There's an interesting phenomenon that occurs when one leafs through an old magazine: the content, concerning people and events long past, becomes arcane to the point of obfuscation. Put enough decades between that content and the reader, and we might need an appendix to even understand what a journalist is casually referencing to his intended audience. It's the nature of topical material, and the effect is compounded when trying to parse old pop culture pieces. But as the content devolves over time into white noise, the peripheral content -- the visuals, the formatting, the advertising -- is thrown into sharp relief.
Such is also the case with some movies, and Nine to Five is a prime example. The film is the logical spawn of the 1970s feminist movement and that same decade's mainstream embrace of the anti-establishment, "haves vs. have-nots" sentiment. Where Meatballs and Caddyshack dealt in class warfare for laughs, Nine to Five aims to map the battle of the sexes onto a dark office comedy. But what is no doubt intended as a heartfelt fist of defiance is often undercut by the prevalent and inescapable attitude toward women running through the film (and no doubt through the mainstream culture of 1980 on the whole). Where a show like Mad Men aims to provide commentary on a specific era through pointed observations and sharp writing, Nine to Five gives us a plethora of accidental insight into the period beyond -- and sometimes in conflict with -- its intended thesis.
While its heart is in the right place, the mixed messages of Nine to Five start right at the beginning: a bouncy opening credits montage (its roots going back to the opening of Metropolis) portrays the modern working woman as the living, breathing engine of the city. Odd then, that the montage seems to feature so many women struggling with the very mechanics of a morning commute -- spilling coffee, running late, missing buses. This sequence of women commuting themselves to the brink culminates in the arrival of Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) at her first day on the job as a secretary at Consolidated Companies. Ostensibly our touchstone into this world, Judy is a newly divorced woman who initially seems completely helpless, to the point of having difficulty riding an elevator. It's all in the service of laughs (and casting feminist icon Jane Fonda against type was no doubt a heap of meta fun in 1980), but the way the film has Judy bumbling her way through answering phones, mishandling a copier and staring wounded and wide-eyed through the first act is perhaps more telling of the era's attitude than the scripted stacked deck into which Fonda's character wanders.
Judy's helplessness is thankfully balanced by her co-worker Violet (Lily Tomlin), an intelligent single mother worn down by having to train a succession of men who are promoted in front of her. Most notable in that roster is her boss, Franklin M Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman, in a career-defining performance). Hart is who Mad Men's Pete Campbell will no doubt be by 1980 -- a balding, lecherous, middle-aged jackass who delights in belittling the women in his employ. Perhaps the most belittled is Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), the drab office's only flash of color and personality, whom Hart lets the office believe he's screwing.
The script (by Harold and Maude writer Colin Higgins) conspires to have each of these women hit their limit regarding Hart on the same day, and over a shared joint after work they fantasize about murdering their boss. But these are nice ladies, and this is a nice movie, so the imagined violence upon their boss -- hog-tying, big game hunting, coffee poisoning -- is of the cartoon variety, and they laugh it off (though watch carefully and you’ll see that each fantasy does eventually manifest itself in the film; weed apparently makes them all psychic). Eventually, the women are moved to act -- not to murder, but to kidnap their boss as an act of self-preservation when a misunderstanding has them facing criminal charges. As the trio finds the strength to rise up against their bully of a boss, they set about overhauling the way he runs his office. The grey, drab female workforce blossoms under the ladies’ new policies (which, we see in a breezy montage, essentially amount to “adding a woman’s touch”), and the company enjoys a healthy spike in productivity, while Hart is literally (and not a little symbolically) chained to a bed, watching soap operas. Again, it's a positive feminist message, but in 1980 it seems the only possible way for a woman to successfully run a business is to be motherly and nurturing. Baby steps!
There's a subtler feminist message at play in Nine to Five, and, if deliberate, it's way less broadly played than the rest of the film's themes. Dabney Coleman's Hart is the traditional villain, but out of the gate the women's biggest obstacle is each other. Violet is downright hostile to newcomer Judy at first, and the entire female workforce openly hates Doralee. They're all judging each other on surface appearances and gossip, keeping each other down in a way their boss never needs to. Once they get to know (and look out for) each other, they're a united front against the mustachioed monster oppressing them. It took Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson almost six seasons to get to that point.