In a tale as old as time, a young dreamer arrives in a new land without speaking the right language or having the right background but outwits the doubters around them on the strength of their street smarts alone.
This time the person is Tess McGill, played by Melanie Griffith in an Oscar-nominated role in the beloved 1988 film “Working Girl.” Tess is a 30-year old secretary who rides the Staten Island ferry to her job in Manhattan in her big jacket and bigger ’80s hair, hungry to be taken seriously as the businesswoman she sees herself to be.
As she puts it, “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.”
If only the people around her believed the same about her brain. Tess has a degree in business from night school, but the men she works for don’t advocate for her to get into the company’s leadership program because she lacks a posh MBA pedigree. Her boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) pays more attention to his pizza getting cold than hearing about her work troubles. She is set up to be sexually harassed by her male colleagues and storms off the job, but thinks she’s finally gotten the mentorship she’s been longing for when she nabs a position working as a receptionist for Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), the head of mergers and acquisitions at the huge firm Petty Marsh.
At first, Tess is happy to finally work for someone who doesn’t force her to deal with all that “chasing around the desk crap.” Although roughly the same age as Tess, Katharine is a wealthy executive who knows what she wants and how to get it. She waltzes into the office with her pearls, tidy perm and standout red blazers. She tells Tess that their work relationship is a “two-way street” in which her ideas will be recognized, so Tess shares her idea that Trask Industries, a large company known to be in the market for a TV network, should purchase a radio network instead so Federal Communications Commission rules will prevent Trask from being taken over by the Japanese conglomerate that threatens the business.
The big betrayal of the film comes when Katharine goes on a ski trip and breaks her leg. While Katharine is laid up in a far-off hospital bed, Tess discovers that Katharine has been passing off Tess’ merger idea for Trask as her own despite telling Tess it wasn’t worth pursuing. When Tess realizes that Katharine has taken full credit for her idea, she concocts a scheme in which she will pass herself off as Katharine’s equal and pull off the acquisition.
Griffith herself describes the film as “an example of how to speak up and stand up for yourself and not sell yourself out for a job or a guy. You don’t have to acquiesce to a man or a woman.” “Working Girl” depicts a hustler using her wiles and cunning to climb the corporate ladder, but to what end? When I first watched this film years ago, I remember rooting for Tess; now, I find myself more skeptical of cheering on ambition for ambition’s sake.
Here’s what struck me now about the film’s enduring messages about being a working woman.
The film is great at capturing how crushing and ubiquitous workplace harassment can be.
Long before the Me Too movement ― and before her job at Petty Marsh ― Tess fends off business executive Bob Speck (Kevin Spacey) in the back of a car.
At the prodding of her male higher-ups, Tess agrees to meet with Speck because, they tell her, he is looking for “hungry” talent in his department. But when Tess joins Speck in his limo for their meeting, it’s clear that she’s been set up. He shows no interest in her career, and instead says they can “go through all that at the hotel.” He spills Champagne on Tess, uses that as his excuse to push his head into her breast without her consent, and shows her porn on the car’s television.
Tess has had enough. “I am hungry, Bob, but I am not that hungry,” she says. She tells the car’s driver to pull over, sprays the remainder of the Champagne on Speck, and chooses to walk in the pouring rain. Tess gets the final word, because she tells the whole office that her boss who arranged it is “a sleazoid pimp,” but ends up losing her job as a result.
It’s unfortunately only an extreme example of the everyday indignities Tess puts up with in her male-dominated job where she is not respected.
Even Jack Trainer, Tess’ romantic love interest ― a grumpy charmer played by Harrison Ford ― is also sadly notable as the first business associate that doesn’t leer grossly at her or touch her without her consent. The bar for what passes as male decency in the film is low.
Katharine is definitely a bad boss. But Tess gets away with her scheme without punishment.
Because Katharine betrays Tess’ trust, she’s the villain of the film who stands in the way of Tess’ career ambitions. Katharine’s biggest mistake is not following her own advice that “today’s junior prick is tomorrow’s senior partner” in regard to Tess, failing to avoid making her an enemy.
But Tess is a bad employee, too. Yes, Katharine is a terrible, condescending boss who steals credit for her employee’s idea, which irrevocably breaks the trust between them, but Tess is a scammer who uses her boss’s home, clothes, office and business connection (who turns out to be her boyfriend, too) to pass herself off as an executive so she can get into meetings and be taken seriously.
