9to5: The Story of a Movement (2020)

Image via docs.afi.com

Who knew that the comedy 9 to 5 (1980) was based on an actual grassroots organisation that began in the 70s to advocate for fair work conditions for (mainly female) clerical workers?

This interesting documentary by directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert traces the start of the organisation in 1970s Cleveland and cleverly contextualises it with advertising images and film clips from the time. For a 21st century audience, it seems shocking that women were discouraged from working and tropes of secretaries being demeaned and sexually harassed by their bosses was standard comedy fodder. For anyone over the age of 40 though, it seems like the recent past.

From small beginnings in Cleveland, the 9 to 5 movement spread across America, with state-based chapters fighting for civil rights, equal pay and equal benefits. That gender-based discrimination was so overt seems archaic – no promotion, no benefits, low pay, no voice – and it was even worse for women of colour. Of course it was not an easy ride, even though it was a time of broader women’s liberation.

White, male bosses doubled down and did what they could to intimidate workers. Conservative women spoke out about their love of tradition and dislike of feminism. Workers who chose to speak up or join protests knew that they risked their jobs. That those in power wouldn’t listen put fire in their bellies, though, and brought together groups that segregation, culture and old habits had kept apart, eventually growing into a union movement.

In the late 90s, Jane Fonda visited with ideas for a movie and many of the women’s stories (and fantasies of tyrannicide) made it into the film. Star Dolly Parton’s theme song and the film’s comedic take on a serious subject succeeded in bringing the very real themes into mainstream consciousness.

The documentary itself hits all the expected beats, with talking heads and photos and video clips from the time to illustrate the struggle and the successes. It all too briefly touches on the women’s marches and #metoo movement of the past few years but enough to see the legacy that remains (and also how much there is still to fight for). Images and updates of the many women who fought the good fight over the end credits adds a surprisingly moving coda.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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