Working Girl : Seduction Forever (4000 Words)
It’s really not that hard to guess what could the subtext of Working Girl be even when you’ve watched the movie without looking for it.
It tells the story of Tess MacGill, a business secretary who tries hard and manages to escape a universe in which her worth is measured according to her capacity to please and is thus always flirting with her ability to prostitute herself.
(If you want a proper summary go to http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/working-girl-1988)
So, if there is a subtext to be hidden behind this story, it most probably is that she actually fails although it looks like she succeeds in getting rid of her past life.
While I was reading reviews of the movie I was shocked to see the subplot about Tess and her boyfriend being considered trivial, a parenthesis in a story that didn’t have enough material to make an entire movie.
Every single element in Working Girl (and in most movies) is relevant and Tess’ story with Mick is very far from being gratuitous. It tells a lot about what’s going on in her head.
Tess works for business men and is tired of being regularly confronted to the fact that all that is truly expected from her is to be ready to sell her body, at least if she wants to move upward.
It is very easy to feel compassionate and to side with her when she drops her third job after one of her colleagues tries to “sell her” to an executive who is interested.
As her “employment adviser” tells her that her fourth chance is to be the last we feel relieved that this time her employer will be a woman (Katharina Parker played By Sigourney weaver).
The beginning of their relationship seems very promising. Katharina announces Tess that she is ready to listen to her suggestions, that they work as a team and she promises, more or less explicitly, to teach her how to climb up in the world of business. This is Tess’ dream coming true. In the following scene, we see her tell her boyfriend about how her encounter with Katharina has raised her hopes. She wants Sigourney Weaver to be her mentor and at this point in the film, it is perfectly believable that something beautiful is going to grow from their relationship.
This conversation is the reason why Mick cheats on Tess. But I wonder, among all the things she throws at him, which one is the real trigger. The fact that Tess feels understood by Katharina because "she's a woman" ? When he is in love with her. I mean, that's humiliating and hurtful "My rich boss understands me better than you because she is a woman."
But Katharina betrays Tess. She takes one of her ideas that she finds interesting and use it at her own benefit and claiming it’s hers. Unfortunately for her, she breaks a leg on holidays while skiing and Tess has to take care of her obligations.
Losing any scruple because of the betrayal, Tess decides to pass herself as an executive and finalize the deal that was hers in the first place. She is, in the end, only following Katharine’s advice of never waiting for what she desires to come but of going and getting it herself.
As I said above, the obvious reading of the film is the story of an immigrant Irish woman who, thanks to her talent and her wit will manage to climb up the social ladder and escape a somewhat degrading destiny. She didn’t want to be a secretary anymore. At the end of the film she has one. She didn’t want her job to be disguised prostitution. She is an executive. She wanted to feel “at her place, to be autonomous,” she now has her own office.
But why do things have to turn out the way they do if the movie only tells us Tess’ success story ? Why Katharine’s betrayal and accident ? Why the need for the usurpation of her boss’ place ?
There’s one important element that should be underlined in the whole thing: stealing an idea is common practice in the world of business. (An element also used in “Swimming with Sharks”)
What Tess considers a proof of her merit is just something common in this world. Of course Katharina stole her idea, but Katharina certainly had to have a lot of ideas to get where she is and certainly had a lot of ideas stolen from her too. She becomes the villain in our eyes because of the immorality of her behaviour but in reality, in the world of business, it is meaningless. What matters is who acts not who had the idea because anyone can whine and claim he was the first to think of something, even if it’s true it doesn’t mean that person could make anything happen.
Another thing should be underlined too. As I said above, the plot around Tess and her boyfriend isn’t anecdotic one bit. She is losing her boyfriend, her life is falling apart.
The scene in which she discovers that he’s been cheating on her is delicious of subtlety. Her friend Doreen is naked, her legs spread on Mick. There is no room for any ambiguity or simply, things couldn’t be shown in a cruder light but Mick goes “Tess, it isn’t what it looks like. I mean… it is what it looks like but I can explain… well not exactly explain…” Then he runs after her naked, and shouts “Tess come back ! I love you ! Come on ! Come back and hit me !”
