Rom, but Not So Com Anymore

| 23 Jan 2020 | 11:58

"Working Girl" doesn’t work as a lighthearted rom-com anymore.

In 1988, the Oscar and Golden Globe winner was an inspiration to many young women, myself among them, because ambitious, outer borough secretary, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), leaned in to make it in Manhattan.

Now, viewed through the lens of Times Up, I wished my 22-year-old daughter Meg was home on our last snowy Saturday when it aired for a teachable moment.

The 9-to-5 of Tess isn’t just a different LinkedIn-free world, but another planet, where “having a head for business and a bod for sin” is her elevator pitch. It’s a #MeToo time bomb, with almost every scene the basis for a phone call to HR, SVU or high-priced attorneys.

The movie demonstrates what an embarrassment corporate culture looked like when I was coming up the ranks, and why people like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein were able to get away with scurrilous treatment of women for so long.

Who’s running this place?

· “You don’t get ahead in this world by calling your boss a pimp,” chastises Petty-Marsh Hiring Manager, Olympia Dukakis. She blames the victim unapologetically, instead of writing up the two suspender-wearing stockbrokers who set up Tess on a date with sleazebag Bob in Arbitrage, under the guise that she’s going on an interview for a high-profile assistant job. The men’s behavior isn’t even called into question. The problem: Tess’s reaction, and that she took offense at all.

· Tess is transferred and her new boss, Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), is the lone double X chromosome C-Suite executive. One woman at the boardroom table was considered striking a blow for equality.

· After pulling an all-nighter over at Dewey-Stone, Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) defies propriety by confusing his glass-walled office with a locker room and changes his shirt, oblivious to whether his naked torso might make female co-workers uncomfortable. They treat his disrespect with humor because “boys will be boys.”

Where’s Olivia Benson when you need her?

· Let’s unpack the Bob in Arbitrage incident. The meeting about the non-existent position is in a limo replete with champagne, cocaine and porn. Their final destination: a hotel suite. Reporting a “master of the universe” type would have been futile. The closest thing to justice is Tess making it out of the car unassaulted.

· Tess blacks out at a work event after washing down Valium (provided by her friend Cynthia to help her “chill ever so slightly,”) with tequila, courtesy of Jack. He takes her to his apartment, but rather than letting Tess sleep it off on his sofa, he undresses her and puts her in his bed. (Consent was not “a thing” back then.) Tess wakes up beside him and takes his word that nothing happened. Buckle up: she finds none of this alarming or a deterrent to doing business with him.

· During a firm cocktail party, Katharine takes it in stride when propositioned by a handsy male counterpart. “Today’s junior (expletive) is tomorrow’s senior partner.” Putting up with sexual innuendos and inappropriate touching were tolerated as just part of doing business.

Let the litigation begin.

· The faux interview episode, today, could reap for Tess quite the chunk of change from Petty-Marsh as well as Bob.

· Katharine would sue for her job back, claiming if she were a man who appropriated someone else’s client-winning idea, he’d be considered a go-getter.

· Because transparency has replaced subterfuge, a job offer for Tess from Orin Trask would not be forthcoming. Instead, he’d bring a suit against her, as well as Trainer, Petty-Marsh and Dewey-Stone for false representation.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment and other inappropriate workplace conduct are not as dated as this movie, but woman and men subjected to them are speaking up and companies are taking claims seriously.

Another reason I’d like Meg to stream "Working Girl" is to understand that when you stand up for yourself, not everyone will be supportive, a la the reaction from Tess’s ex, Mick (Alec Baldwin): “Who died and made you Grace Kelly?” She left him on Staten Island.

Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the workplace novel "Back to Work She Goes."