In the course of my novel writing I had reason to look up Victorian prison punishments (just because I’m using one as a metaphor) and was once again reminded of the horrors of these dark satanic gaols. But then I got to wondering whether they might be an improvement on their predecessors because, however forbidding the buildings and however self-righteously punitive the punishments, there was at least an attempt to deter and rehabilitate rather than merely to inflict pain. Then again the sheer bureaucratic vindictiveness of a treadmill which is horribly hard work but produces nothing, or a handle which has to be turned a certain number of times a day to no purpose (and which can be tightened at will by the guards; hence the name ‘screws’) give the lie to that theory.
We’re all in a prison of some kind; and at the weekend I went to see the classic ’80’s film 9 to 5. I hadn’t seen this when it came out and I was struck by how much things had changed, both for the better and also very much for the worse. Three women work in the office of a corrupt and misogynistic boss: one a recent divorcee (Jane Fonda), one happily married but blonde and busty (Dolly Parton) and one a highly efficient single mother who really should be running the place (Lily Tomlin). After a series of insults, power grabs, unwanted sexual advances and hourly put-downs, the women get together and decide to change things. Rather than merely getting drunk and fantasising about it (though they do that too) they take action. When one of them accidentally poisons the boss by putting rat poison in his coffee they kidnap him from the hospital and tie him up in his own home, holding him hostage while they take over the office. Of course it unravels in the end but everything turns out for the best. It’s a great feel-good movie and very funny. So what’s changed?
Well, the acceptability of sexual harrassment has changed (though perhaps not its prevalence, where some men think they can get away with it). The position of women has changed. We now have laws about equal pay; there are more women in positions of power, and so on. So far so good. What’s not so good is the way people treat each other: in spite of the boss’s contempt for his female subordinates everyone was far more polite than we are nowadays. And there was more time: back then the idea of nine-to-five was the epitome of slavery but nowadays people are doing ten or twelve-hour days and answering emails in their sleep. Not so good.
So my question is this: is it inevitable that when some things get better other things will get worse?
Two of the three actors turn up decades later in the excellent Grace and Frankie. I absolutely love this series and there’s so much to say about it that it’ll have to wait for its own blog post: suffice it to say that it’s a comedy of old age, a sort of geriatric Friends. One of the creators of that classic series, Marta Kaufmann, is involved in this story of two octogenarian women whose husbands have been conducting a gay love-affair for decades and who have recently come out and set up house as a couple. Thrown together by circumstances, Grace and Frankie rub along and fall out as often as you’d expect a work-driven WASP and an aged hippy to fall out. The series is broad-based and while Grace and Frankie are the centre, we also follow the story of the two husbands (equally diverse but far more compatible) and the grown-up children. There’s a lot of comedy about ageing which is neither patronising nor in denial and it’s worth seeing for the San Francisco beach house location alone, so if you have Netflix I urge you to watch it now.
Look, it didn’t need its own blog post after all!