RIP, Mike Nichols: An Ode to Working Girl

On Thursday, the world lost a brilliant director, comedian, writer, producer, and EGOT-acclaimed talent when Mike Nichols passed. He did a lot of really important iconic film work, like The Graduate, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So how about let’s talk about Working Girl!

Have you ever had a job? Have you ever had a really hard job? Have you ever had a job where someone stole your idea and gave you zero credit? Of course you have, because you are alive today with a job. Have you ever been a woman with a hard job where someone stole your idea and gave you zero credit? Of course you have. Because you are a woman alive today with a job. And you then did you dream of exacting a kind of beautiful justice as you clawed your way to the top in increasingly better hair, makeup and outfits, showing everyone who was boss and winning the love of someone who looked exactly like Harrison Ford?

Yeah? Then Working Girl is your movie.

Working Girl is a dram-rom-com from 1988. Here is the poster:

Mike Nichols directed it. It stars Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Alec Baldwin, Joan Cusack, and a smug little shit played by Oliver Platt. With a tiny little appearance by a another smug little shit played by Kevin Spacey.

Working Girl is a movie with this tagline: For anyone who’s ever won. For anyone who’s ever lost. And for everyone who’s still in there trying.

Working Girl features a Carly Simon song which won the Oscar for Best Music.

Working Girl is not a perfect movie, nosirree, it is full of stereotypes, has woman-on-woman sparring, and it’s overall a very white, striver-y, working woman fairy tale type movie that includes a makeover. On the upside, it includes a makeover!

In spite of this, Working Girl also has a lot of wit and moxie, and it’s got heart. It’s a corporate feminist anthem of a movie. It is the 9 to 5 of the 80s (sure, 9 to 5 came out in 1980, but it was a very 70s film). If you are a woman, it is your DUTY to watch Working Girl at least once, OK?

Sure, Working Girl may not have been as critically “important” as some of Nichols other films like the aforementioned The Graduate or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — it warranted only a line in Nichols’ New York Times obit. And in spite of its many Oscar noms and one win, is still considered too “feel good” and emotional to be taken all that seriously. But isn’t that the exact criticism of all women in the working world? Too emotional to be taken seriously?

It’s certainly the case for Griffith’s character Tess McGill, the pluckiest of plucky heroines, who is doing her damndest to be taken seriously in mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street — but alas, she is too working class, too unrefined, too temperamental. And she’s a little bit of a pushover.

Tess McGill is NOT SERIOUS enough looking to be taken seriously. Tess McGill looks like this:

What is this hair, anyway? One-third teased, one-third permed, one-third crimped? (P.S. Everyone at my high school looked like this still — well into the 90s.)

That picture above is from a write-up at Parade, which quoted the film’s hairstylist, Alan D’Angerio, who said: “I would throw Melanie’s hair in rollers, tease her hair in the front, bring it forward, and spray it to death,” he recalled. “I didn’t even blend it.”

But blend is what Tess must do, especially her eyeshadow. She’s from Staten Island and it shows, ok? In her her accent, clothes, and especially her friend, Cynthia, played by your favorite sidekick, Joan Cusack.

As a secretary, Tess is sick of being treated badly by fratty, prankish male coworkers in finance, in spite of having a good head for numbers. She studies, takes night classes, speech classes (“Why do you need speech classes, you tawk fine,” says Cyn), and does everything right, but has a bit of trouble keeping a cool head (Irish-American, working class stereotype), which costs her a job or three.

When a job placement worker takes pity on her, she gets a last-chance secretary gig under the regal and elegant Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), and for a minute, it seems like Tess’s world has been righted — surely a woman boss, bound by the spirit of the sisterhood of the traveling hair, will treat her better, mentor her, and share the wealth. Katharine talks the talk, promising Tess ideas are a two-way street with her, and instructs Tess that “You don’t get anywhere in this world waiting for what you want to come to you. You make it happen.”

