(Written by Allison Brown)
Although I am not exactly a Dolly Parton fan, I always found the song, 9 to 5, to be catchy. I was not familiar with the film of the same title until discovering Still Working 9 to 5 from SXSW. Once I saw it starred the two leads, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, from one of my favorite shows, Grace and Frankie, I was in. Grace and Frankie (along with Fringe) helped me through some of the most difficult parts of the pandemic in 2020. In preparation for the documentary, I recently watched the original from 1980, and it was a delight! Still Working 9 to 5 notes the original was the second highest grossing film that year, following a Star Wars entry. I was impressed by the strong feminist angle, and timeless comedy present in the film, though that should not be a surprise given Jane Fonda’s recent activist accolades. I did not realize that she was as much an activist back then as she is now. She even organized a production company, IPC Films, which focused primarily on bringing strong political causes to a mainstream audience and went so far as to deliver multiple Oscar wins. In this respect, 9 to 5 was intriguingly named after a 1973-founded organization of sharing its name, which was built up of women looking for equal pay for equal work. It really is disheartening to see how much the message of this film released forty years ago can still be so relevant today.
The initiation of 9 to 5’s production was unique. It was cast before it was even written, making it clear that the topic at hand was more important than the film itself. It was a lucky scenario, which I’m sure was a result of all involved, that the movie ended up as such a high-quality comedic work. Watching 9 to 5 was extra entertaining to me given the youthful appearance of all involved. I have been only familiar with all three women as much older individuals, so it was so cool to see them each in their 30s to 40s.
Still Working 9 to 5 notes that Dolly Parton wasn’t even a household name yet at the time of filming! I am so used to envisioning Dolly as a country legend, that I was taken aback to see her very fresh and doe-eyed. Despite its seemingly greater cultural influence, her song, 9 to 5, was only written for the movie, and not vice versa as I would have expected. Dolly’s hair itself was a sight to behold in the film, and it was a major shock to see that was her appearance at the start of her career in real life as well. Dolly truly embodied her well-known quote: “the higher the hair, the closer to God.” In the documentary, Parton mentioned she was not a political person, and even had to answer to those back at home in the south, but clearly this has changed. With her million-dollar donation, Dolly helped to fund the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which was a staunchly political move that only grew more significant as the pandemic progressed. Look how far the division of opinion along party lines has come!
The late 70s to early 80s were a more extreme, albeit not so different time. The studio, 20th Century Fox, was worried about 9 to 5, due to its dependance in three strong female leads, and endeavored to replace television actor Dabney Coleman with an A-list actor (Steve Martin was name dropped). I wouldn’t say studios are as confident as they should be with female leads, but the rise of many successful earners, like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, have given rise to more faith in these releases. Women’s rights were not nearly as accepted in the forefront as they are now in 2022, given the rise of the #MeToo movement. One third of women worked as clerical workers, barely making a living wage (so much so that they were eligible for food stamps!) and lacking many of the luxuries available today like childcare, flexible working schedules, and sexual harassment protection laws. At the time, these female workers weren’t even provided a clear job description and expected to become the “office wife,” taking care of absurd requests from their male superiors. From the description provided in Still Working 9 to 5, it almost seems as if all female workers were forced to take on menial tasks usually given to inexperienced interns today.
On average, women then only made 60 cents to the dollar of men’s salaries, and we have sadly not fully repaired this discrepancy – today, women make 84 cents to a man’s dollar. Listening to the modern-day stats reported in Still Working 9 to 5 is exasperating: Asian women make 90 cents to the dollar; White women make 79 cents to the dollar; Black women make 61 cents to the dollar; and Latinas make a mere 54 cents to the dollar. Unequal pay is nowhere near a myth. For an example from my own life, in an industry Google Doc shared among peers in my field of graphic design with real world salaries in different cities, there is a distinct divide based on demographics, particularly gender. Young women are expected to live frugally or accept help from their parents or a romantic partner to get by. Why should gender even be a consideration when men and women are doing the exact same jobs? How can we still be so far behind forty years later?
Still Working 9 to 5 highlights a disturbing reality of which I was previously unaware: the Equal Rights Amendment was not actually fully ratified until January 16, 2020, despite the first state ratifying the amendment back in 1972. This success barely held any weight, as the deadline to ratify tragically expired in 1982. Furthermore, the ERA still hasn’t even been accepted into law because Trump and the GOP blocked its adoption. I could probably ask several of my female friends, and they would be equally surprised. Still Working 9 to 5 is a more vital watch than ever due to Biden’s recent recognition of this failure in January of this year, exactly one month prior to the composition of this review. He made a statement hoping to push Congress to pass a resolution to ratify the ERA. I hope Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s film truly has widespread influence and a large audience, enough to affect governmental change from the sheer star power it offers. Still Working 9 to 5’s message is too important to be forgotten. We need to push the rights of all women forward and get what we are rightly owed.
Cameos from several choice actresses, including Allison Janney and Megan Hilty, made me wish I had been aware of 9 to 5 prior to its Broadway run, as I’m sure I would have enjoyed watching Allison play the lead. A special, more pop-oriented, recording of 9 to 5 from Kelly Clarkson, with a subtle duet from Dolly, adds an uplifting single to promote the documentary. I can only hope this revival of the hit song can carry the same attention to Still Working 9 to 5 as the Dolly version did for the original film.
Still Working 9 to 5 makes its premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest Film Festival on Sunday, March 13th.