Working Girl Made Corporate Climbing Look Good

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Melanie Griffith Photo: 20th Century Fox

When I saw Mike Nichols's Working Girl as a kid in the '90s, I dreamed of one day working in an office like Tess McGill's. Shown in the last scene, the aggressively beige cell has little in it except a desk and a phone. As the camera zooms out, we see Tess (Melanie Griffith) is one of hundreds of blazer-wearing employees in identical rooms on the upper floors of One Chase Manhattan Plaza. She shrinks to the size of a teeny particle on the gridlike skyscraper, and, as we zoom out, disappears.

Sounds soul-crushing, right? In Working Girl, though, Tess's office is a triumph, soundtracked by the gospel-pop anthem "Let the River Run." When I watched the movie as a kid, I had no trouble believing such a cell was the pinnacle of female success. One of my favorite daydreams around then consisted of building my own one-room home, filled with objects precious to me — and this was long before I ever read Virginia Woolf. Tess's office seemed similar: a blank space where she could construct her identity in the world. More than fancy clothes or Harrison Ford as a boyfriend, it was a reward for her journey from sex-object secretary to serious executive.

Mike Nichols, who died last week, released Working Girl the year I was born, 1988. And it remains one of his most socially relevant films (if less critically acclaimed than The Graduate). It's witty at the right moments, mushy at the right moments, and features two complex female leads — a fact that, even at a young age, I recognized as unusual. As one of my earliest exposures to feminism in pop culture, Working Girl primed me for high-school Sex and the City marathons and dreams of my own arduous-yet-edifying New York City adventure.

Looking at the tributes to Working Girl and Nichols on social media last week, I'm certain many women feel similarly. Yet its persistence shows what's questionable about the film's message. In framing corporate ladder-climbing as a feminist project, it crystallized the "having it all" vision of successful womanhood that's more pervasive now than it was in 1988. Working Girl frames feminism as an individual woman's quest to overcome odds through sheer determination. It's a project that fits neatly into a Libertarian version of the American dream, fitting for the Reagan era but equally seductive now, when so much of the debate about empowerment is centered around corporate success stories.

"You make it happen" is a mantra Tess repeats. Which, not coincidentally, sounds a lot like "Lean In." Throughout the movie, Tess labors to pull herself up by her '80s-sneaker laces, pitching ideas for mergers, applying to her company's corporate training program, and fending off advances from lecherous colleagues. When she's paired with a female supervisor, Katharine (played by Sigourney Weaver), it seems like a godsend. But Katharine turns out to be the #girlboss from hell, so Tess has to attack the glass ceiling more forcefully: She swipes Katharine’s Rolodex, steals her clothes, and pulls off a deal behind her back. It's a hyperbolic version of the Lean In narrative, which promises that women who are assertive enough in crucial years of their careers will be rewarded.

Today, it's almost impossible to watch a slow zoom of One Chase Manhattan Plaza and not think of the 2008 financial crisis — corrupt bankers, foreclosed homes, and dreams of NYC adventures stalled rather than fulfilled. Yet, while most people today are warier of Wall Street, the premise of women's empowerment via capitalism remains largely unquestioned. As the Cut recently observed, Ayn Rand, ardent anti-feminist during her lifetime, has become a mass-market girl-power icon, her quotes appearing on Brandy Melville crop tops and Lululemon tote bags.

What actually makes Working Girl a relevant movie, though, and not a toss-away example of Hollywood girl power gone awry, is the way it also anticipates critiques of corporate feminism. Class, and the question of whether empowerment is a rich woman's privilege, is a crucial theme. Katharine, a wealthy Wellesley graduate, finds the glass ceiling far less forbidding than Tess, a working-class Staten Island secretary. (The film is virtually devoid of minority characters, so we can only imagine the disadvantages they might face.) Working Girl acknowledges that, sometimes, hard work isn't enough to combat institutionalized discrimination. "I’m not going to 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," Tess says.

Of course, it's hard to read the ending of Working Girl as anything other than an affirmation of feminism and capitalism's alignment — a promise that, if you're exceptional, success is yours for the taking. When Tess arrives in her new office, the first thing she does is call an old friend, who stands up and announces the news to a pool of hundreds of other secretaries. It seems like the start of something — a collective movement that could change the rules that Tess had to break. But 26 years later, we're still mostly cheering for a handful of Tesses. The rules haven’t changed.