By the time the credits roll, most office dramas about women wind up feeling like gruesome nature documentaries. Two women can’t exist in one purchasing department without triggering the end of days — especially if either is older or younger than the other. The Devil Wears Prada. Mad Men. Every single office lady J-Drama and josei (ladies’) manga. Women exist in constant competition, which becomes a fight for survival as older and younger women duke it out to prove themselves worthy under the male gaze. Right? But thankfully, Netflix’s Aggretsuko doesn’t have time for this bullshit (literally: each episode is roughly 15 minutes long), and demonstrates as much with Washimi and Gori: boss babes extraordinaire.
Aggretsuko depicts nurturing, sustaining intergenerational relationships between professional women — unlike pretty much all media about office ladies or women of different ages. Washimi and Gori, two cool and Very Inspiring Boss Ladies, mentor and befriend the series’ young protagonist, and they treat her with respect from the first moment they strut onto the screen. They don’t need to belittle the awkward, struggling Retsuko to establish their reputation as powerful women. And while I’m sure that you, reader, can think of a woman who mentored you or fostered your career in some way without tearing you apart in the process, how many fictional female characters can you describe the same way?
Aggretsuko is a Sanrio cartoon that follows Retsuko, a 25-year-old office lady / red panda who lets off steam from work by belting out death metal at her favorite dive karaoke bar. While Washimi and Gori seem cool and aloof at first, after encountering Retsuko at their yoga class, they strive to take the younger woman under their only-semi-metaphorical wing.
Washimi, an elegant secretary bird, is an executive assistant within Retsuko’s company. Gori, the company’s Director of Marketing, is a kind, exuberant gorilla and the more emotive of the two. Aggretsuko presents them as one solid unit, fused into one nigh-omnipotent Mega Boss Woman through the force of their friendship, whether they’re powerwalking down the office hallway or bickering about their dinner plans after yoga class. It’s easy to see why Retsuko admires them — who among us didn’t wile away at least some of 2013 retweeting dozens of Amy Poehler/Tina Fey friendship gifs? Could any of us resist cheering on that kind of talented friendship Power Couple if it unfolded before us in real life?
Both Washimi and Gori have learned how to perform femininity in the workplace and when (or where) they can relax their performance. Gori’s struggle to maintain the working woman high heels strut once out of the young people’s eyeshot shows the labor that goes into that performance. The cool, capable Washimi knows just how much of her temper to reveal to scare the less competent men she reports to. And Gori is more than a glamorous, buff babe in a sheath dress — she wears her heart on her sleeve, mourning breakups and straightforwardly expressing her worries about whether or not Retsuko hates them.
Gori and Washimi aren’t trying to Have It All. They are just two women in the prime of their careers, getting through the day like anyone else. Gori’s breakup isn’t evidence that women can’t rule their professional and romantic spheres at the same time, and Washimi doesn’t tearfully tell Retsuko that she’d trade her work accomplishments for a loving husband in a heartbeat. At the same time, neither have ascended to an impossible peak of Transcendent Professional Womanhood. Washimi might be more accomplished than the company president, but she still has to deal with him; Gori can only go so far in her uncomfortable heels before her back craps out on her.
In a lot of office dramas, Retsuko would run herself ragged trying to prove her coolness and professionalism to Washimi and Gori. Instead, the two older ladies pursue a friendship with Retsuko. Retsuko and Gori break the ice at the same time after recognizing each other at yoga class, both women openly expressing the awkwardness of encountering a coworker outside in ~the real world~.
Washimi and Gori don’t hide the secrets of their professional successes. They don’t hang Retsuko out to dry, bitter that she might avoid hardships they had to face head-on. They willingly share what they’ve learned about navigating a male-dominated workplace with Retsuko, offering advice and support as their friendship grows.
While the lighthearted Aggretsuko doesn’t dwell on how Washimi learned how to take action in a system that’s against you from the start, viewers can infer that she might have once faced the same issues Retsuko is facing now. As Retsuko struggles with her sexist boss’s verbal abuse, she confides in her mentors about the ways her young, doe-eyed colleague Tsunoda flatters and manipulates him. When Washimi praises the intelligence behind these not-so-subtle manipulations, we can infer that this praise is the result of hard-won wisdom. While another of Retsuko’s friends criticizes Tsunoda’s “shameless” behavior, Washimi’s praise offers viewers a little bit of recognition that sometimes you need an alternative path through patriarchal bullshit.
Washimi and Gori care about Retsuko and look out for her. They push her to be her most authentic self. And most poignantly, they accept her for who she is. Retsuko works hard to hide her metal side, feeling that most people wouldn’t accept her if they knew that underneath her meek exterior laid an extremely hardcore heart (and set of vocal chords). But when Retsuko sings her favorite metal jam to them at karaoke, they immediately jump into action as her background dancers and later beg her to teach them how to reach that guttural range. Their encouragement starts Retsuko down a path of self-acceptance. She knows they believe in her, and she doesn’t want to let them down.
In a lot of media, older women can’t befriend younger women — they’re too busy asserting their own dominance and relevance in a world that values female youth above all things. And younger women can’t befriend older women — older women, especially in the workplace, are figures of pity, becoming less and less vital with the appearance of each fine line. In The Devil Wears Prada, for example, Anne Hathaway spends almost two hours in real time (and years of movie time), trying to win Meryl Streep’s approval by absorbing her abrasive personality, only to realize how powerless her lowkey evil mentor truly is. By the film’s end, Hathaway’s character pities rather than fears her boss and decides to forge her own path.
Retsuko never pities or belittles Washimi and Gori. When we meet them, Retsuko describes them as “cool ladies,” and she never fails to expound upon her admiration of them. Retsuko never reenacts that typical Office Lady Drama scene where she proclaims that she’ll never!! become like them!! Instead, she looks to them for guidance and tries to make decisions they would be proud of.
And powerfully, when Retsuko confides in Washimi and Gori about Director Ton’s power harassment and sexual discrimination, they hear her out. They believe her. They stick up for her. And they help her fight back. Washimi knows that her intervention won’t end Director Ton’s harassment and advises Retsuko as much. But she also empathizes with Retsuko, taking her intervention even farther when she hears the company president excusing and ignoring Ton’s behavior.
The way Washimi and Gori root for and protect Retsuko feels life-sustaining, almost essential, to anyone who is deeply grateful to the women who helped them in their professional careers. Narratives about how inescapably competitive women are is lazy and a signature move from writers who don’t think they owe any women anything. Sometimes women in fiction learn to get along; sometimes older women learn to respect The Youths (™) and sometimes younger women learn that maybe all women over 40 aren’t just moldering reanimated corpses who don’t know what Snapchat is. But, this discovery usually comes at great cost to all female characters within these types of narratives. Washimi and Gori aren’t cool, funny, and stylish foils for Retsuko to surpass someday — their kindness and friendship are actively shaping her into the kind of person she wants to be. And wouldn’t our media landscape — wouldn’t our lives — be better with mentors like those? Thankfully, we can follow in Washimi and Gori’s impossibly cool footsteps and become the supportive, generous, boss babe mentors the world so badly needs.