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Film

'Go Lala Go!' and 'Working Girl': The Chinese/American Dream

Amanda Weiss

Both Go Lala Go! and Working Girl feature the basic Cinderella narrative. Yet there are marked distinctions between the Chinese and American processes, and the films differ greatly in their approaches to female conflict, empowerment, and class struggle.

The Chinese film Go Lala Go! (2010) reveals the formation of a new “Chinese Dream", a fantasy of economic success heavily patterned on the American Dream. Like the US film Working Girl (1988), Go Lala Go!’s narrative structure is based on the rags-to-riches Cinderella narrative of financial mobility and romantic love. Using Working Girl as a lens, this essay analyzes Go Lala Go!’s representation of Chinese personal fulfillment and success, as well as the potential for female empowerment during this process.

First, what is the so-called “American Dream?” Jennifer Hochschild calls it “a new world where anything can happen and good things might” (Hochschild, Jennifer L. Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). In a capitalist society, the process of achieving success in a world of limitless opportunities is equated with economic and professional mobility. In Fisher’s 1973 article, he states that the American Dream is based on materialistic success and the democratic availability of said success -- the dream should be accessible to all, and it must be achieved through hard work and self-reliance (Fisher, Walter R. “Reaffirmation and Subversion of the American Dream.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 59.2 (1973): 161). Thus, the “American Dream” ties together the themes of boundless opportunities; of universal availability; of hard work; and, most importantly, of upward mobility.

In many ways, the “American Dream” is also an adaptation of the Cinderella story. Both Go Lala Go! and Working Girl feature the basic Cinderella narrative. There is a lower class Cinderella/plucky “working girl” (Du Lala/Tess McGill), a Prince Charming/male love interest/male boss (Wang Wei/Jack Turner), and an Evil Step-sister/sinister female boss/romantic rival (Rose/Katherine Parker). The evil female character is rejected by Prince Charming, who helps raise the “working girl” from obscure poverty to a life of unimaginable riches. However, as opposed to Cinderella’s passivity and reliance on sheer luck, the American Dream demands a Puritan work ethic and dogged tenacity. In both films the female protagonists must persevere to achieve both job and personal happiness. Yet there are distinctions between the Chinese and American processes -- the films differ greatly in their approaches to female conflict, female empowerment, and class struggle.

Working Girl

Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (1988) articulates the American dream fantasy as a spunky secretary uses her wits to fight an unfair class system and ascend from secretary to boss. Tess McGill, a working-class administrative assistant, deals with constant sexual harassment from condescending male workers who disparage her gender and class background. Tess, however, tenaciously attempts to educate herself and powerfully responds to harassment. She takes evening classes in business and elocution, reads voraciously, and publicly embarrasses chauvinist male co-workers. After quitting her job due to harassment, she manages to find a position at an excellent company with a seemingly benevolent female boss, Katherine, who then summarily destroys Tess’ trust by belittling her and then later stealing Tess’ business ideas. When Katherine breaks her leg in a ski accident, Tess pretends to be an executive and teams up with Jack, another executive, to implement her idea. Katherine exposes her masquerade, but both Jack and the CEO of the company, Trask, are so impressed by Tess’ business acumen that she is rewarded and Katherine is fired. Both Tess’ business and romantic relationships are successful, and she successfully escapes the class system that presents the main conflict in Working Girl.

The film begins with Tess McGill arriving in Manhattan on a ferry, the gospel-inspired theme song “Let the River Run” blasting. (This song went on to win an Oscar for its writer/singer, Carly Simon) The lyrics beckon for “the new Jerusalem,” telling us that it is “for the taking” and that the sky is “the color of blue you’ve never even seen in the eye of your lover". Here, with the opening song, the film clearly lays out Tess’ priorities: she must actively pursue success, and romantic love is secondary to her almost religious devotion to the attainment of success (“the New Jerusalem”).

However, the film’s message of female empowerment is undermined by several factors. First, there is no female solidarity in Working Girl. Tess’ number one obstacle is her two-faced female boss, Katherine, who steals Tess’ idea and constantly ridicules Tess’ style choices and class background. Additionally, Mike Nichols, the male director, frequently objectifies Tess/the actress Melanie Griffith. For no explicable reason in terms of narrative, Tess/Griffith appears in underwear in many scenes -- rushing to clean Katherine’s home towards the end of the film, Tess vacuums topless, in heels. Even the title of the film -- “Working Girl” -- brings to mind a prostitute, undermining the powerful message of Tess’ strategic rise by sexualizing and debasing her. The film also makes Tess’ success contingent on her physical appearance. Tess cuts her hair, borrows Katherine’s clothes, and tells her friend, “If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair.” Finally, as Emmett Winn notes in his article on Working Girl, Jack and the male CEO of Trask Enterprises must validate Tess’ final success -- thus patriarchal paternal support further undercuts the film’s tenuous message of female empowerment (Winn, Emmett. “Moralizing Upward Mobility: Investigating the Myth of Class Mobility in Working Girl.” Southern Communication Journal 66.1 (2000): 40-51).

