An Ode To Tess McGill: A Working Girl's Inspiration

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Working-Girl-MainPhoto: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Films.
Growing up, I had a really active imagination. I would spend days pretending to be someone else — a superhero, a mom, a fairy, a princess, and a ninja. But, most often, I pretended to be a working girl. I would get dressed in “business clothes” with a large purse and a cup of (pretend) coffee. Then, I would take laps around my playroom, talking on my phone, holding meetings, and typing on an old computer. Man, let me tell you, I got a lot done.

So, naturally, I have always felt an attachment to a movie about a girl and her career. I don’t remember the first time I saw Working Girl, because like most great things in life, it is older than I am. (It celebrated its 25th anniversary yesterday.) But, I do remember that around the age of five, I declared Melanie Griffith’s character, Tess McGill, the most glamorous, accomplished woman — ever.

I don’t think in the same superlatives now. But, I do still have a soft spot for her. I will be the first to say it is not a perfect movie, and Tess is not a perfect woman or professional, yet the lessons I learned from my many viewings still resonate.

Tess is stubborn, determined, ambitious, and confident. Or, at least she is the reigning queen of the oft-overused mantra, "Fake it ‘til you make it." When she said “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed the rules that I had nothing to do with setting up,” she taught me that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen. I am not going to pretend to be my boss anytime soon, like Tess did. Making up my own rules hasn't always been a good thing (a few games of four square and dodgeball come to mind). But, in my professional life, Tess’ words have always steered me in a direction I am proud of.

There is a touch of Hollywood magic with Tess’ brainstorming, since most of us don’t find our career epiphanies on New York Post's Page Six. But, I love that my long-lasting love affair with reading anything I could find, got a stamp of approval for adulthood by her. Because of women like Tess, I learned that reading and finding success go hand in hand. Her quote, “I read a lot of things. You never know where the big ideas could come from,” has basically become my personal mantra.

It is not just my love of reading, but my love of fairytales that is satisfied at the end of the movie. While I don’t approve of stealing another woman’s job or another woman’s man (and, yes, I have read and agree with many points in Susan Faludi’s Working Girl criticism in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Woman), I still enjoy that Tess’ hard work results in her taking back her ideas, getting a promotion, and finding love.

The number of movies where a female gets to accept both a promotion and a chance at love are slim. Instead, we see countless heroines decide they will be happier if they don't climb the corporate ladder after all, but that shiny engagement ring is necessary to happiness. So, that makes my favorite scene that much sweeter. Way before Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In dominated conversation, I knew that Tess’ boyfriend, Jack Trainer, played by Harrison Ford, was a keeper when he made Tess lunch and handed it to her on her way to work. I don’t know how much thought went into that particular scene, but it was one of those lightbulb moments that helped me understand the true fairytale is finding a partner, not a prince.

As I have grown up, I have found many new professional mentors (and, yes, there are real women on that list), but I have never been able to shake this film. And, if you were to ask me to abandon my love for it, I would probably quote Tess and say, "You want another answer, ask another girl."