From the emancipated working women of the 1930s, through the slinky desk-bound beauties of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, to the bold office organisers of the 80s and 90s and the post-Millennium PAs, the roles of secretaries in movies have mirrored how they’re viewed by society.
So to mark Secretary Appreciation Days across the world, we thought we’d run through some of the great silver screen secretary roles and show exactly how they’ve changed through the decades.
Wife vs Secretary (1936)
Screen siren Jean Harlow, as Helen “Whitey” Wilson, has the brains and beauty to not only be Clark Gable’s secretary and help seal a major media deal, but also seem a romantic threat to Gable’s wife Linda, played by Myrna Loy. Whitey, though, is the ultimate strong, emancipated 30s woman and manages to save the day by convincing Linda that she should go back to her husband – and since Harlow’s character ends up with Dave, played by a young James Stewart, they all live very happily ever after.
My Dear Secretary (1948)
Just because Kirk Douglas’s caddish writer Owen Waterbury has gone through screeds of secretaries because of his bad behaviour, doesn’t mean he can’t be tamed by Laraine Day’s headstrong character, Stephanie “Steve” Gaylord. Not only does Steve provide inspiration for her boss’s new novel, but in a wonderful twist that should make her a heroine for all secretaries, ends up turning the tables on Douglas’ character and publishing a more successful novel. As a nice gender-warping sign of the times, Steve also ends up hiring her own, ultra-attractive, male secretary at the end of the movie.
Funny Face (1957)
By 1950 the number one profession for a woman in the United States was as a secretary, so rather than focus on getting into the workplace, films tended to move towards escapism. Audrey Hepburn’s character Jo Stockton in Funny Face starts out as a bookshop clerk with a sideline interest in philosophy, and ends up as a catwalk beauty model who wins the heart of Fred Astair’s character Dick.
Dr No (1962)
You could write a whole thesis on how the secretary role has changed through film simply by focusing on Miss Moneypenny from the James Bond series. She wasn’t even given a first name and backstory until 2012’s Skyfall revealed her as “Eve Moneypenny” but in the early Sean Connery-Sixties films that start with Dr No, she’s a flirtatious, wry private secretary to the head of British Secret Service who remains completely desk-bound while being smitten with Bond. 1960s Moneypenny is little more than eye-candy but the character blossoms over the decades to become a field agent who even shoots Bond in Skyfall.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1961-1970)
Nancy Kulp played the loyal and ultra-efficient Jane Hathaway through 246 episodes of the classic US sitcom, frequently bailing out the Clampetts from their hair-brained schemes and misadventures. “Miss Jane” was the small-screen antithesis of Bond’s Miss Moneypenny in many ways but was clearly the steadfast rock around which the Beverly Hillbillies could revolve – much as most offices around the world had come to rely on women’s roles over the same period.
9 to 5 (1980)
Few films show the divide between 70s and 80s feminism quite as strongly as 9 to 5, in which Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton play out the frustrations of living and working in a male chauvinist world. Sexism, glass ceilings and the expectation that bosses will have affairs with their secretaries underpin the plot – but the trio come out on top in the end. And the fact the terrible boss, Franklin M Hat Junior, ends up abducted by Amazons in Brazil, tells you all you need to know about the film’s depiction of men…
The Simpsons (since 1990)
Waylon Smithers – Mr Burns’ devoted personal assistant in the long-running cartoon series – made his screen debut in 1990 and has continued his frustrated advances on his elderly boss over the past two and a half decades. As a character, Smithers has allowed the show to play on the idea of male PAs, and – after the character came out last year – homosexual co-workers.
The Office (since 2001)
In the UK she was called Dawn Tinsley, and in the US version, she was Pam Beesly, but The Office’s long-suffering secretary was a central role in showing exactly what a class-A nutcase their boss was and how office life had to be endured not enjoyed. Long-running relationships with co-workers, ridiculous requests from management, inter- and intra-office politics, and the minutiae required to keep the wheels of business turning all struck a chord with anyone who’s ever worked as a PA, office assistant or secretary. And, thankfully, it’s funny when you watch someone else going through it!
Mad Men (2007-2015)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a show that better demonstrates our own era’s views of office life through the less enlightened 1960s. Just look at how the roles of Ida Blankenship (bumbling, old, dies at her desk), Megan (marries the boss, takes off to become an actress) and the classic Peggy Olsen (grows from timid note-taker, to stand-and-fight central character, and, ultimately, career copywriter), show the ways in which women’s roles in the workplace have changed through the years.
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