Certainly, female empowerment is not the focus of Working Girl -- it is class. Tess takes diction lessons to hide her working class accent and borrows Katherine’s expensive clothes to fit in at business parties. Her physical makeover, from over-teased hair and trendy make-up to expensive Wall Street suits and subdued haircuts, is necessary for her corporate success. As Winn notes, she needs the “pedigree". In addition, the film compares Tess and her working-class friend Cynthia to further establish the differences between the classes. Tess has a clear elocution-trained accent; her best friend speaks loudly and nasally. Tess adapts to the subtle and conservative styles of the upper crust; Cynthia wears flamboyant and trendy clothing. Most damning, Tess dreams of “more", Cynthia attempts to persuade Tess to settle for “less” (i.e., Tess’ cheating boyfriend and a life as a beleaguered secretary). Thus, through Cynthia’s narrow hopes and dreams, the film establishes the limitations of the lower classes.

Hence, Working Girl reveals a few intriguing views on the American Dream. First, the ends justify the means. Although Tess combats social and gender prejudices through deception, she is rewarded for “thinking outside the box". Secondly, class is a more important obstacle than gender in this process -- or at the very least, gender is largely sidelined in the film. Tess spends more time battling her class background and Katherine than dealing with chauvinist male co-workers. Thus, the US version of the American Dream narrative emphasizes ruthless business practices and class struggle.

Go Lala Go!

In the early '90s, China criticized the limitations of the American Dream. The successful novel/TV series A Beijinger in New York(1991) portrayed the American Dream as inaccessible and morally contaminating, as the Wangs, an immigrant family from Beijing, lose themselves both financially and ethically. The Wangs move to New York in the hopes of upward mobility, but instead work for sweat shops, clean dishes in Chinese restaurants, get divorced, sleep with prostitutes, and lose their daughter to drugs and an unsavory motorcycle-riding American boyfriend. Geremie Barmé says, “To an extent, the series was a reprisal of the Boxer mentality, but one bereft of any belief system. It also represented, perhaps, the coming of age of Chinese narcissism and bespoke a desire for revenge for all the real and perceived slights of the past century” (Barmé, Geremie. In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press (1999): 255). However one looks at it, Beijinger revealed Chinese distrust of the American Dream.

However, newer Chinese narratives like Go Lala Go! have taken the foundational ideology of the American Dream (upward mobility, materialism, universal accessibility) and adapted them to Chinese society. From the popularity of Du Lala among audiences, it would seem the reworked American Dream is now widely yearned for and accepted. Indeed, with China’s burgeoning economy and vastly expanding middle class, the atmosphere of opportunity and potential in many ways mirrors the confidence of the American 1980s. Many Chinese television series now depict scenes of upward mobility and financial success, such as the television version of Du Lala and the Shanghai TV show, Dwelling Narrowness (2009).

Go Lala Go! is an adaptation of Du Lala’s Promotion, an immensely popular series of novels written by female writer Li Ke, a former employee of IBM. The first novel quickly sold over half a million copies and inspired various sequels and media adaptations. The book and films relate the meteoric rise of Du Lala, a hard-working young woman who manages to ascend from secretary to HR Manager in the narrative’s fictional Fortune 500 company, DB. Like Working Girl, Du Lala’s Promotion largely ignores issues of gender. However, the story also rejects class struggle, strictly focusing on issues of globalization, the attainment of wealth, and the question of balancing both career and romance. Also unlike Working Girl, the film slightly questions the value and meaning of job success.

Go Lala Go! begins with scenes of job hunting. When asked why she left her previous job, Du Lala answers that she is searching for her dream job. The image, however, cuts to her previous boss attempting to play footsie with her during a business meeting. Like Tess, Lala is forced to find a job in order to avoid sexual harassment. Lala successfully enters a global Fortune 500 company called DB, where over the course of six years she works her way up to HR Manager for the company. In the process, she also falls in love with the Sales Director, Wang Wei, but breaks up with him partially out of jealousy (Wang had a previous relationship with Rose, Lala’s boss) and partially to focus on her career. At the end of the film, Lala visits Thailand, where she is reunited with Wang Wei.

Go Lala Go! disregards issues of class and gender, rejects quick promotions and questions fairytale endings. In fact, there is so little conflict or romantic escapism in the film, that it is not terribly compelling. The film is directed by Chinese star Xu Jinglei, who also plays the lead character. Unlike Nichols, Xu chooses to limit the female conflict in the film and play down the rivalry between Lala and Rose. Wang Wei and Rose break up amicably long before Lala and Wang Wei begin a relationship. When there are issues at work, Rose tends to call in sick or resign, thereby removing herself from competition. Rose is gruff and intense with Lala, but she behaves similarly with both her male bosses and with Wang Wei. Rose, receiving the promotion she fought for, says, “I used to care so much about promotions. I thought only promotions could prove my value. The title’s different. So what. I’m not happy at all.” Interestingly, the lack of rivalry means that Go Lala Go! has little dramatic tension. However, Xu appears to be making a subtle commentary on the meaning of success. Rose, as the “Katherine Parker” hard-nosed businesswoman has, after reaching the pinnacle of success, discovered that it is not fulfilling. Thus Go Lala Go! , while lacking the entertainment value of sensationalistic Cinderella tales like Working Girl, shows pragmatic and adult skepticism about the American/Chinese Dream.

