The first film has several names, all variations on a theme: Workers Leaving the Lumières Factory, Lunch Hour at the Lumière Factory, Dinner Hour at the Factory Gate of M. Lumière at Lyon. In the short clip of workers streaming out the doors of the Lumières’ factory in Lyon, France, we see men and women and one dog bursting from the doors of the factory. In all but one of the film’s titles, the fact that most of the workers leaving the factory are women is not mentioned. Most often, both men and women are folded into one gender-neutral term: worker.
In the century since, another theme formed particularly in American films. It was a variation on a title about workers, but with a significant qualifier. Working Girl (1988), Match Factory Girl (1990), Working Girls (1931 and 1986), Working Woman (2019), Support the Girls (2018). While women being in the workplace were a given in the Lumières’ film, the “girl” that crept into later titles suggest that the concept of a working woman is actually notable, even novel.
There’s a moment in Working Girl when Tess (Melanie Griffith), an ambitious secretary for a Manhattan stockbroker, gets to her desk, flustered by an already ringing phone and the long commute from Staten Island, and pulls off her white sneakers and socks to put on a pair of black heels. It’s a recognizable trope of the working woman, who has to perform a tricky balance between practicality and glamour, and one that, at a young age, struck me as a symbol of womanhood, one among the mature, effortless rituals that older women seemed to intuitively know, and that I assumed I’d know once I too became a professional woman.
The shoe-switch appears in Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ star-making 2018 campaign video. She’s on a subway platform this time, taking off a canvas flat to step into a nude court shoe. Over this image, the voice-over: “...that’s why I’m running for Congress.” I loved this moment at the time, maybe pleased to recognize a well-executed trope, or still susceptible to this vision of gracious, hardworking womanhood. But since then it has taken on a different meaning, one that seems to caution us, even then, about the danger of turning our elected officials into symbols or celebrities.
I still love the shot of Tess on the ferry home, not surrounded by the huddled masses of hopeful commuters heading to the city, but almost alone, balancing her books on her lap, taking notes for night school. I’m still a sucker for potent film gesture like these, that lend weight and grace to our daily motions: hailing a cab, taking someone’s hand to cross the street, draping a coat on the back of a chair, putting the end of a pen, absentmindedly, in your mouth. Even in our work lives, women attend to the way they appear, maybe hoping, as I did, to make work look more cinematic.
Tess’ ultimate work success is coupled, almost seamlessly, with romantic success, as she falls for a prospective business partner, Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford). Securing a romantic (or at least domestic) partner has always implicitly been women’s work, one that has to be negotiated with their actual work. In Dorothy Arzner’s cutting Working Girls (1931) two sisters, Iris and Mae, arrive in New York City nearly penniless and quickly take jobs as a stenographer and a telegraph operator, although those roles are incidental. Beyond simple survival, these jobs are a means for the girls to meet men who’d assure that they never have to go to work again (for the record, a perfectly reasonable desire).
In an early scene, the two sisters walk up the stairs of their rooming house, having just made curfew. They compare notes on the men they have met on their first day. June, who is worn out from the telegraph desk and a dinner date, can barely keep all her suitor’s gifts in hand (bottle of perfume, box of candy, orchid corsage, eventually her own exhausted high heels). Mae is empty handed, having no need for gifts because she believes she has found true love.
It turns out that this love isn’t so true. As it tends to be in working girl films, her romantic prospects are tied up in professional ones, and Mae is fired by her boss who has himself fallen in love with her. June, who is the sensibility to Mae’s sense, saves her sister from ruin using her wiles, both delicate (she sweet talks the boss into rehiring Mae), and bold (forcing the lover, at gunpoint, to marry Mae).
The scene on the stairs reminds me of many in that other working girl text, Sex and the City (1998–2004), where women think of love and career as battles to be won through ruses and tenacity, and the strategies are hashed out among other working women. But this also reminds me that, unlike Sex and the City, in Working Girls’ lively debate of modern sexual mores there is actually something at stake: whether these girls can have sex and still survive in the city.
In 2016, I saw Harun Farocki’s installation Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades at the Tate Modern in London. Eleven monitors show scenes from every decade of cinema where workers leave the factory, from the Lumières to Metropolis (1927), to Monica Vitti in her green coat, to Björk on her bike, and past Marilyn Monroe in her blue jeans.
Farocki noted that the image of Monroe leaving a fish packing facility in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) is irreconcilable to us, the movie star and the factory being like oil and water. This incongruity makes her seem like a fairy tale character, a beautiful, naive heroine forced to tiptoe through a terrifying land (the boss is the beast, the factory the gothic castle). But in my mind, Monroe actually suits the scene, perhaps because of how she looks in the loose fit, cuffed blue jeans, or perhaps because she had such an incredible presence that she seemed at home anywhere, as long as it was on the screen.
