Makeovers always hold the promise of a better life – new beginnings, being accepted into a better crowd, or finally measuring up. But what happens when other people won’t help? What happens when they purposely stand in your way? Mike Nichol’s 1988 movie Working Girl is a humorous look at Wall Street ambition, women in the workplace, and class difference – and a freakin’ great makeover movie.
It’s the 1980’s. Greed is good. Capitalism and self-determination are the guiding principles on Wall Street, and Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) is going to work her way up the corporate ladder. A Staten Island native, Tess is a working-class secretary in a Wall Street firm who’s gone to night school for five years to finally earn her college degree.
But she can’t get into the management training program. The men in her office point out that she’s up against applicants from much better schools, but it’s more than that. None of them will go out of their way to help her – they’d rather score points with upper management (and amuse themselves) by setting her up on sleazy “dates”. Those backfire for everyone involved, especially Tess, who is not powerful enough to get away with pranking the boys back.
It’s not just her job that’s frustrating – her live-in boyfriend treats her as his own sexpot property. And even her best friend Cynthia (a heavily eyeshadowed Joan Cusack) can’t quite understand why she’s going to all this effort, asking,”Whaddya need speech class for, ya talk fine!”
Tess needs more than a break, she needs a new life. She’s in an increasingly untenable position, and has to fight back any way she can. When she fires back at yet another male supervisor for yet another sleazy move, she’s lucky to have a sympathetic personnel director, who finds a place for the smart secretary who can’t shake the male sexual harassment.
When she meets her new female boss in Mergers & Acquisitions, she’s hoping for a fresh start. Katherine Parker(Sigourney Weaver) is smart, elegant, confident and stately – she’s basically everything Tess aspires to, and more. And since she’s a woman (with a boyfriend) Tess has high hopes that her new boss will appreciate her brains and help her move up.
And Katherine, for her part, is more than happy to have Tess as her new secretary: Tess is smart, and with a little work on her looks and dress, could polish up into a proper assistant. Katherine is friendly towards Tess, letting her know that the door is always open for her, and inviting her ideas. But she also has Tess serving at a reception while she holds court. While she sympathizes with Tess about the sleaziness of their male colleagues, she also lets Tess know in no uncertain terms who is on top. It’s an ambivalent situation, and Tess is excited and hopeful, but also intimidated. She’s under the power structure looking up, and maybe with this boss, she could get her chance.
Katherine dispenses her own pearls of wisdom in the process, advising Tess to rethink the amount of jewelry she wears. And she quotes Coco Chanel: “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” Which is ironic, since it was Chanel who first popularized copious amounts of costume jewelry as fun self adornment women could buy for themselves. But now it’s the 1980’s and inexpensive costume jewelry is available to everyone. So rich women wear minimalist Armani suits. Less is now more.
Which is part of the problem for Tess – it’s not just the rules she needs to learn, it’s that they keep changing. And they change in favor of the wealthy, who are amused or indifferent as others try to emulate them. When Tess is helping Katherine try out her new ski boots, the silhouette is remarkably similar to the sneakers and socks Tess and her cohorts wear on their commute to work. But the silliness of Katherine’s boots is a temporary gag on the way to a glamorous ski vacation – for Tess, the sneakers are part of her everyday drudgery.
By the time Katherine leaves for her ski vacation, Tess is dressing almost exactly like her. Yet she can’t quite pull off the full “mini-me” effect – she doesn’t have the money, the education, or the impeccable language skills with which to manipulate her image (and the world around her) the way that Katherine does. In effect, she doesn’t have the “breeding” necessary for the success she has worked so hard for.
Tess knows all this – so when Katherine breaks her leg on the skiing trip, Tess takes advantage of her voice memos to practice her own diction. And when she hears that Katherine is stealing her business idea, all bets are off as she realizes that her new boss is just as selfish and exploitative as her old ones.
Tess decides to steal her idea back. And she will have to steal from Katherine to pull it off – in Katherine’s absence, Tess takes over her closet, her makeup and perfumes, even her diction. She uses Katherine’s riches to make herself over the right way, ditching the big hair and heavy eyeshadow, and wearing understated suits. Even though she’s acting far above her position, as the ruse continues, she’s beginning to believe in herself as this new person. Her wearing of Katherine’s life takes a strange turn when she realizes that her new boyfriend is the man Katherine wants to marry, but eventually she is even comfortable falling in love with him, as both her lover and business partner. All her hard work has merged with this new image, and she’s gained the confidence to wear it:
It’s interesting that as Katherine is willing to use Tess’s mind the way male bosses would like to use her body, Tess uses Katherine’s body in a way, wearing her clothes and hair and makeup to make herself over. And it goes deeper than surface: by the time she scrambles to put Katherine’s things back in place for her return, Tess has internalized much of the confidence and bearing she borrowed.
Which is what makes this makeover so interesting. So often, makeovers are about stuff, or what others do to make a woman more beautiful. But Tess wants to gain this power for herself, and her transformation is shamanic – by wearing Katherine’s things, she gains Katherine’s internal power. After she’s caught deceiving everyone, she has the self-confidence to stand up for herself in a sweater and jeans – no power suit is necessary. The transformation is complete, and she will have her own office the next day.
Both Tess and Katherine believe in self-determination. But the glass ceiling is set at different heights for different women, and after being pushed to her limit, Tess will bend the rules to get what she wants, as she’s seen others do to her. This makeover is no idle experiment – this is her life, and by taking on the rules of gender, class and power, Tess McGill succeeds in doing what many women from her background would only dream of.
P.S. A soundtrack for 1980’s feminist self-determination: this one was in my head the whole time I was writing this. Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin: “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (1985).