Media Digitization + Preservation
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Reel Work: Movies & the Workplace

Carla Arton & Joseph Arton chat every week about Hollywood films that deal with workplace issues and how they can be a guide to developing your career, help us collaborate better, work faster, better, and smarter. Hollywood has played an over-sized role in setting our expectations of the workplace and establishing unrealistic norms. However, they’re also creative treatments and Utopian visions of real workplaces, management styles, and industries. We can learn a lot from them.

Working Girl (1988) Staring Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, & Sigourney Weaver. Dir. Mike Nichols

Warning: Contains multiple spoilers  

Today’s Soundtrack: Carly Simon Let the River Run

Joe Arton: For our chat about Working Girl (1988), we’ve got three topics:

1)      Imposter Syndrome

2)      Mentors

3)      Confidence

Look here for a synopsis but it's really worth streaming

Hey Carla.

Carla Arton: I’m here and ready to take control of my destiny.

Joe: My first thought is that even though this is Tess’ story, I never realized how big a role imposter syndrome plays in Jack’s story (Harrison Ford) but let’s start with Melanie Griffith’s Tess.

Carla: What’s interesting to me, are the film’s bookends. The establishing shot is a hard close-up of the Statue of Liberty with a panning aerial shot that circles around the statue and then pans to the Staten Island ferry which Tess takes on her commute. The film closes with a similar aerial shot but this time pulling away from her sitting in her office in a high-rise on the Manhattan skyline. I see this as two images of confident women but who are not necessarily powerful yet.

Joe: This is definitely a stretch, but Tess is instructed to remove her heavy jewelry by Katherine which resembles the broken shackle and chain at the Statue of Liberty’s foot.

Carla: Tess’ jewelry is from her Staten Island life and it’s this scene where she starts her physical transformation and starts ‘Dressing the Part.’

Joe: Let’s talk about the relationship between dressing the Part and dressing for a role. This is the metanarrative of Working Girl.

Carla: The take-away is that you must dress the part.

Joe: Does this only apply for the women in the film?

Carla: For everybody. You still must go out and buy work clothes that show you want to be taken seriously.

Joe: It’s not exactly a subtle point, but the relationship between masquerade and success is an interesting one especially as Tess wears Katherine’s clothes for three quarters of the movie.   

Carla: You’d think that the heavy make-up that Tess wears at the beginning of the film would be her mask but it’s when she wears barely any make-up and restyles her blonde fluffy hair to look more angelic and less ostentatious. She’s so …

Joe: Monochromatic?

Carla: Monochrome suits as well. But the difference between Tess and Katherine who are literally wearing the same wardrobe, is that Tess is in more muted colors, especially when compared to her friend played by Joan Cusack, who’s very brash and colorful when she ‘plays’ Tess’ secretary. “Can I get ya anything, Mr. Trainer? Coffee? Tea? Me?”

Joe: Tess’ Pygmalion makeover, and especially the scene where she mimics Katherine’s voice by listening to her on the Dictaphone, reminds of when Margaret Thatcher famously took voice lessons to deepen her voice so she could be taken more seriously. It’s interesting that this is also where Tess learns about Katherine stealing her idea.

Carla: But Tess can’t just jump right in and be ‘Katherine’, she needs to get respect for her ideas first. She needs to establish trust because she doesn’t have the experience. For her, it’s learning how to make a deal rather than playing the social game. In my experience, I found that once you’ve had your ideas taken seriously a few times, it’s easier to have those moments of chit-chat before and after meetings.  

Joe: This brings us back to imposter syndrome. I don’t see Tess as actually having imposter syndrome. She’s an imposter but she’s able to navigate the symptoms of imposter syndrome far better than Jack. You can see this in the wedding crashing scene where Tess takes the lead and closes the deal.

Carla: For Tess, it was never a lack of confidence, it was just a lack of experience. She was always good at her job as the first few scenes show us. It was that she could never get in ‘the room.’ She was never afraid to take risks.