But Parker doesn’t walk the walk, and when Tess discovers Katharine is not her ally, but has plans to take one of Tess’s ideas without giving her credit, Tess decides to make it happen alright, like a boss herself.

While Katharine is conveniently laid up after a skiing accident, Tess dips astonishingly unconflicted into a little identity fraud, which p.s. could never happen this way in a movie now because of social media check-ins alone. She becomes Katharine Parker, or at least, Tess McGill bred and educated like Katharine Parker, down to the clothes, accent, and even boyfriend, the handsomely named Jack Trainer, played by the handsomely shaped Harrison Ford. Of course, Katharine is no pushover, and soon enough, Tess will have to prove whether she can truly cut it in the business world when it takes more than faking it until you make it.

I hadn’t thought about Working Girl after seeing it in the 80s until, when starting out at a newspaper, a reporter a few years older than me joked that every time Working Girl came on TV, she or her best friend, who happened to be the editor of the paper that employed us, would inevitably call the other to make sure they were watching. The answer was always yes.

I loved the image of these two grown, accomplished women still celebrating the sentiment behind his movie, so I watched it again, and was floored by what a feminist anthem it really is, especially for any disadvantaged women who went to shit schools and still managed to pull something off in spite of never having the sorts of connections most people need.

It’s got:

Lean In Foreshadowing

Tess has to retrain herself for corporate success by balancing the art of appropriate (read: subtler) femininity, with the confidence and directness of masculine business acumen. This means toning down the emotion and playing it real cool in some situations, but knowing when to be aggressive in others. Nearly 30 years later, this is the sort of constant calibrating women are still being told to perform today to not be viewed as too pushy at work, but to still get ahead.

Class Vibes

I love the many contrasts in this film between different classes. When boyfriend Mick sees Tess looking good at the engagement party — which is loud, fun, and full of color, as opposed to the professional gatherings where everything is muted, both sonically and visually — he asks if she “had to go traffic court or somethin’,” as if it is unimaginable that someone would dress really nice unless they had to.

The working class folks are not portrayed as necessarily any nobler or better as people go. They are the not the stereotype of “salt of the earth,” at least. Mick is a basically an asshole who isn’t interested in Tess’s ambition. Her best friend Cyn wants her to give him another chance after she caught him cheating with Doreen, because it’s “not like her not to.”

Until Tess becomes softer and more refined, she’ll never pass the upper class test. And yet, though they root for her, Tess’s friends don’t want her getting too fancy as she climbs the ladder. Friend Cynthia reminds her as she gets too uppity that wearing the clothes doesn’t make her a better person, just liking dancing in her underwear doesn’t make her Madonna. #humble

Here is a woman trying to make something of herself, and to do so she must turn her back on her class and become, basically, a Yuppie. Her protean ability to shed her little-girl voice and mimic boss Katharine’s posh, smoothed-out accent and step seamlessly into her wardrobe has always stayed with me — moving up is in no small way simply playing a part, and often the first thing to do to get ahead in many situations is pretend you already belong where you’re going. Not to mention that the whole voice improvement thing is an issue women still struggle with today.

Normal Body Alert

Look at this image of Tess’s body. Remember when it was the 80s and every actress wasn’t a chiseled slab of tiny? Griffith is obviously thin and attractive and was considered a total sexpot, btw. But compared to today’s requirements for celeb bodies, this is an astonishingly normal-looking one:

Great Quotes

Such as the above, “$6,000 dollars, and it’s not even leather!” As well as “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.” Also: “I’m not steak. You can’t order me.” And my favorite: “If you want another answer, ask another girl.” These are all ridiculous and that is the point.

Harrison Ford

Then there’s Harrison Ford — who could not possibly be more appealing and debonair than in this movie (fuck off, Han). He isn’t the least bit threatened by Tess’s smarts, and finds her hustle even more appealing. He stands up for her. How many 1980s pop films gave women/girls a template for an equal romantic partnership with a healthy bit of quippy spark? (Nichols was married to Diane Sawyer, which tells us something.)