"I've got a head for business and a body for sin, is there anything wrong with that ?" Yeah, and that's the woman who's left three jobs because she was sexually harassed who utters these words. That's what she wants to be remembered by in the world of business. Way to go baby. And you tell that to a complete stranger at a reception where you hoped to meet an executive on the day before you have a meeting with him. What for ? That's the sole question that is needed to put discredit on Tess: what did she do that for ? You just need to stop taking her for an idiot for one minute and everything becomes clear.
Or maybe it is a little less conscious, a little less direct than that. Tess needs confidence -she suffocates when she hears the dress she is going to wear is worth 6000$ and can barely speak at the meeting because she is so intimidated- and Tess’ confidence lies in her sex-appeal. So, getting drunk with a handsome man who fancies her, and potentially getting sexually abused, is actually an attempt at boosting her confidence… which in the end bears the same meaning, Tess brings sex in business.
The really sad thing about Tess and Mick’s story is that it fails because Tess’ confidence rests entirely on her ability to arouse. And Doreen is the same. So when Tess sees Mick in bed with Doreen, the real problem is not that he is cheating on her, it is that she now doesn’t feel that she has anything to offer him. She cannot believe that Mick could actually love her for more than her body. And it’s actually because she sees men as shallow and insensitive that Mick panics when he realises she might reach a higher social status than him.
Jack admits that he's been into a slump, he is worried she might be trying to do things without him.
Also, when he asks her for marriage, she declines because she is in the middle of a con but he takes it as her needing to check whether she can aspire to more than him. And this, on the other side, is actually wrong. She does not prefer Jack trainer to Mick. The way Jack doesn’t take advantage of Tess on their first night, is like a turning down, it is humiliating.
Anyway, there is no doubt that, after their peculiar encounter, Jack trainer will be hooked partially because he fancies her. It doesn’t suddenly mean that her idea is bad for all that, but it means that Tess becomes aware that she can pull a lever that remains out of reach for others. There even is a beautiful scene during which the fragility of the guy is shown when he suddenly starts to think that Tess is doubting his skills. He also confesses that he’s been a little under the weather lately and we realise that her enterprise might very well cost the guy his career. But who cares about the potential collateral damages ? She’s the main character !
And now let’s go to the happy ending.
So, Tess is as good as dead. Her best friend is now married, her boyfriend is with another woman and her attempt at having a career fell flat. She was fired and Katharina is back at her post.
Because we’ve seen Mick buy sexy underwears to Tess for her birthday, it’s easy to believe that he is a superficial sex-obsessed narcissist who will take any woman who says yes and that Tess should run away from him.
The truth is, they love each other and there is something strong between them. Mick is cheating on Tess because her ambition and her hopes scare him and make him feel less manly. If she manages to have a career, he won’t feel like a man anymore. It’s stupid and macho but that’s only our stupid haughty point of view. Until that moment Tess loved him and wasn’t bothered by his “machism.” And when he says “come back and hit me !” it is because it actually is that simple.
The whole boyfriend subplot serves the purpose of showing that doors are closing themselves on Tess. Her friend Cynthia warns her that by pursuing chimeras, she is going to lose everything. And that is truly what is happening, Mick ends with Doreen. Several critics thought that this only meant that to start a new life you sometimes have to bid farewell to another one.
What it truly means is that Tess fucked up and cannot go back. When Mick announces her that he’s bought a boat and that Doreen is working with him as an assistant, Tess envies the woman who took her place. She would totally have been happy to work for Mick and be his “sex object”. Things went wrong in the business world, she’s just been discovered and fired and she has now nowhere to go and nobody to love her.
At this point, Tess has her back against the wall. But every scene that depicts the degradation of her love life suggests the pressure that weight upon the woman. That final awkward and sad moment is only the observation of an undeniable failure.
It is no coincidence that the movie should make her discover that Katharina has betrayed her
and that Mick is cheating on her on the same day. If Mick had not been in bed with another woman she would have offered herself to him and abandoned business life. And actually she comes back from work earlier than usual because she’s discovered Katharina’s duplicity and is done with business.
Because she is angry at Mick, she decides to put everything in business, to cheat on him with her career. It is no coincidence either that she should tell Jack Trainer “I have a head for business and a body for sin. Is there anything wrong with that ?” He is the executive she needs to conclude the contract. Of course, at this point she is not supposed to know she is talking to him (he pretends to be someone else) but would she get drunk with an unknown guy on the eve of the most important meeting of her life ?
