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‘Still Working 9 to 5’ Highlights the Ongoing Fight for Equal Rights

‘Still Working 9 to 5’ is an enlightening, informative, and entertaining reminder that there’s still work to do.
Still Working To
Artemis Rising Foundation
By  · Published on July 15th, 2022

9 to 5 was released on Dec. 19, 1980. As a Christmas release that wasn’t a Christmas movie and featured three female leads — sardonic stand-up comedian Lily Tomlin, controversial activist/actor Jane Fonda, and a rising country singer and newbie actress named Dolly Parton — the odds seemed stacked against it. But, the feel good movie became a surprise box office hit that year second only to The Empire Strikes Back. Still Working 9 to 5, a new documentary directed by Camille Hardman and Gary Lane, examines the comedy’s lasting cultural impact over forty years later. 

The documentary kicks off with a cold open. Archival footage shows Fonda, one of the original film’s main producers, on a chat show describing 9 to 5 as “a movie about secretaries fantasizing about murdering their boss.” The host sitting opposite her blankly follows up with “so, it’s not a political statement is it?” Fonda’s face doesn’t give much away in the moment but this documentary — partly expository and partly reflective “making-of” — answers the question in the affirmative. Yes, 9 to 5 was intended to be a political statement, and as the documentary proves, a lasting one. 

Using a blend of archival footage, talking heads, and clips from the original movie, the documentary brings us into the behind the scenes battle to get this now beloved classic made. Though it is hard to understand now, we see that it was no small miracle that Fonda and her producing partner Bruce Gilbert managed to bring this movie to fruition as the industry at the time saw it as a risk on every level. The twosome had a clear agenda in building a movie around an idea; a mission to educate about the concerns of American working women. Gilbert — who like Fonda, is fully aware of the power of movies and media in influencing public perception — cites the social commentary films of Preston Sturges and Fonda’s own nuclear warning thriller, The China Syndrome, as references for the kind of issue film they set out to make. The documentary is a showcase for their winning strategy. 

Fonda’s connection to the then-raging second wave feminist movement helped give her a direct line to the women 9 to 5 is about — the documentary notes that as many as 1 in 3 women were clerical workers in the 1970s —and ensured their concerns about equal pay, access to childcare, sexual harassment, and wage theft were both heard and incorporated into the film’s message. She was inspired by talks she had with activists Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum who co-founded the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women and serve as talking heads in the documentary. Other interviewees in the documentary include the original cast, Fatima Goss Graves, CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, and Lilly Ledbetter, namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act of 2009. 

Per Nussbaum, the image in the average American’s mind when they thought of work and workers in that era was “men in hard hats,” and this movie offered an opportunity to change that. The film’s costume designer, Ann Roth, underscores how 9 to 5 set out to show “the kind of women in Life magazine not Vogue.” The documentary supplements their statements by weaving together footage of the core three actors’ off-screen connections to the women’s movement with movie clips. Alongside footage of Tomlin at a 1977 rally in support of the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia (which the state wouldn’t ratify until 2020), or on-the-street interviews with clerical workers explaining why they think they are being shortchanged by the current pay system, are scenes from the film like Tomlin’s character rightfully pointing out the inequity of being passed over for promotions because of her gender while the men she helped train leap up the corporate ladder or a scene in which one of the women’s coworkers is fired for discussing her salary with another coworker — a classic tactic meant to keep workers from asking for their worth and/or unionizing.

While the end result of the original movie was more of a comedy, the documentary delineates how Fonda and Gilbert managed to successfully hide the medicine in candy as it were and tell a very funny but empowering story about the plight of female laborers that featured gags like a fantasy sequence showing Tomlin as a deranged Snow White poisoning her boss. That scene, we learn, was one that Tomlin almost quit the movie over for fear it was too much. Surprising revelations like this give the documentary a fun director’s commentary (check out our listen to 9 to 5‘s actual commentary track) feel as they are spliced with scenes from the movie while the actors reflect on them. Tomlin’s repeated threats to quit over things like not understanding director Colin Higgins’ novel blending of live action and animation, or how funny she was delivering her character’s lines, help us understand how big a risk the movie was. “It wasn’t talked about then,” Fonda says of sexual harassment, “now it seems like ‘duh’.” Now, a movie featuring Tomlin, Parton, and Fonda talking about sexual harassment or anything at all seems like duh. 

The documentary successfully argues that 9 to 5’s legacy is not the spin-offs it inspired in the form of an eponymous television series, or two theater productions (one on Broadway in 2009 and the other in London’s West End in 2019), but rather the fact that those spin-offs demonstrate the original film’s enduring relevance. Concerns that the movie and its spin-off media would feel dated in the years following the original theatrical run — voiced by cast members from offshoot productions like Allison Janney — quickly dissipated thanks to real life events like the Anita Hill trial, and the Me Too movement keeping the topics in the film culturally relevant. The documentary folds these events into the narrative naturally establishing 9 to 5 as a key part of an unending national conversation. 

Though Parton claimed at the time that she was not a political person — she even remarks she was nervous about how her fans would receive her acting opposite a “radical” like Fonda  — she penned and sang the movie’s title song which became a rallying cry for the feminist movement. The benefit of a look-back like Still Working 9 to 5 is twofold: for fans of the original movie, it’s a chance to see the main cast come together and unlock warm memories and behind the scenes stories like the infamous one about how Parton came up with the melody for “9 to 5” while playing with her nails. But, it also serves as a chaser to 9 to 5’s shot. The original movie was a Trojan horse using comedy to highlight the issues working women needed addressed; the documentary about the movie is dedicated to highlighting how far we have left to go to address them. 

When Fonda originally began organizing the idea for the film it was in response to a cultural tipping point for women’s issues. Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, effectively ending federal abortion protection, a pandemic laying bare the gross gender burden of women being forced to exit the workforce at startlingly higher rates than men, and national interest in workplace organizing hitting new highs, we’ve reached another tipping point. As ERA activist Zoe Nicholson summarizes, “we advance and we go back and we advance and we go back.”

The word “still” in the documentary’s title is pointed. It reminds us that the items on the feminist agenda that it helped bring to life visually and that are still largely unchecked off nearly fifty years later, are the reason why the original film was made, why it remains a classic, and why Still Working 9 to 5 exists. An updated version of “9 to 5” featuring a Dolly Parton duet with Kelly Clarkson — who was born two years after the original movie’s release —  hammers home the point further. Years change but the song remains the same. 

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Naomi Elias is a contributor at Film School Rejects. Her work has also appeared on IGN, Pajiba, Nylon, and Syfy Wire. You can follow her on Twitter here: @naomi_elias (she/her)