorship. Column A gives us a lot of time on our hands to reckon with Columns B and C. That time on our hands combined with the police’s continued, consistent brutalization of Black and other minority communities has led to louder, more mainstream conversations about police abolition, and the abolition of the capitalist system that allows a brutal police force to exist. The idea is that no amount of reform can make capitalism ethical, and that systems built to oppress cannot be turned unoppressive. 

9 to 5 is a liberal fantasy of an ethical capitalism. It centers white women who, in their white man boss’s absence, reform their company into a utopian workplace where all people of all identities are treated fairly and equally. The happy ending is a diverse office where productivity is at an all-time high — so high that the white man boss gets a big promotion as a result. 

The movie is a lot of fun. Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda are perfectly cast, and each one of them made me laugh out loud more than once. The scene where they all get together after work made me desperately miss my girl friends — the giggling uncontrollably, the commiserating, and the unconditional support. And the fantasy is effective, to be sure. Dabney Coleman plays an incredible smarmy boss, with just enough self-awareness to make the performance more than just one-note. 


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Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5883248i)
Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda
Nine To Five – 1980
Director: Colin Higgins
20th Century Fox
Scene Still
9 To 5
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If I were thinking less about abolishing capitalism and the ways white women benefit from capitalism, I think I would have had an easier time cheering on the characters in this movie. Biting off the head of the beast is satisfying, but no amount of hard work from Judy, Violet, and Doralee will change the core of the culture of a workplace that exists to feed that beast. 

It’s interesting to compare Roz, the sycophantic secretary, to her foils in Judy, Violet, and Doralee. Roz is entirely unsympathetic, mistrusted by everybody because of her tendency to blab to the boss. Her mistake, the movie contends, is staying loyal to the wrong part of the corporate ladder. But she is trying to claim power in the only way she knows how — by sucking up to the person who makes the rules so that she can help make the rules. When the three leads usurp the office, that’s really just another way of deferring to an existing power structure. An on-site day care, part-time hours, and flowers on the desks may make the work more accessible and comfortable for women and other workplace minorities, but it does not actually make the work more ethical. The new rules do not address barriers that prevent lower-level employees from making a living wage, because those barriers come from a much higher pay grade and a much deeper problem. 

I don’t mean to disparage a movie that made me smile so much, and one that has been empowering to so many people who are like me. I just can’t really find comfort in a capitalism that now happens to include people who are like me. Representation is not tantamount to ethical practice.

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