Mick and Tess at Cynthia's mariage. Bad feelings ? None. Anger ? No. Grudge ? No. Sadness ? Yes. Regrets ? yes. Nice clothes that match ? yes. Compliments ? Several. Problematic girlfriend ? One.
Of course, we know that something is going to fully reverse the situation because the tone of the movie has been light until that moment. And because we are watching a “comedy” and we know it will have a happy ending, it feels irrelevant and uselessly unpleasing to take the time to look into this dark moment and state how serious it is. Instead, we look ahead, we run away from the feeling that things are going to end badly for Tess.
But it’s important to just see that she is at point zero, restarting her life from scratch. When she leaves her office her lines of dialogue are comforting, but she is crying and her voice flutters. Exactly like her friend had told her, she tried to have two things at the same time and lost everything.
The happy ending starts when we see Tess reading a newspaper on her own in a cafe and she tears up a page. She’s got some new information about the deal, and one last shot at proving her “worth.”
Is this believable ? She knows the contract has a whole and she knows she has one last shot at getting what she wants. Why would everything happen by chance ?
As she gets off the elevator, carrying her things, leaving the building for the last time, she spots the whole gang coming back from lunch: Katharina, Jack and their boss Oren Trask. Is it luck or bad luck ? Jack and Tess make eye contact. She seems to think that it’s bad luck as she faces-off to go the opposite direction but is bumped into by a man and her cardboard box falls on the floor and her papers spread out. She utters a distinct “shhhit !” and starts picking them up. Jack helps her and the first things he says are about their relationship.
J: “I’ve been trying to find you.”
T: “Just leave me alone.”
J: “Just one thing. Was you and me just part of the… scheme too ?”
T: “No ! Look ! If I’d told you I was just some secretary, you never would have taken the meeting. I mean, think about it ! Maybe you would have fed me a few drinks and try to get me into the sack, end of story.”
J: “That’s not true.”
T: “Are you sure about that ? Can you honestly tell me that it wouldn’t have made a difference ? I mean who’s fooling who, here ?”
Jack " Did you sleep with me in order to manipulate me ?" Tess : "No !" Jack : "Ok... but wait... were you attracted to me because I could help you enter the world of business." Tess: "hhum..."
I love it when movies remain subtly ambiguous like that because, what does this conversation mean ? Jack is honestly worried that this woman seduced him only in order to get his help. He has feeling for her. But she doesn’t answer “No ! I like you Jack !” She just contradicts him very literally, on very specific terms: “No I didn’t have sex with you in order to reach my goal.” But when do they have sex together ? When they obtain the meeting with Trask. Jack kisses her in the stairs and she lets him have what he wants. It doesn’t mean that she is not willing to have sex with, the problem is that if she truly liked him she would say no, she wouldn’t let this happen so that they can truly have a relationship whatever happens.
Jack is a lucky guy, both Katharina and Tess tell him they love him. Only one is being honest when she does though. How come we side with the other for once ? Tess learns about Katharina's love in this scene and we naively think it puts her in a bad situation, because you know, she is a good girl, she doesn't wanna hurt anybody.
Also, doesn't it shed a light on why Katharina used Tess' idea ? Because it was a perfect opportunity to work with the man she loves. It wasn't even some kind of business rivalry. And that explains the huge coincidence that is Tess ending up in bed with her boss' boyfriend... and... and... fuck this is nasty. That's why Tess has to witness Katharina saying "I love you." Because from that moment, she knows Katharina was only trying to be happy, to find love. She wasn't stealing a good idea from to get the merit. Damn, this sheds a very different light on the whole story. The idea might even not be that good... and it isn't as on the exact day they are supposed to sign the contracts Tess finds a problem.
Instead, she fails and disappears. She is only interested in him as far as she is trying to make the deal happens. Do we see Jack after she’s reached her goal ? Does he appear in the last scene with a bouquet of flowers, visiting her on her first day at the office ? No. Because he doesn’t exist anymore. Tess doesn’t care about him outside of her “scheme.” They make love when they manage to get a meeting with Trask. If they hadn’t managed to get a meeting with Trask, they would never have made love.