Perhaps this could be because success in Go Lala Go! is measured strictly by material possessions. Helen Wang, in a recent Forbes blog entry, notes, “[This] is the picture in most Chinese people’s minds of “the American Dream” -- owning a big house, driving a nice car, and having a comfortable life. The Chinese middle class wants it all” (Wang, Helen. “What is the Chinese Dream?” Forbes 10 Dec 2010. 24 March 2011). Indeed, money plays a central role in denoting success in Lala!. On her first day of work, the head secretary tells Lala, “By the way, this company has really different personnel levels. People below manager are small potatoes. That means they’re poor, making less than 4,000. The managers are middle class; they have their own cars, and an annual salary of over 200,000. Directors are upper class. Their annual salaries are over 500,000. The older ones take their vacations abroad…The CEO makes more than a million a year. Typical upper crust.”

Lala’s salary and material possessions also mark her upward progress. The film is organized into chapters by Du Lala’s promotions. Each time she receives a promotion, we see Lala removing her shoes at the entrance of the company. First, she changes from sneakers to flats. The screen flashes to a text animation, revealing her position and salary -- she begins as a secretary earning a few thousand RMB per month. Then, she switches to heels, the text on the screen revealing both a higher position and -- more importantly -- a higher salary. It is important to note that, like Tess, Lala’s physical transformation also demonstrates her upward progression. However, Lala’s clothing marks material status, not class status. Brands and shiny jewelry are presented as indicative of earnings -- the more Lala earns, the more she can buy. And not only is Lala exchanging cheaper clothes for increasingly expensive clothes, but like her position in DB, her heels also grow higher and higher.

Moreover, Go Lala Go! takes a different approach to romantic love. Whereas Working Girl posits that love and business can be compartmentalized and attained concurrently, Lala has to give up Wang Wei to keep her career. After their one-night-stand in Thailand, she ends the relationship because of the company’s policy of no dating. She tells her brother and confidante, “I would rather focus on my career.” However, chemistry beckons and Lala and Wang Wei begin a secret office romance. The film makes it clear that they are still immaculate professionals at work. But when Lala is informed of Wang Wei’s impending termination, she chooses to protect company information and does not notify him before the official termination date. That, added to her misguided jealousy of Rose, leads to their break up. Although the film ends with Lala finding Wang Wei in Thailand, it does not resolve the question of whether she can find a balance between work and love.

Ultimately, the Chinese Dream may be more complicated because it is tied to the process of globalization. Globalization -- literally “walk to meet the world” in Chinese -- is a marker of both success and of widening economic gaps in Chinese society. Lala! is a text of globalization. DB is a foreign company. Wang Wei speaks fluent American-accented English; Rose speaks fluent British-accented English and peppers her Chinese with English phrases. Even Lala’s bosses, two English-speaking Caucasian foreigners, speak excellent Mandarin Chinese. Meanwhile, Beijinger Du Lala clearly speaks some English, but it is limited enough for her to be the “Everyman” in whom Chinese society can see itself reflected, a nation “walking to meet the world.” Thus Du Lala’s tale is not just a story of individual success, but also that of China’s global success. However, since the 1970’s, globalization has made many of China’s rich richer and many of the poor poorer -- the harsh urban/rural divide is the country’s main social concern today. Thus the less optimistic Chinese Dream may be questioning the “success for all” tenant of the American Dream.

Conclusion

Working Girl and Go Lala Go! display similar narrative and structural elements -- the spunky upwardly mobile female “working girl,” the non-threatening male co-worker/romantic interest, the hostile female boss. They are also both similarly disinterested by the questions and complications of female empowerment. However, the two films have disparate views in terms of the meaning of success. Whereas Working Girl portrays class struggle, it does not question the underlying issue of the American Dream -- i.e., are there limitations and problems within the dream itself? The Chinese Dream portrayed in Lala! , while disproportionately shallow and materialistic, suggests that the Chinese Dream is not as unrelentingly optimistic. There are confines to upward mobility.

Kasser and Ryan question the American Dream, arguing that such materialism does not help individuals reach true self-actualization, and in fact has many negative repercussions. (Kasser, Tim and Ryan, Richard M. “A Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65.2 (1995): 410-422). It may seem that the Chinese, with a century of brutal history and a complex politico-economic system besieged by the negative effects of globalization, are somewhat conflicted.

Indeed, Xu Peiqing, in her article on Du Lala, argues that the narrative makes its characters “prisoners of development.” (Xu, Peiqing. “Technical Age and Bureaucratic Society -- to Experience Modern Life From Du Lala's Promotion.” Journal of Ningbo Radio and TV University (2010). As Lala rises higher and higher in DB, perhaps she will eventually echo Rose’s disillusionment with the Chinese/American Dream: “The title’s different. So what. I’m not happy at all."

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