If I had a dollar for every time I saw a movie portraying hard working female professionals/executives in a similarly problematic way, I’d be loaded (well, ok, I wouldn’t be loaded, but I could at least come close to filling up my gas tank). As of late, I’ve noticed a trend in which female professionals or CEOs are presented in a dissatisfactory and almost uniform fashion.
Time and again, we see the same sort of scenario and characterization play out when it comes to movies featuring professional women: the woman who simply works too hard, is seen as bitchy or overbearing by her subordinates, and almost invariably has sacrificed her health and/or time away from her husband and kids, if she has them, on the way to her professional success.
A man who runs a company, works long hours, has several people working under him, etc. is rarely, at least comparatively speaking, considered by the film industry as a character that is in need of some sort of qualifying explanation as to how he has sacrificed something on his path to professional achievement.
I’m not just talking about overtly sexist movies like Think Like A Man, either (a movie in which a particularly successful working woman is told by her friend that she practically IS a man, and that she’d do well to turn down the caliber of her work ethic and professional mindset a bit). I’m talking about a whole slew of well received, mainstream movies incorporating and/or featuring professional women.
This particular issue is discussed in the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, which discusses the portrayal of women in the media and our underrepresentation in positions of power. At one point in the documentary, they discuss how powerful women, particularly working professionals, are often presented as needing to be “taken down a notch,” often by a subordinate, often by a man. They show a clip from the movie The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, in which Bullock’s character, a hard working book editor, fakes an engagement to her assistant (Reynolds) in response to the threat of being deported back to Canada.
Bullock’s character isn’t intended to be especially likable, at least at first, and part of her “bitchiness” is directly linked to how hard she works, and how seriously she takes her job. She is presented as cold and not particularly personable, just as Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada is.
When a man approaches his career with a sense of tenacity and sternness, and maybe even values it over the formation of several solid relationships with others, he is good at his job. When a woman does so, she’s portrayed as a “bitch.”
If female executives aren’t portrayed as bitchy or overbearing, they are often portrayed in an almost opposite light: as fragile, emotional, and unable to maintain a front that they are completely satisfied with all that they’ve “given up” when prioritizing their career over other aspects of their lives.
This sort of characterization is perfectly summed up in a specific scene of the movie The Internship, in which Owen Wilson and Rose Byrne’s characters have a short, but very telling, discussion about life and regrets.
About an hour into the movie, Owen Wilson, who scored an internship at Google despite being largely and comically unqualified, enters the “nap pods,” where he comes upon Rose Byrne’s character trying to, you know, take a nap. Just as she is about to leave, he rushes up to her and asks for a recommendation as to where he should take someone out to dinner in the area (wanting to take her out, of course). She responds by saying that she can’t really make such a recommendation, as she spends most of her time on the Google campus. Wilson’s character responds by criticizing such an intense work ethic, saying, “That’s criminal!” to which Byrne’s character responds, “I know where you’re going with this. You think I’m some 30 year old executive who has devoted her life to her career and that one day I’m gonna wake up wanting more.”
As the conversation progresses, it’s obvious that she does in fact feel that way, although she does not explicitly admit it. Wilson’s character ends the conversation by providing her with some patronizing advice: “If any of that even slightly applies to you, you might wanna do something about it. This is coming from someone who when they wake up, the first thing on their calendar is regret.”
Yeah, a woman who has devoted her life to establishing an impressive and respectable career MUST be regretful because of what she has “given up” in the process. The film industry remains hesitant to feature a female executive who is completely satisfied with a life without kids or without being married. It is always as if there is a void that she still needs to fill.
The idea of there being something “off balanced” about a particularly hard working professional woman is a theme that also comes out in the movie The Intern, starring Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro. There is one scene in particular that really rubbed me the wrong way. It features a professional woman, Becky, crying at work because she was feeling unappreciated in the workplace. Robert DeNiro’s character and another male co worker go on to try to cheer her up, and suggest that perhaps she just works too many hours, and should probably get more sleep. They even warn her that she’s at risk for gaining weight if she doesn’t change her sleeping habits and cut back on work hours.
Can you imagine a role reversal here? Two women gathered around a sobbing male co-worker who feels unappreciated, warning him that he’ll gain weight if he doesn’t get more sleep? Yes, the scene was meant to be funny, but we still wouldn’t see a gender swap here. It’s as if women are always portrayed as sacrificing something when they prioritize their careers, whether said sacrificed thing is time away from their families, or their own health/wellbeing. This sort of work ethic and value placed on a career by male characters, on the other hand, is seen as normal and often admirable.
Women make up half the population, and among us there are those who would gladly prioritize the pursuit of a high-powered career over other aspects of our lives. There is nothing odd about that, and such a woman isn’t left with some sort of void to fill, as the film industry so often implies. When professional female characters are consistently portrayed in a similar, problematic way, we are being cheated of the same flexibility and complexity lent to male characters. It’s 2016, and in my opinion, it’s long past due that Hollywood embraced a more progressive portrayal of the strong and hard working female executive, as they’ve long done for our male counterparts.