So when Tess tells Jack that he wasn’t part of the scheme, she is playing with words. She might never have thought “I should sleep with that guy, it’ll make everything easier” but she became attracted to him because he was the man of the situation. What’s the difference really ? Apart from the fact that in the second situation she is a hypocrite. Her accusations are deliciously bold too. If she “had told [him] she was a secretary, [he] would never have taken [her] to the meeting." Well, yes, how does that make him the bad guy not to want to risk his career over a crazy selfish manipulative woman ? That’s why she adds that he would only have wanted to feed her a few drinks and have sex with her. It’s so incredibly… feminist. I’m sorry, it’s the word I’m looking for.
She totally wipes off the fact that everything could have happen exactly the same way, without her having sex with him, that after they obtained the meeting with Trask, she could have rejected Jack… out of respect. But no, suddenly it’s all about the poor secretary getting abused by the evil sex obsessed man; “Getting her drunk” as if this woman was any close not to know how to cope with alcohol. She is Irish for god’s sake !
And so, after feeding the naïve Jack this big pile of lies, and shaming him for things that did not happen, wouldn’t have happened and which he wouldn’t have had to be ashamed of if they had happened, she dares conclude “Who’s fooling who ?” implying that he is the one fooling himself or trying to fool her when the actual situation “being discovered as the scheming person” should point at her.
And then, when her rival appears –and Trask– barriers fall and she goes the extra mile: “And if you really think that I said I loved you as part of some scheme then that is really pathetic ! You know !”
"My god she'll stop at nothing" Trask is interested. If Katharina herself acknowledges Tess strong motivation, then the blond must truly be motivated. And when does this happens ? When Katharina realises that she's lost Jack to Tess. Again, seduction wins, not talent.
I mean, it’s really not that hard to realize she is being completely dishonest here. The contradictions of her behaviour stick out a mile. If she loved Jack and he was worried that she might have manipulated him when she said she loved him, she wouldn’t shout it in front of witnesses, she would already have reassured him in private. And if she loved him, she wouldn’t infer that he is pathetic, she wouldn’t bully him into believing her.
Because that’s what she is doing now, she is using the feelings that this man/boy obviously has for her in order to abuse his reason => “I think she manipulated me and it is very painful, but she says she didn’t. It’s a reassuring thought. But the fact that I should doubt her love makes me pathetic in her eyes. So I’m losing her because I don’t trust the fact that she loves me, which is exactly what I want to believe. Well, screw it, she didn’t manipulate me then.”
Katharina goes: “My god she’ll stop at nothing.” And we can measure how far we’ve come. On seeing the film for the first time, this sentence sounds like pure hypocrisy and manipulation from Katharina as if she was trying to put discredit on Tess because she is scared that the truth might come out. But truly, her words are perfectly justified and sensitive. Tess has just prostituted her love in front of them and that is something Katharina would never have done. Because she has trust in her skills she was able to become an executive and leave her private life out of her workplace.
Katharina leaves with dignity. "I'm sorry, but I simply won't stand for that kind fo talk. Will you excuse me please."
When it comes to Katharina, it should be said that she is far from being as invincible as she might look like. We tend to accept Tess’ lack of scruples because Katharina seems so much in control, but she is actually experiencing severe difficulties to find a man. Her attempts at seducing Jack fall flats, even the most desperate and straight forward. If she breaks her leg during her ski holiday it is because she knows she has met someone who is stronger than her in Tess. She knows that the woman beats her on the level of seduction, but her secretary’s idea is another serious blow to Katharina confidence. Hence the broken leg => wounded identity/confidence/status.
Now, why is it that Trask starts getting interested in Tess’ case only when she suggests that there’s a hole in the contract ? And why does she bring this at the last minute ? And in the end, why is Katharina fired ?
What matters for Trask is that the deal should be profitable (and isn’t it his job ?). So until Tess suggests that it won’t make any money, the whole altercation is meaningless to him. He even hears Katharina say “Tess, this is business, let’s bury the hatchet” and therefore can easily understand what it is all about.
The whole story of the film made me sad because I am convinced that Katharina liked Tess and truly wanted things to work between them.
So, when Tess suggests that there might be a problem, he is intrigued and gets off the elevator to listen to her explanations. Tess, Jack and Oren take another one and the fired secretary explains him how she got the idea in the first place. What for ? What does it matter now ? What’s the meaning of all this ? Five seconds ago he didn’t care that she was behind everything, now he does.