Joe: There’s this tight, high-angle shot of Tess and Jack sitting painfully close to each other across from the executives at Trask, who are the gatekeepers to making her idea a reality. It makes them look like two kids sitting across from the school principle. It’s worth noting that for all his privilege and education, Jack a) doesn’t have as much status or influence as first appears and b) isn’t as good at his job as Tess. At the end, she’s given the job because Trask decides that she has “fire in her belly” but based on the evidence, it’s because she has ideas that make money. Strategic vision + Strategic Management.

Carla: My take-away, is that the film teaches us that you’re your best advocate. For many people, becoming your best advocate is first about building your confidence and getting away from imposter syndrome. The difference with Tess, is that she already knew she was good. It was that next step of getting in the room that was the challenge. As a secretary, that meant taking advantage of a loophole and lying in order to get in the room. Tess’ best friend doesn’t understand her drive and fears the implications about her lying about her position. She doesn’t even want Tess rock the boat and give up on her relationship with her cheating boyfriend (played by Alec Baldwin). Tess has to navigate it all on her own. It’s the idea that even though you might have people around you that recognize your work and what you bring to a company, you are essentially always on your own and should expect to be. You can still be part of an effective team and be friendly and support your colleagues but it’s important to remember you are your best and sometimes only advocate.

Joe: Thinking about Tess’ deception, I was struck how Tess could easily have been a character in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. She could substitute for Gary Cohen. I’d also argue that the film was more Screwball than Romantic Comedy. I say this because it’s far more cynical about human nature and a very literal ‘screwy’ corporate America than something like When Harry Met Sally or even You’ve Got Mail.

Carla: Let’s talk about Mentors.

Joe: Working Girl teaches us that you may want a mentor, but they’ll get you in the end. Jack becomes her advocate and ultimately that’s his biggest contribution to her journey. He never plays the mentor role.

Carla: That’s because he was her love interest in the Screwball Comedy sense but even then, not until the end. The only real representation of mentorship is Katherine and it’s not a flattering portrayal. But it’s certainly complex. She does give Tess useful advice about presentation and is a role-model in the film for what a woman in a position of power looks like. However, the first opportunity for Katherine to prove her trustworthiness; she fails. It’s a lesson in building trust slowly in a mentor and not putting all your faith in one mentor. She also lowered her guard because her boss was a woman, whom she assumed would empathize with her more and support her growth. 

Joe: What was the big difference between Tess and Katherine?

Carla: There wasn’t much of one. I guess the biggest difference would be ethics. One stole an idea and the other retaliated by stealing status. Otherwise, both had to deal with sexual harassment and fighting for or maintaining a place at the table.

Joe: And in Tess’ case, sexual assault by the Kevin Spacy character. I liked Katherine’s line about burning bridges, although I don’t really agree with it… ‘today’s prick or something…

Carla: “Never burn bridges. Today's junior prick, tomorrow's senior partner.”

Joe: Ok. Final thoughts. There’s still so much to talk about. I really wanted to come back to the portrayal of women’s voices and whether Kevin Wade’s screenplay was an accurate representation of how women talk(ed) in the workplace in the late 1980s or is it more a reflection of how they were heard? But my final thought is this: Tess’ big idea represents a successful road-map for Trask’s mergers and acquisitions strategy. Working Girl’s three-part narrative structure is a roadmap for how to get ahead in business by taking risks and being your own advocate. Katherine’s duplicitous two-way road relationship with Tess is literally the opposite of a roadmap. You can’t have a two-way roadmap.   

Carla: I want to end with ‘the ending.’ Part of it was Tess proving herself to her best friend that she made it; she’s got an office with a window and her own secretary.

Joe: ...who prefers to be called an Assistant.

Carla: This was a BIG deal in the 80s for women to jump out from the secretary's seat and get leadership positions. The whole interaction with the secretary, Tess assuming she was starting at the bottom once again was both heartbreaking and empowering at the same time when she realized she was mistaken. After all she had done, she still assumed she would start as a secretary, showing how ingrained the idea was of a woman’s place in a company was at that point in history.

Joe: Thanks Carla.

Carla: Looking forward to next week’s movie…

Joe Arton