It starts with the clicking of fingers on a typewriter, a sound which defined the working world for a generation. One of the most recognizable guitar riffs in music quickly follows and the warm and sassy voice of Dolly Parton telling the audience, among other things, that “they just use your mind and you never get the credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it”.
While this is playing, we are treated to a montage of the working women of the year 1980 with some notable shoulder-pads and platinum perms. While the fashion choices of these women may seem rather distant today, the shots of them commuting to their office jobs, meanwhile dropping their children off at school, have not become quite so retro.
Neither have the issues faced by the film’s three protagonists. Working for a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”, Mr Hart, each of them are subjected to harassment, belittlement and injustices. Capable and experienced Violet (played by Lily Tomlin) is left frustrated as said boss blatantly steals her ideas, gives a promotion to a male colleague on the grounds that he’s, you guessed it, a man. He calls her and her colleagues “the girls”- she curtly replies that she’s a mother in her mid-forties.
Judy (played by an icon of the era, Jane Fonda) is thrown into the workplace with no experience after her husband left her for his secretary. Dolly Parton’s character, adorable Texan Doralee Rhodes, is given perhaps the most disturbing storyline as Mr Hart repeatedly harasses her for sex and subsequently spread rumours about their non-existent affair. The extreme discomfort on Parton’s face completely wrings any audience member of pity.
You may wonder how comedy could be made out of a largely depressing situation. The answer is: through complete absurdity, starting with the hallucinations the three gain after sharing a joint (ranging from Tomlin skipping about the office with cartoon birds helping her murder her boss in a twisted Snow White scenario, to Parton putting him on a spit roast dressed as a cowgirl having just thrown herself upon him). The main plot is driven by the three of them covering up a near accidental murder after Violet puts rat poison (rather than “Skinny ‘n’ Sweet”) into his coffee. This involves taking him hostage in his own house with a modified parachuting kit pinging him to the ceiling whenever he misbehaves, and running the office in his absence. In this time the three introduce ideas like flexible working hours, a jobsharing program and on-site daycare centre for working parents.
A particularly satisfying moment is seeing a close-up of a hand stapling up a notice that male and female employees will now receive equal pay at the company. Watching this film, I realised how much we are still in that “same boat with a lot of our friends, waiting for the day our ship will come in”.
With the global gender pay gap expected to take another 200 hundred years to close and the #MeToo movement bringing to light work place harassment in every corner of society, how far have we really come from the darker side of this essentially silly comedy? Far enough, perhaps, to appreciate what a forward thinking and empowering film this must have been at its release; yet far from enough to undo the injustice behind the comedy.