The women in Working Girl looked amazing in their power suits. How do professional female characters dress now? Cyrus, by email
I like the cut of your jib, Cyrus! Any man who spends his evenings not just watching but RE-watching Working Girl is welcome to sit by me. And you are right, women don’t wear power suits in movies any more, but that is because women in real life don’t wear power suits these days. In fact, one of the most interesting fashion stories told in Working Girl, aside from that it really is possible to pay $6,000 for an item of clothing and “it’s not even leather”, is that you can see the power suit changing shape in this late-80s movie, shifting to something decidedly more 90s. Whereas Tess (Melanie Griffith) and Cynthia (Joan Cusack) wear big shoulders and heavy jackets, Katherine (Sigourney Weaver), the woman with the real power, wears far more minimalist, slimmed-down suits. As Tess gains power, she does, too. In the last scene, Tess turns up to her new job, which she thinks is a secretarial position, in a heavily shoulder-padded jacket. But when she realises she is actually the boss, the jacket starts to slip off her shoulders. It’s 1988, baby, and a new era is beginning: no longer do big shoulders symbolise female power.
(Whether then having Harrison Ford then pack Griffith’s ickle wickle lunch box for her, as if she were his toddler daughter instead of his extremely impressive girlfriend, symbolises female power is a question we shall have to save for another day.)
But your question touches, I think, on something that goes beyond suits, Cyrus. The question isn’t what do ambitious women wear in the movies these days, it’s why aren’t they celebrated in movies the way they used to be?
Fortunately, a film comes out tomorrow that illustrates the point. Now, you might have thought that if I had written a 2,500-word article on A Star Is Born last week for this paper I might have got that film out of my system. Well, you, my friend, have underestimated just how much I overthink popular culture. Now who’s looking like the foolish one?
While the new A Star Is Born sticks very closely to the 1954 and 1976 versions of this movie, it differs in one huge and telling way: whereas in the earlier films the female character becomes more successful than the man because she is more talented, in the new version it is just because she becomes a creative sell-out. Instead of making Ally (Lady Gaga) a better singer-songwriter than Jack (Bradley Cooper), the movie has her jettison her songwriting skill in order to become a pop star who sings garbage pop songs, dyes her hair silly colours and puts up with cheesy people around her. Thus, Jack remains An Artist while Ally is just a plastic product.
It is a fascinating twist, partly because Cooper directed the movie and this is a definite change to the franchise that flatters his character. It is also interesting to do this to the movie now, in an era when female pop stars are such a dominant force: Beyoncé, Taylor, Rihanna, Ariana and – oh yeah! – Lady Gaga. The whole thing feels like a reassuring pat on the shoulder to all the male artists left in their dust, and it’s very weird to see Gaga play a character who feels too close for comfort. But this also feels like the natural conclusion to the direction Hollywood movies have been going in for the past few decades. Once female ambition was normal – sexy, even. Most obviously, in 1940’s His Girl Friday, Hildy’s (Rosalind Russell) professionalism is what Walter (Cary Grant) loves about her and, even when they marry at the end, it’s obvious they are going to work on their honeymoon, and he is delighted by it. In Working Girl, female ambition is sexy, in the form of Griffith – as long as she doesn’t become more successful than the man, a problem embodied by Weaver.
Which brings us to the 21st century and all you need to do to see how bad things have got is to compare Kay Thompson’s character in 1957’s Funny Facewith Meryl Streep’s in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada: they are both fashion magazine editors, but Streep’s professionalism is mocked whereas Thompson’s is admired. (And, of course, in true 21st-century romcom style, the conclusion of the latter film is that the young female character should give up her excellent job and try to get her boyfriend back. Yay women!)
The question isn’t what ambitious women should wear in movies but when will ambitious women learn their lesson and give up their jobs for their men? Ally doesn’t in the latest A Star Is Born and, well, we all know how that turns out. A salutary tale to learn from, ladies.