As an inveterate couch potato, and queen of the Netflix night in, I’ll confess what I find most compelling as a viewer when I watch older movies and tv is the way film reflects its time. Film gives you sly insight into the society that produced it- the society it was produced for- through dialogue, settings, and characters.
Preparing for the new Star Trek movie made me catch up on the original series*, and watching a few episodes recently made me more aware than ever of a standard character in film and television in the Sixties – The Receptionist.
Star Trek reflects, as many have noted, the American optimism of the 1960s. Roddenberry, who created the series, played to America’s newly launched fascination with space travel, and carefully wove in themes of cooperation between most races** and nationalities. You can’t watch Star Trek without remembering it first aired in 1966- a year after the Voting Rights Act passed.
For all that optimism- starry-eyed and interstellar- when it comes time for the band of space pioneers to boldly go where no man has gone before, they still need someone, a woman, to answer the phone. It winds up being the series’ only black character, Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols.
I don’t mean to imply that Uhura has no value or charm. However, her character is a perfect example of the mores and modes of the Era of the Receptionist- even in that time’s wildest imaginings of what the future would be, women wound up sitting alone at a desk on the ship in case someone called while the landing party fought lizard creatures on a desert planet below.
But the Sixties were also a sexy time- between JFK, the Rat Pack and James Bond, the dominant cultural expressions of male sexuality took a definite swing towards the playboy. James Bond, a spy in her Majesty’s Secret Service, is a man’s man. His missions are inevitably dangerous, but he is always their equal. The bad guys are really bad and have names like Dr. No, but he always takes them out. The international hotties are always reluctant at first, but he wins them over. He drives fancy cars and carries silly gadgets that are conveniently useful for exactly the scrape he gets into every movie.
But what would James have done if Miss Moneypenny, played by Lois Maxwell, were not there to take his messages while he was out saving the world and pulling the Iron Curtain down one Russian seduction at a time? Office administrators were the unsung heroes of Glasnost.
Both Uhura and Moneypenny are good receptionists- dedicated to their posts, loyal to their superiors. However, it’s fun to flip back to 1960 and the birth of the Era of the Receptionist for a very different portrayal in Hitchcock’s eternal classic, Psycho. If Trek reflects the exuberance of the space race and Bond offers us a Cold War seduction, Psycho illumes a time of domestic desperation.
Marion Crane, as portrayed by Janet Leigh, the film’s initial protagonist, is a receptionist in love. She works at a real estate office in Phoenix, Arizona, and does occasional quickies during lunch with her boyfriend, Sam. The two want to marry but cannot because of Sam’s crushing debts and ongoing alimony payments to his ex-wife.
Marion, earning a receptionist’s wage, cannot hope to use honest means to better her circumstances. Unstrung and anxious, she snatches one of those iconic Benjamin-filled briefcases from her office, and drives away from her steno pad and rotary telephone, into the sunset to start a new life with her financially liberated beau.
Of course things don’t end well for Marion. Just as she decides that stealing will not actually solve her problems and resolves to return the money, she is stabbed to death in a shower, and dumped in a swamp with the briefcase now lost to everyone.
Marion is an interesting foil to Uhura and Moneypenny in several regards- she is self-interested and sexualized in ways they are not. She only receives a half an hour of screen time, but for that period she is the focus of Psycho, and her choices determine the plot of the film. She is also the only fully realized woman of the three- and she is cut short.
In the receptionist, as with nurse or stewardess, one finds a truly gendered term and position. In the Era of the Receptionist, the jobs available to women were limited- the roles women could play influenced the roles actresses received. Interestingly, playing a good receptionist and being a good receptionist reaped similar benefits- I am sure that Nichols and Maxwell both looked forward to steady paychecks and regular work. In a time when playboy culture celebrated and degraded the bombshell, the good receptionist could look forward to coming back for another installment while Bond girls and alien babes were disposable.
In recent incarnations, both Uhura and Moneypenny have been fleshed out, an effort to revise their histories and give them souls. It’s still satisfying to watch their original forms though- to reflect on how far we’ve come, and to give credit to the ladies who answered the phones so that I wouldn’t have to.
* Nerd Alert!
** Pesky Klingons.