Jane Fonda and the funny feminism of 9 to 5

Jane Fonda might have reinvented herself more times than any other Hollywood star. From sex goddess to activist to Oscar winner to fitness video instructor to Netflix regular, she has shed so many identities that perhaps her defining characteristic is her ability to adapt. She’s a fascinating figure, with the extraordinary tenacity it takes to maintain such a long career, especially as a woman. But for me, her greatest role was as the creator and star of 9 to 5.

Fonda shot to fame as the titular sex symbol Barbarella in 1968, but never felt truly comfortable being subjected to the male gaze. She won her first Oscar for playing a New York call girl in Klute in 1971, a rare portrayal of a sex worker as a three-dimensional character who doesn’t need to be rescued by a man. Her career stalled as she became involved with the Civil Rights movement and protested against the Vietnam War. She became a figure of hate for being photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, but, by the late 70s, she had cleaned up her image and made a comeback, winning her second Oscar for Coming Home. Yet, it’s her 1980 feminist comedy 9 to 5, which is probably the most beloved of any of her films and remains sharply funny and insightful to this day.

9 to 5 was Fonda’s idea. She had originally planned to make a hard-hitting drama about the inequalities women face at work inspired by real stories. But having seen Lily Tomlin perform stand-up and then turned on the radio in the car on the way home and heard Dolly Parton sing, she knew she wanted to make a comedy with these fabulously talented women at the centre.

Fonda plays Judy, a newly divorced woman working in an office for the first time. She’s shown the ropes by the sharp-tongued Violet (Lily Tomlin), clearly the most qualified person by a mile, but who’s stuck making coffee for their boss, Mr Hart (Dabney Coleman), while he steals her ideas. He constantly harasses his secretary Doralee (Dolly Parton), but she’s the one ostracised because her colleagues think she’s trying to sleep her way to the top. The three women band together in solidarity, calling him a ‘sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.’ In the film’s most memorable sequence, we see a montage of their revenge fantasies. Judy hunts him down and mounts his head on the wall, Doralee as a cowgirl lassoes him and Violet as Snow White surrounded by animated animals poisons his coffee.

9 to 5 is farcical and fun, but its underlying messages are quietly radical. The trio kidnap Hart and imprison him at home while they take over the office. The changes that they make include flexible working hours, the restoration of an unfairly-fired female colleague, equal pay and a creche, which still seem bold today. The characters might seem too broad at first; Hart is almost cartoonishly awful, Doralee is a bombshell. Judy is the meekest and least competent of the trio, and she cries when Hart berates her. But as the story progresses the female characters are developed beyond the boxes we might try to imprison them in. And is Hart really such an exaggerated, one-note vision of a misogynist? A reminder of who’s in the White House might make us think otherwise. Dolly Parton’s famous theme song might sound upbeat, but Parton beautifully articulates the struggles that women still face.

9 to 5 illustrates the strength gained from female friendship and the ongoing reality of workplace harassment and unequal pay for women embedded in a thoroughly entertaining comedy, for which we have to thank Fonda. She may not play the showiest role in the film, but it was her creativity and determination that ensured this enduring feminist classic made it to the screen. The film has since been adapted into a stage musical and Fonda announced last year that she is working on a sequel in which she, Parton and Tomlin will play mentors to a new generation of women. It might be just what we need right now.

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Laura Venning

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January 2022
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