Clocking the Depressing Relevance of 9 to 5 in 2019

Image: IMDb

That a movie from 1980 could portray a utopian vision for working women that is still just as utopian (and fictional) in 2019 feels depressing, but that seems to be the case for 9 to 5.

While the movie’s three leads (played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) keep their lecherous boss in captivity, they transform their office into a place that actually serves the needs and desires of its exclusively female workers, not the male bosses who continually deny them the pay and respect they deserve. Together the women forge their boss’s signatures again and again on changes to their workplace, all of which ultimately make the company more profitable and the women workers happier.

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At the time these tweaks, which included on-site daycare and equal pay, were perceived as radical by their boss and likely by mainstream audiences, which was kind of the point. 9 to 5 was partly inspired by Jane Fonda’s friendship with Karen Nussbaum who founded 9to5, the National Association of Working Women for clerical workers, and Fonda wanted to couch labor issues and discussions of equal pay in mainstream comedy to feed it to the masses. “I’m just super-sensitive to anything that smacks of the soapbox or lecturing the audience,” Fonda said at the time. “It remains a labor film.”

But nearly 40 years on, the average office looks nothing like the utopia Judy, Violet, and Doralee cooked up in 1980. Here’s the bare-bones of their dream workplace at the end of the film and how work for women does or doesn’t reflect it today.

Onsite daycare

In 9 to 5, Violet shows off an on-site daycare, which should be the norm for working parents, at the very least in a country where there is no federal paid parental leave and the policy remains an extreme rarity among employers. The state of parental leave in America is so dire at this point (not to mention President Trump thinks pregnancy is an “inconvenience for business”) that stories about women “donating” their vacation time to coworkers who need family leave are framed as “feel good” stories instead of depressing reflections of a crisis for families. But while onsite daycare is considered a rare, luxury perk (the Outline reported that in 2017 only 17 Fortune 100 companies offer a form of on-site day care, and such programs are virtually nonexistent for low-wage workers) daycare access is itself increasingly rare. A 2018 report from the Center for American Progress found that fifty-one percent of Americans live in child care deserts. Even with Elizabeth Warren pushing a proposal for universal childcare, the concept of affordable, accessible childcare on-site in the office is still just as radical as it was in 1980. (Where reliable childcare exists, it’s often more expensive than a college education. In fact, that’s true in most states.)

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Equal pay for all employees

Hahaha, yeah, no. The wage gap is still awful, with the World Economic Forum reporting in 2018 that, overall, women will earn as much as men in 202 years. (See you then, ladies!) The Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill which would help ensure women are paid the same amount as men, was first introduced in 1997 and has been blocked repeatedly since then, though Democrats keep pushing for it to no avail. Since 9 to 5 came out in 1980, women’s wages have definitely increased, but at a dismal rate. In 1980, women earned 60.2 percent of what men make, but in 2017 women earned 82 percent of what men make. The numbers are much more dire for women of color: in 2017, black women were paid 61 percent of what white men earned. Latinas earned just 53 cents on that same dollar. It’s bad. Bad.

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No union-busting

After the office narc Roz figures out some women might be unhappy about work and (gasp!) talking to each other about it, she reminds Violet that they “must clamp down hard on any signs of unionization!” In the early 1980s, the Service Employers International Union and Working Women formed 9to5 to organize the “nearly 20 million female secretaries, stenographers, typists, clerks, key punch operators and other office workers in the United States,” the New York Times reported at the time. But labor union membership has decreased significantly since then, with just 10.7 percent of salaried workers in unions in 2017 compared to 20.1 percent in 1983.

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But it’s important to note that for women, union membership has more or less caught up to men. In 2018 the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that men had a higher membership rate than women (11.1 percent versus 9.9. percent), but the gap between the two is still better than in 1991, when 12.6 percent of employed women and 19.3 percent of employed men were union members. There’s also something to be said about the fact that women are the face of the new labor movement, from teachers, hotel workers, and flight attendants reviving the power of the strike and collective action.

Had Violet, Doralee, and Judy not tied up their boss and got everything they wanted, it’s safe to assume that collective bargaining would have helped. But the anti-union sentiment they face is still as prominent today as it was then, from the floors of Walmart to cushy media company CEOs like Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti.

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Letting people talk about their salaries

In 9 to 5, a worker named Maria is fired after sharing her salary and covertly wondering what a manager makes. That’s, of course, illegal and Violet makes a point of hiring back Maria. But the illegality of employers suppressing conversations about pay doesn’t keep them from trying to! A 2014 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that half of all workers report that discussing wages is “discouraged or prohibited and/or could lead to punishment.” If only everyone could work for Violet.

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Sexual harassers get the boot

One issue 9 to 5 really doesn’t actually reform with structural changes is the blatant sexual harassment Doralee and others suffer at the hands of their boss. Sure, they kidnap and almost kill him, but by the end of the film he takes credit for their work and gets conveniently shipped off to Brazil. While that’s an easy fix, it doesn’t exactly deal with what happens in the future should a new sexist boss move in to repeat the cycle (or if their boss gets another job in Brazil, where offices also exist). “You never hear the words ‘sexual harassment’ in the movie, and the reason is because none of us had heard the words sexual harassment,” writer Patricia Resnick said of writing the script. “We didn’t know that phrase.” It was a reflection of its time, but also a depressing reminder that, in 2019, vocabulary alone isn’t enough to change workplace culture.

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Four decades later, not much has changed for the working woman, despite highly publicized stories about select men across different industries who are finally facing the consequences for harassing and abusing women. While glitzy industries like Hollywood are having a reckoning, the same can’t be said for women working at the Ford factory, in households, or McDonalds, or on American farms. If 9 to 5 were to be remade (and a sequel is in the works) Fonda has said that she’d want it to focus on the gains of women in the service industry. “I’ve been spending a lot of time working on One Fair Wage for restaurant workers in Michigan and elsewhere,” she told The New Yorker in 2018. “One of the things that I think we’re going to have to get into this new movie—if it ever gets that far [knocks on wood]—is that a lot of people now who work full time live below the poverty line. They’re not as well off as Judy Bernly and Doralee and Violet were back then.”

Job sharing and flexible work schedules

In the film Violet lets employees, especially those with children, have the option of job sharing, in which two part-time employees share the labor of a full-time employee. Similarly, employees are also allowed to work flexible schedules, which boosts productivity in the office.

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As of 2018, flexible work hours are slightly more popular; the New York Times reported that according to a 2018 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, 57 percent of its members (over 300,000 H.R. professionals from 165 countries) offer flexible hours, and that was up 5 percent from 2014. But it’s hard to imagine perks like job sharing and flexible hours spreading through a white collar workplace like the one in 9 to 5 today considering how fleeting stable work for employees can be to begin with. In 2018 an NPR poll found that 1 in 5 jobs in America is held by a worker under contract and that 51 percent of contract workers don’t receive benefits. Flex-time is also largely out of reach for low-wage workers who are struggling for steady scheduling in the first place.

In the 9 to 5 workplace of today, the current dream might actually be a full-time job that starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m.? It’s a rich man’s game no matter what they call it.

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About the author

Hazel Cills

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel