The Female Boss in Films

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In 2016, research conducted by Fairy God Boss found that when asked which gendered boss would be preferred 46% had no opinion, 33% preferred male and only 20% preferred female. Although we’ve come far from 2010 when the same research, by JobsNet.UK, showed a much higher percent of participants leaning towards male, it’s telling that of those willing to express a gender preference 50% are still more likely to pick male. When further research was done into the why, the reasons were woefully stereotypical.

With women being penalised for being aggressive even if their behaviour is identical to men, and women being seen as out for themselves, whilst men are seen as able to pull others up with them, where are these ideas coming from? Especially when we’re hearing them out of the mouths of babes, with absolutely no work experience?

The female boss in entertainment isn’t a new thing, with Katherine in Working Girl and Patty Hewes in Damages, the representation of women in the workforce has never really been flattering. However, these films come from an era when it was also common for women to be wolf-whistled and harassed in the office. We wouldn’t put up with this now, so why do we when it comes to how our bosses are seen?

Unfortunately, the stereotypes haven’t gone away, and the fantasy is continuously spilling into our reality. Documentary, Miss Representation, delves into this, stating that women in a position of power are often depicted as needing to “be taken down a notch… often by a male subordinate.” Described as devils, these women are usually catalysts for other characters to become sweeter and more fulfilled, and have often maintained their position by holding these ‘sweeter’ characters down.

The most famous example of this would be Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Reportedly based on Anna Wintour, it is worth noting that Streep never actually met the Editor-In-Chief and instead based her portrayal of the hard-line ‘devil’ on business men she had previously met.

Her opposite within the film is the simpering Andrea Sachs, whose success seems to align with her fashion sense, a storyline we’ve seen before in Working Girl. Both films ascertain that, in media, to be the boss, you can be one or the other; Competent and cold or warm and incompetent. Marcia Clark, Prosecutor during the OJ case describes how this transferred into her work life, saying, “people would try to give me advice like ‘you shouldn’t come across tough. Wear pastels. Talk softer’… Then I’m some cream puff who can’t take the heat? There was no winning this.”

Another trope commonly found in so-called ‘chick flicks’, featuring women as high-flying bosses, is the idea that they are inherently giving something up, in order to get ahead. Films like The Proposal and The Holiday see the career women featured only truly happy when a man “saves them” from their overworked lives. This idea that a woman can have either a happy work life or a happy home life, was the driving force behind a study conducted at Harvard University. Through the use of word association, they found that men and women had different perceptions of what it would be like to have more power at work, with women professing more negative connotations and a fear of conflict between promotion and other life goals.

These findings, however, aren’t due to a difference in priorities, as when surveyed both men and women view having a fulfilling career and having children at a similar percentage. So why is it that on screen men are seen as able to have it all whilst women can’t?

Counteracting this ingrained culture is going to be an uphill struggle, however with facts like only 5% of bosses in big American firms are female, it’s an important climb. The first thing we need to be doing is to stop addressing women as “girl bosses”, “boss ladies” and “bossettes”. And in the same way that we’re moving away from the split between defining male and female thespians as actors and actresses, it’s important they begin portraying this change ON the screen, as well as off.