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Monday, August 10, 2020

The Best Movies of My Life: Working Girl (1988)

Nostalgia for the 80s is currently running rampant. Two of our favorite TV shows, Stranger Things and Cobra Kai, both lean heavily into it. Stranger Things is set in the 80s; while Cobra Kai looks fondly back at them. Both shows are excellent, and I highly recommend them. But the 80s themselves? Nah. I'll pass.

That's the thing about nostalgia. It looks back with both blinders and rose-tinted glasses. What comes through is very far from the truth.

What was good about the 80s? The music, most definitely. Everything from U2 to hair bands like Poison, Ratt, and Motley Crüe, from Joy Division and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to Talk Talk and Depeche Mode. Boston released their third album halfway through that decade after almost that long fighting lawsuits their record label brought against them, an LP that is arguably their finest and one of the best and most underrated rock albums of all time.

There were good movies, too. Field of Dreams, Return of the Jedi (even with the Ewoks), The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future, The Terminator, The Sure Thing, The Breakfast Club, Bull Durham, Die Hard. And of course Working Girl.

Personally, I finished my bachelor's degree in mathematics in '85. I took a floundering age group swimming team in '87 and made it one of the most popular in the state before the decade was out. In 1981 I began writing my first novel, one that never saw the light of day, but one that told me in no uncertain terms what I truly wanted to do with my life should I ever find the courage to pursue it, which I didn't until 2004.

Much beyond all that, though, and I can say without hesitation that the 80s were pretty nasty. Ronald Reagan was president for four-fifths of it, for one. Whether Republicans want to admit it or not, his administration ultimately created the nightmare that is Donald Trump. He began dismantling the middle class. He ignored climate scientists who were already ringing alarm bells. He hated on anyone not straight. He allied with evangelical Christians, who have stripped off all pretense of decency and holiness (what we all knew were façades anyway) to show the black-hearted power-hungry fascists beneath.

Suburbia really took root like a metastasizing cancer that decade. Wages began falling. Unions were busted. Rah-rah-rah nationalism took hold. We invaded tiny countries like Grenada and maniacally stroked our pathetic flag-draped manhoods afterward. We got Margaret Thatcher's TINA--"There Is No Alternative"--which was her nasty-assed way of saying hardcore neoliberal capitalism was the only way to go.

We got malls: awful, sterilized tumors of pseudo-culture designed to destroy local businesses and the countryside. And we got Me-Firstism, the philosophy that aligns perfectly with Thatcher's TINA and which says selfishness and greed are good things, that the environment doesn't matter, that other people don't matter, that you get what's yours and screw everyone else. Wall Street came out in 1987. It's an excellent film, but one whose message was utterly missed by ninety-nine percent of the masses. Instead they took Gordon Gecko's "Greed is good!" mantra and turned it into a motherfucking virtue!
Finally, we got "windshield hair," which was the term my acquaintances and I used to describe the crazy hairstyles of women back then, all teased way up and out and held in place with toxic amounts of hair gel and hairspray. The odor was often overwhelming if you got too near; and I worried aloud many times that girls wearing any permutation of that fashion should avoid open flame.

Working Girl is considered a comedy-drama, according to Wikipedia, but it should be labeled as outright fantasy, because it features something utterly unrealistic: stockbrokers with integrity, principles, and decency. Such an animal doesn't exist, certainly not then, and for-fucking-sure not now.
We get two of them here. Tess McGill, played by Melanie Griffith, is aspiring to get out of being a secretary and into actual trading; and we get Jack Trainer, played by Harrison Ford, whom she teams up with under the guise of being an actual trader, an opportunity given to her when her boss, Kathryn Parker, breaks her leg while skiing in the Swiss Alps. Tess finds out Kathryn has stolen her idea to get some mucky-muck a radio network; incensed, she strikes out on her own while Kathryn convalesces in Switzerland.

Of course, Tess and Jack hook up; and we find out almost immediately afterward that Jack is Kathryn's beau. He wants to break it off with her, but she wants to marry him. Meanwhile, Tess and Jack have convinced the mucky-muck to go with their plan, and a meeting is set up. Kathryn comes home and all hell breaks loose, as was inevitable all along.

Sigourney Weaver plays Kathryn, and does a truly magnificent job. I had a hard time with her character, however, because she strongly reminded me of a girl I dated in the early 80s named Aleta who behaved very similarly to Kathryn, and was just as manipulative and dishonest as Kathryn, if not more. The same superior-smelling self-absorption. The same hackneyed flirting. The same sense of entitlement. For that reason, it was years between my first viewing of the film, which was in the theater, and my second. Actually, decades passed. That's how turned off by her character I was, how much it reminded me of that awful girl.

The film is more relevant today than it was back then. #MeToo protests; the colossal culture war evangelicals have waged against women; Trump's immoral disdain ("grab 'em by the pussy"); his own numberless indiscretions; charges of rape and assault against him by more than a dozen women; Hillary Clinton's popular vote win against him over and against her electoral loss ... all speak of tremendous efforts by far too many men to keep women down, to continue abusing them, to continue underpaying them. Kathryn Parker may be a woman, yes; but she comes from massive privilege extended to her from a patriarchal culture; and she has no desire to see that disrupted. Tess, being a "nobody," finds herself a perpetual victim of that culture, with no way to break through it save for cheating, what the mucky-muck in the end labels "gumption."

In 1988, I thought the culture was changing for the better. Watching the movie today, I wince at my naivete. It's going to require an outright revolution if we really want change; that much I know now. The question is, how many actual Tess McGills are out there, ready to scratch and cheat and claw and fight?

In an election year that will literally determine whether or not the United States will devolve into an outright dictatorship, one helmed by the worst imaginable "man" (I use that term very loosely) and enabled by a whole army of TINA-spawned Kathryn Parkers, we're going to find out very, very soon.