Movie stars have played factory workers before and since then, when they do, they usually make an effort to strip themselves of their glamour. Norma Rae (1979) isn’t in Farocki’s installation (maybe because it only has scenes of workers entering the factory) but watching Monroe, I thought about Sally Field. In Norma Rae, Field is the opposite of the pristinely made-up Monroe, and seems perpetually covered in a film of sweat and dirt, her complexion is red and shiny, makeupless, and her clothes simple, boyish and faded. But she is still a movie star, and her hair has the bounce and shine that only conditioner, blow outs, and big curlers can achieve. In one way it struck me as silly, as if the film was afraid to completely abandon the movie star to the real woman she’s portraying. But I actually like this touch, her improbably beautiful hair signals her specialness as a leader. Like the heroine of a fairy tale, she’s blessed with a physical quality that represents her virtue.
Although Rae isn’t virtuous in every sense. Her salt-of-the-earth, no nonsense attitude makes her appealing to men, but when rejected, they turn her pragmatic, unvarnished charm against her: “You’ve got dirt under your fingernails, you pick your teeth with a matchbook… what the hell are you good for anyway?” a married lover spits at her when she calls off the affair.
Her life finds some balance in extremes. She cares for two kids and a mother going progressively deaf (who still works the looms) and also gets drunk at dive, goes to baseball games, and falls for the wrong kind of men. But she wants to better herself, after meeting an organizer who's come from New York to start a union at the mill, and who is not only the first Jewish man she’s met (a fact she tells him guilelessly) but maybe also the first person who goes to the opera and reads poetry. She picks up his copy of a Dylan Thomas book gingerly, “is this hard?” He offers to loan it to her, but by the end of the film, she has bought her own copy.
I lost track while watching Farocki’s installation, and was only roused by a bell announcing the museum was closing. Walking up the austere ramp in the Turbine Hall to the exits with the other gallery-goers, I was struck by some synchronicity. From outside the doors, I watched the crowd stream out the doors of what was once the Bankside Power Station. Increasingly, industrial structures have become art centers, where crowds of visitors like me are busy engaged in some oblique form work.
There are only a few times that you can’t hear the oppressively loud industrial looms of the textile mill in Norma Rae. At the emotional climax of the film when she stands on a table holding a scrawled sign that says union, and one by one, her fellow workers shut down their machines in solidarity; and in the opening sequence, a silent series of images of the textile mill: giant bales of raw cotton release flecks of fibre that fall back from the ceiling like snow and coat the machinery like the down of a newborn lamb. Thick strands of the material are lifted, spinning like dancers, while workers tend to their machines over a beautiful country song about the daughter of a working man.
Watching this lyrical opening which turns granular fragments of the mill into objects of great beauty and lyricism, I was reminded of the musical numbers in Dancer in the Dark (2000), fantasies that factory worker, Selma (Björk), slips into during her shift. In her imagination, fellow workers become skilled dancers, the persistent sounds of machinery is her rhythm, and the materials bent and cut by those machines are props, objects not of commerce but joy. Perhaps it’s the nature of film to try and make anything beautiful, even the often exploitative and visually drab reality of manual labor.
Michelangelo Antonioni already found the industrial beautiful, and chose a petrochemical plant as subject for first color film, Red Desert (1964). He was dismayed that viewers saw in his moody and grey tableaux an indictment of industrialism and its aesthetic (and therefore, it is assumed, spiritual) bereftness. In a conversation with Godard, he describes the factory in the way one might describe a woman: “The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing.”1 He places the beauty and poignancy he saw in the factory and its environs, in conversation, or competition with, the unquestionably beautiful Giuliana (Monica Vitti) in her bright colored coat and red hair. Although perhaps the landscapes weren’t beautiful enough, or not in the right way, because he painted the trees and grass in tones of grey and black.
There seem to be two streams in films about working women: the single mom whose personal life is bursting and chaotic or the single girl who’s work and home life are a bit barren, full of sad bagged lunches and silent bus rides home. There’s a scene in Aki Kaurismäki’s Match Factory Girl in which Iris (Kati Outinen), the titular girl who works at a match factory to support her layabout parents, spots a dress in the window of a shop. Although her wages are low, and greedily snatched by her parents when she gets home, she decides to buy the impractical chiffon dress, provocatively patterned with fuchsia roses. This act of daring leads to increasingly extreme bids for freedom from tedium. In her shifts at the factory, she is blank and silent, fulfilling her role at the assembly line like a sleepwalker. But passionate and dangerous longings were brewing in those hours.
The blankness of the workday, when the mind and hands are occupied with other tasks, makes space for longing. Often, I longed to be the person on the other side the counter; when I worked in coffee shops, I longed to be someone with the leisure time to sit in a cafe with a book; when I worked retail, I wanted to be someone with the income to shop at my store (something their wages absolutely did not allow for). Looking back at the jobs I’ve had, I can’t help thinking all the menial and soul-crushing tasks—steaming dresses, steaming milk, pushing carts, collecting mail, digitizing VHS tapes, counting cash registers, mopping floors, greeting customers—would have been more bearable if I could have imagined myself as a working woman from a film.