Working Girl and Second-Wave Feminism: Re-Viewing the 1980s

Rosie White

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Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988) offered a Hollywood narrative of one woman’s achievement in the workplace, through its account of secretary Tess McGill (Melanie Griffiths) impersonating her female boss and eventually winning a place in senior management. The film represents a popular feminism which is firmly sited in the emotional rather than the political sphere, eliciting a Cinderella narrative of the poor girl who makes good in the big city. Critical readings of the film have noted the derogatory account of Tess’s boss, Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) and its skewed vision of feminist solidarity (Tasker 1998, Hallam 1993, Jones 1991). Framing the film as a Hollywood attempt to address the alleged outcomes of second wave feminism in the late 1980s – women in management and in power – and working through a close analysis of the film’s emotive and triumphal ending, this paper re-examines this film as a fantasy of potential achieved and battles won. How does Working Girl look two decades after its original release; how does it deploy affect and what can it tell contemporary viewers about feminism and popular culture in the 1980s and the 2010s? In particular, how can we now read the ‘happy ending’ which depicts Tess in her own office, with her own secretary and a new life with a new partner (Harrison Ford), as the soundtrack proposes a ‘new Jerusalem’? This paper proposes that the rousing ending may be understood as more ambivalent than it first appeared, particularly when read through a retrospective lens. The fantasy of ‘escape’ and ‘liberation’ that such films offer should not simply be dismissed as bad faith but rather understood through what George Lipsitz calls ‘memory as misappropriation’ – as a means of negotiating feminist histories and desires.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-42
JournalFilm International
Issue number3/4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016


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