In Hollywood, roles for women have notoriously been poorly written. While things might be changing in this current climate of feminism, historically, women have been given less to say than men and often with words that don’t ring true. Frequently, when working women are depicted on screen, it is a fantasy version of what a woman in the workplace should be – often through the eyes of men. While white-collar women seem to be a fabricated ideal of womanhood, blue-collar women have often appeared quite realistic, often using “ripped from the headlines” true events to depict a heroic endeavor. Hollywood can honestly portray women at the bottom of the ladder but apparently, not at the top.
THE TIGER WOMEN
Often films about white-collar working women tend to treat women more comically than the legitimate reality of a working woman. In the 1988 film, Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith, the film tries to focus on the imbalances in the workplace and create a hardworking heroine whose tenacity will get her to the executive offices. While you can acknowledge what the film was trying to say as a female empowerment vehicle, you also cannot ignore the glaring objectification of Melanie Griffith’s character. Aside from seemingly always dressing in lingerie, she plays into her own stereotype with the memorable and irksome quote: “I have a head for business and a body for sin.” We applaud her ambition, but one might wonder, would we still watch this if Melanie Griffith wasn’t “sexy” and take it just as seriously?
One wonders if the lack of representation at the top levels of society spawned this caricature of a tough business woman. In 2006, a film titled The Devil Wears Prada, which is known to have been loosely based on the life of Vogue fashion editor Anna Wintour, portrays women much larger than life. Meryl Streep plays her part with a fierceness that seemed to imply that a woman in power must be a cruel “tiger woman” to reach the highest heights of the fashion publication world. In fact, in the 1987 film Baby Boom, the protagonist, played by Diane Keaton, is at the top of her field in advertising and is actually called “The Tiger Lady.” In this film, the entire premise is based on the question: Can a woman be successful in business and have a family? Amazingly, these struggles take on such an epic battle and continue to be portrayed as the ultimate balancing act.
While white-collar films portray a contrived idea of womanhood, blue-collar films tend to be honest and document gritty struggles through a much darker lens. In my mind, blue-collar films much more effectively demonstrate an empathy driven towards the women of the working class which gives more resonance to the feminist struggle.
The film Norma Rae was loosely based on a novel published in by Henry P. Leifermann about the life of an American union organizer named Crystal Lee Sutton. Sally Fields won an Oscar for her depiction of the strong-spirited and wise-cracking single mother, Norma Rae, who works in an oppressive textile plant in North Carolina and struggles to make ends meet. As Norma Rae and her fellow workers face countless challenges, including hearing loss and heart attacks under the inhuman conditions, Norma Rae finds her voice. She becomes committed to organizing a union and learns how much stronger she is than she could have ever imagined. She becomes a beacon of a movement as she is fired and taken to jail, unlike in a white-collar film (ie: Devil Wears Prada where Andy takes her moral stand and leaves her job – only to have her “mean” boss write a stunning recommendation so she could get a new job. That’s a first!?).
This film is crucial in its message of feminist struggle but also in a conversation about class and race. Norma Rae is a compelling depiction of the determination of one woman to take on the corporate machine dominated by middle-aged white men. In so many scenes, Norma Rae is often the only woman in a sea of men; in a pivotal scene where she must write down every word of a company notice, the men swarm around her. There is an instinctive fear for her as a worker and moreover as a woman but she stands her ground and is an inspiration to all the workers on the floor.
Norma Rae was made over forty years ago and it still stands taller in its portrayal of a strong working woman than most anything done in recent years. It is perhaps the most spot-on film made about the blue-collar struggle to obtain the American Dream through a woman’s perspective.
Released for a short theatrical run in 2005, the film North Country, directed by Niki Caro, garnished critical acclaim for its star Charlize Theron and the supporting actress Frances McDormand. Both women were nominated for Oscars. What makes this film particularly special is that it was made by a woman about women – which even today is a rarity. Much like Norma Rae, North Country is the story of a blue-collar woman based on the 2002 nonfiction novel, Class Action, The Story Of Lois Jensen And The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law. The novel, by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler, chronicles the sexual harassment case of Jensen v. Eleveth Taconite Company.
Set in 1989, a woman by the name of Josey Aimes leaves her abusive husband and returns to her hometown in northern Minnesota with her two children. Josey works as a hairdresser for a brief period when she crosses paths with an old friend, Glory Dodge (McDormand). She then encourages Josey to apply to work at a local iron mine to which Josey’s father also works at and believes strongly that women shouldn’t work there. In fact, all the women at the mine are constant targets of sexual harassment, perverse jokes and an unending barrage of humiliation by most of their male co-workers. When attempts to bring awareness of these heinous actions are disregarded by the male supervisor, a vicious retaliation by the accused men ensues. Josey soon resigns from the mine after being sexually assaulted. Ultimately, this leads to a class-action lawsuit, which would be the first of its kind and lead to the implementation of anti-sexual harassment policies. But unlike a Hollywood ending (ie: where Melanie Griffith gets the guy and her boss’ job in Working Girl), this real-life case took place during 1975, went to court in 1984 and finally was settled in 1998. There were no overnight miracles in this reality.
Despite that the film itself has gone under the radar, what it examines in great detail is the continuing uphill conflict of women who still have to fight for their right to be seen and heard. There is a great deal of empathy found by the means of the material dramatized in North Country that is very real and undeniable. North Country is a carefully crafted, often difficult-to-watch film that speaks volumes on women’s struggles. Unfortunately, as we are only just learning more stories through the wave of the ”Me Too” movement, this is but one of countless stories of abuse. And once again, in this rural setting, through an impoverished working woman, we see real, honest, strength. We see reflections of real women battling for basic rights.
MADE IN DAGENHAM
Although this picture may be packaged with a more polished veneer than Norma Rae or North Country, Made in Dagenham is still a strong film focused on the real-life struggles of blue-collar women. Loosely based on the Ford Sewing Machine Strike of 1968, this struggle was aimed at achieving equal pay for women employees in the car manufacturing business, which also resulted in momentous legal reforms.
The film, directed by Nigel Cole in 2010, features a series of events afflicting our fictional protagonist, Rita O’Grady, portrayed endearingly by Sally Hawkins. This film may have more charming and cheeky moments layered into its foundation, but it does not make the overall statement of the film any less important. The story is focused on the women who work as sewing machinists at Ford motor plants in the UK who rise up against the men in power to assert their right to equal pay. Again, while it’s more lighthearted, the film doesn’t come off as contrived or false. The problems these women face are not suddenly fixed overnight much like they are in Hollywood’s portrayal of women in white-collar pictures (i.e. Diane Keaton turns her baby food into an empire that is so attractive that coincidentally her old employer wants to buy her out – contrived much?). It wasn’t until 1970 when these women won their case which led to the revolutionary Equal Pay Act. A real story, a real struggle and a real woman faces that struggle head-on and wins.
I can’t tell you why women can’t always be an honest reflection whether they are blue-collar or white-collar. Perhaps in our society, where only 8% of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, it is still not seen as an obvious story? Perhaps, they are viewed as less “relatable” than blue-collar women who are abused and harassed. Or maybe it’s just time for women to see more realistic stories of all levels of success because there aren’t just two types of professions. We need more portrayals of women to inspire in all fields and at all levels of success!