When the job-ending deception is eventually revealed and Tess slinks out of the office with a box of belongings, Katharine sneers, “Your stuff? Now there’s a broad term.” Tess protests this comment, but perhaps the lady doth protest too much. She did end up in a relationship with her boss’s boyfriend, Jack Trainer, after all.
Because this is a romantic comedy, the big reveal that Tess is not actually a mergers and acquisitions executive does not mirror the ending of 2019’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” a film that also centers on job impersonators but focuses on the rage of class divisions and forces fatal confrontations.
Instead, the most Tess really suffers for her deception is a $120 dry cleaning bill for wearing Katharine’s clothes. Although she loses her job as Katharine’s secretary, Tess gains a new job at Trask because of her moxie. Tess is rewarded for breaking the rules; Katharine is disproportionately punished. She is publicly humiliated, called a “bony ass” by a male peer in front of the office, and is never heard from again in the film.
“You can bend the rules plenty once you get upstairs, but not while you’re trying get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules,” Tess tells Oren Trask to explain her deception, and he hires her.
Tess may never admit it, but how Katharine of Tess to say that. As Katharine advised a trusting Tess early on, “You don’t get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you.”
The film is also great at capturing the unseen workplace hierarchies and codes of conduct. But it never challenges them.
“Working Girl” knows an unfortunate workplace reality: that where you sit, who you know, and how you talk can matter as much as ― or even more than ― whether you are actually competent. “I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up, OK?” Tess moans.
While the bad bosses in the film do not recognize their secretaries as full people, the film shows that the secretaries are the ones who really run an office by coordinating meetings and RSVPs, ordering dim sum for parties, remembering birthdays and pooling money for laid-off employees, as they do for Tess. The secretary solidarity is a strength of the film, and the joy of the film’s ending comes when they all cheer after hearing Tess has a promotion and her own office. It’s a win for them all.
But once you’re a secretary, it’s hard to be seen as anything else. Even when Tess isn’t aware of her shortcomings, others notice that she does not fit in as a businessperson. When Jack notices Tess uses a rubber band to hold her file folder together in a meeting, he gifts her a new briefcase. The message: Let me help you belong here.
This hierarchy is also evident in how Katharine and Tess underestimate each other. Katharine doesn’t think Tess has the brains to come up with the Trask acquisition idea and asks her if she overheard it in the elevator. And Tess underestimates Katharine’s authority: She calls her by her first name instead of “Miss Parker” when they meet.
Although the film is great at pointing out the petty workplace dynamics that govern corporate offices like Petty Marsh, it doesn’t really shake them up or challenge the system. It just shows how one professional like Tess can use outside knowledge ― like the tabloids and gossip magazines that help Tess get access to Oren Trask ― to their advantage.
Take the film’s ending. Tess goes to her new office at Trask Industries and ends up with her own secretary, Alice, who prefers to be called an assistant. In their first chat about expectations, Tess tells Alice, “I don’t expect you to fetch me coffee unless you’re getting some for yourself, and the rest we’ll just make up as we go along.” Alice nods and tells Tess she’ll be outside her door if Tess needs anything. It’s a subtle reminder of Tess’ new promotion, but also of Alice’s place. The hierarchy lives on.
This scene also suggests that Tess will not be another Katharine who will demand her assistant fetch coffee, but I’m not sold on the idea that Tess will be a good boss herself. Would she mentor her assistant? Fight for more inclusion in her all-white, mostly male workplace? It struck me that the 1980 film “9 to 5” shows secretaries fighting for equal pay, on-site day care and flexible work, but Tess’ views about the workplace are unclear beyond her own ambition. The film shows that she’s a great hustler who knows how to fight for herself, but I’m not sure she would fight on behalf of others if it inconveniences her.
In the film’s final moments, we see Tess in her own office with a door and windows, chattering away to her secretary friend Cyn (Joan Cusack) on the phone. Cyn tells the other secretaries back at Petty Marsh about Tess’ new position, and they all cheer.
But then the camera pans back to Tess and you can see her office is just one of hundreds. With a Carly Simon song swelling in the background, this is meant to be uplifting, but it comes off now as a bit depressing. Tess’ big win is becoming a bigger cog in the machine of corporate capitalism. She thrives within the system, but she does not upset it. Not now that it’s working in her favor.