“Nine to Five” -- Pop Culture Representations of Workplace Issues

Last night a couple friends and I watched a DVD of one of my favorite movies, “Nine to Five.” I watch it every few months or so, and this past October a friend and I even flew to Los Angeles to see the Broadway musical adaptation in previews before it debuts in New York later this month.

When the movie first came out in 1980, "Nine to Five" became not just a box-office success (the second-highest grossing film that year, second only to "The Empire Strikes Back"), but also an anthem for women in the workforce for the first time and fighting pay disparities, glass ceilings, sexually predatory bosses.

The film centers around three women working in the main office of a soulless multinational conglomerate, Consolidated Industries, whose generic businessyness makes it an apt symbol for all industry big business. The area vice president, Mr. Hart, has recently been passed longtime employee Violet Newstead (Lili Tomlin) over for a well-deserved promotion which he awarded instead to a man because it was perceived the man “had a family to support.” Meanwhile, Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) is warding off Mr. Hart’s inappropriate sexual advances, and Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) is entering the workforce for the first time as a newly divorced middle-aged woman.

"Nine to Five" spawned a new film sub-genre about workplace issues. In its wake came "Working Girl," "Office Space," "Clockwatchers," "Baby Boom" and many others. But "Nine to Five" did it first, and still resonates in its exploration of the contemporary in-the-trenches struggle for employee dignity and workers' rights. For example, fairly early on in the movie, a woman is fired for talking about her salary (in California, this would be an illegal wrongful termination).

But it is the later portion of the movie when Violet, Doralee and Judy have kidnapped Mr. Hart and are running the office in his absence that we see some real action. Under the invisible direction of this vigilante trio, we see big changes at the workplace: job sharing policies, alternate work schedules allowed to accommodate family priorities, employee assistance programs helping those with substance abuse, and even an on-site day care center. The workers are happier, and productivity goes way up.

The company’s CEO notices and makes a surprise visit on the very day that Mr. Hart has escaped from his captivity and returned to the office. Because Mr. Hart is credited with all of the changes and improvements, he is promoted to run the company’s new operation in Brazil, and doesn’t have a chance to have the women arrested for kidnapping him.

The film ends on a high note, with Violet being promoted to Vice President – but not before a conspiratorial aside between Mr. Hart and the CEO (also a man) about the fact that while some of these workplace innovations are great ideas, pay equity for women was not to be implemented. This helps remind the viewers that much work in the fight for workers rights remains to be done.

Below, just for fun, are the lyrics to Dolly Parton’s Oscar-nominated theme song for "Nine to Five."

Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
And yawn and stretch and try to come to life
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin'
Out on the street the traffic starts jumpin'
The folks like me on the job from nine to five.

Workin' nine to five, what a way to make a living
Barely gettin' by it's all takin' and no givin'
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it
Nine to five, for service and devotion
You would think that I would deserve a fair promotion
Want to move ahead but the boss won't seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me.

They let you dream just to watch 'em shatter
You're just a step on the boss-man's ladder
But you got dreams he'll never take away
You're in the same boat with a lotta your friends
Waitin' for the day your ship'll come in
Then the tide's gonna turn and it's all gonna roll your way.

Workin' nine to five what a way to make a livin'
Barely gettin' by it's all takin' and no givin'
They just use your mind and you never get the credit
It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it
Nine to five, yeah, they got you where they want you
There's a better life and you think about it, don't you
It's a rich man's game no matter what they call it
And you spend your life puttin' money in his wallet.

Nine to five, whoa, what a way to make a livin'
Barely gettin' by it's all takin' and no givin'
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

Nine to five, yeah, they got you where they want you
There's a better life and you dream about it, don't you
It's a rich man's game no matter what they call it...