Tess must ditch the bangles, big hair, and GREEN EYESHADOW and oh how satisfying it is when she does, and rolls up with some high-powered lady understated business glamour. It’s a Whitesnake video one minute, Designing Women the next.


Working Girl turned 25 in 2013, and in a piece looking at the film’s legacy, Dina Gachman at Forbes called it “one of those rah-rah 1980s movies like 9 to 5,” and mines the film for quotes that still mean something today, like this one:

“I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up.” – This is why you love Tess. She’s feisty, and she’s never content to sit back and let life pass her by. No matter how many obstacles are in her path, or how many people doubt her, she keeps going until she gets what she wants. She doesn’t take the safe route either – she takes chances and risks losing everything for the chance to “make it.” Let’s forget the 80s hairdos and the fact that she spends a decent part of the movie in a bra and garter belt (she looks great but who the hell wears a garter belt every day besides Dita Von Teese?) and let’s appreciate her chutzpah. It’s OK to break the rules sometimes – you never know what can happen on the other side.

Of course, the film is not without its problems. In another look back at the film on its 25 th anniversary at The Week, Monica Bartyzel notes that when Tess finds out boss Katharine is planning to steal her idea, she overreacts, and more or less brings a gun to a knife fight. Gachman writes:

Her boss hasn’t stolen the idea yet, but Tess takes anything and everything she can from her in an act of retaliation and greed. (Even, unknowingly, the man Katharine dreams she will marry: Harrison Ford’s Jack Trainer.) One can’t really blame Katharine for claiming ownership once she catches on; her trusted assistant just stole everything she could in an attempt to undermine her.

But the working class person in me likes Tess’s cageyness and desire to stop being pushed around. She’s looking out for herself, playing the cards she was dealt. This is a woman who’s been fucked over enough as it is — mostly by men so far in the movie, who mock her night school degree and lack of breeding, who send her on a networking meeting that ends up being a sleazy come-on, all for a laugh. This time it’s a woman boss doing the fucking over, but on some level, that rings true enough — the working world turns us all into assholes out for ourselves. And Katharine as villain doesn’t seem like pure fiction to me. Here is a woman who’s made it trampling over one who hasn’t, sacrificing gender solidarity to preserve class. She has it coming, in movie parameters.

Gachman continues:

Tess is a breathy-voiced post-feminist with “a head for business and a bod for sin” who struggles to find the balance between them. She spends an inordinate amount of time in skimpy lingerie, and falls for her “prince” after he lies to her and gets her drunk so that he can sleep with her. (He’s absolved of these actions when he takes off her dress and puts her into his bed to sleep alongside him, rather than to have sex.) Tess’ successful idea comes from gossip columns, and her emotional hotheadedness repeatedly gets her into trouble, especially when she lashes out at her would-be mentor. Even her head for business seems suspect, as the film’s happy ending lays the framework for her personal assistant to walk all over her in a self-perpetuating cycle of boss versus secretary showdowns.
What starts as an inspirational journey becomes a professional cat fight of woman versus woman, full of sexy flirting and emotional outbursts.

But those emotional outbursts are what make Tess relatable. Who hasn’t cried in a bathroom stall at work to release the sheer frustration of dealing with the rampant sexism and unfairness still pervasive in most workplaces? Who hasn’t lost their shit a little when it was time to face down a cutthroat competitor? Who hasn’t imagined exposing some fraudulent coworker whose been getting by for years on charm, or deception, or plain old privilege?

Working Girl was never meant to be a primer on how to succeed in business — who would risk identity fraud just to make a point? No — it was always just a working class, working girl’s fairy tale, just one that happened to understand a lot of little details about how it feels to try to be a woman and a success in a world still bent on holding you back. RIP, Mike Nichols. I miss those rah-rah movies. You got it pretty right.

[gifs via Buzzfeed, top photo via Getty]

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