"The people page ? Now this is ridiculous." It is easy to take this remark of Katharina as some sort of bourgeois elitism, but I think it is highly probable that she is referring to Tess' woman interests, the people page. This is their war-field, being a woman or not.
What’s happening is that Oren is realising that Tess might truly be eligible for the post of executive. With the “hole in the deal” trick, she proves her ability to take initiative and to detect information relevant to a contract. And the thing is, if a woman like Tess can be as competent as a non-woman like Katharina, then nobody gives a shit about Katharina anymore.
That’s why Oren Trask doesn’t tell Katharina “You’re off this deal” but “You’re fired.” The whole story is an opportunity to get rid of this woman who is as competent as a man and who won’t let herself be belittled, contrary to Tess who clearly will never dare approach the idea that she’s worth more than what is given to her. She will always need a man’s approval, exactly like she needed Jack when she presented her idea to three executives at the first reunion. Katharina would have gone straight into the fight and convinced them with her confidence. Tess fails.
"If there's one thing that I love, it's humiliating the employees I fire. It's even more delicious when they are women and call me by my firstname. It's as if I fucked them and then tell them it was just a one night stand."
The fact that Oren trask should use Tess’ words “Get your bony ass out of my sight” is very meaningful… and very smart. He would never have dared fire Katharina using that kind of remark if Tess wouldn’t have permitted it. Katharina is not fired for incompetence; she is fired because she is not as seductive as Tess. This is a serious step back for the female cause in the company. We’re not told the story of how a secretary made it to the status of executive but how a secretary transformed the status of female executive into the one of secretary. That’s what the film ending shows perfectly.
Tess arrives in her new office and set herself to the secretary desk.
Then she is told by her secretary -whom she mistakes for her boss because the woman perspires confidence- that she is the boss. And the woman adds “If it's ok, I prefer assistant.”
They’ve been chatting for five seconds and this secretary is already telling her boss “don’t call me your secretary.” And she is the one asking “what do you expect of me?” That woman has more self-respect than Tess and would clearly make a better executive. She is Katharina become secretary.
Also, how did that happen ? How could it be that Tess is starting a new job and nobody even took the pain to tell her whether she was an executive or a secretary ? Doesn't it suggests a certain absence of status ?
When Tess tells her “I don’t expect you to fetch me a coffee unless you’re getting some for yourself” it’s all cute but what is that supposed to mean? That a secretary’s job is essentially demeaning? That her secretary shouldn’t do anything that Tess can physically do herself? Like answering the phone? Printing papers? Managing her schedule? There is virtually nothing that her secretary is going to do that Tess wouldn’t be able to do herself, simply, it’s not what the company expects her to do with her time. It is very meaningful that Tess should behave that way.
“You got a real fire in your belly, or was this just a one-time stunt that you pulled?”
But now that I think, this might be a hopeful ending. As soon as she’s destroyed Katharina’s career, there’s another Katharina showing up, ready to take her undeserved place. One last thing, how come Tess, after her nice sleight of hand, how come she doesn’t get Katharina’s office?
The whole elevator scene is Tess taking Katharina’s place, what she’s been doing since the beginning of the movie really. Tess has been fired of her post of secretary because she usurped her boss position for several weeks, a serious mistake I should say. Katharine wrongdoing is of having used her secretary’s idea. Why would anyone care? When did secretaries become the employees supposed to bring contract ideas to the table? For all they know Tess could have shared her idea with Katharina “for free,” she is not an executive. Stealing an idea from Tess was like using the hammer of a cook who’s baking a cake (and actually she checks whether it's truly Tess' idea or something she overheard somewhere in order not to step on another executive's territory). Was Katharina supposed to tell her colleagues “Hey ! My secretary had an idea !” Was it the best way to proceed and make things happen?
So, when Tess is fired for good reasons (However sad it might be) and leaving her office, she waves her magic wand and transforms the situation in Katharina is fired and I’m hired. But in the end she gets an ugly little office drown into the immensity of a building of ugly little offices. Something has been lost in the process.
Yeah. I love happy endings. I understand what it means on the level of Tess' story, but doesn't it also mean something when it comes to the world of business ?
My god, this is finally over. I thought I would never make it. I don't understand why the french version of this analysis is so much shorter ! And all I've got to say is just "Tess uses seduction to get the job she wants because she is tired of being reduced to an object of seduction." But well, I enjoyed this film a lot.