Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck has shattered some implicit gender politics boundaries: Schumer’s character, Amy, is a philandering, free-spirit whose unabashed personality and loose tongue captures the attention of soft, nurturing Dr. Connors — played by Bill Hader. Flipping gender polarity on its head feels like a relief. But there's one role in the movie that still resides in the cinematic stone age: Tilda Swinton’s Dianna.
Dianna is Hollywood’s typical female boss. She is a powerful executive, in-charge and assertive, with a rigid attitude. Dianna demands ruthless efficiency, disregard for personal lives, and exercises an egregious abuse of authority.
As the high-profile editor of a men’s magazine titled S’nuff, she assigns difficult and uncomfortable stories to her subordinates — less of a challenge than it is an affirmation of authority — and is even shown threatening to fire Amy while Amy is attending her boyfriend’s award ceremony. While women around the world are taking charge of their careers and lives and leaning in, women on-screen are defining a dangerous formula for leading — nay, dominating — the workplace. And while movies exist primarily for entertainment value, their cultural impact is undeniable; for a film universally hailed as progressive, Dianna’s villainous character reinforces a detrimental stereotype.
It's possible that in Trainwreck, Dianna's character could simply serve to further underscore the absurdity of a woman leading a bro magazine that churns out stories aptly titled “You’re not gay, she’s just boring” and “Best places to jack off at work,” or she could be a satirical, overamplified depiction of Hollywood’s trademark female boss. Considering Trainwreck’s championing of strong, independent women, it’s doubtful the creators' intent was malicious. But if she is an exaggerated, sarcastic portrayal of a career lady, when and how have we become so accustomed to this norm of female leadership?
The all-too-familiar Hollywood template of cold career woman has been constant, throughout years of evolving female roles in Hollywood. Perhaps its pinnacle is The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly. Priestly’s character is an homage to fashion lioness Anna Wintour, and Meryl Streep successfully portrays a powerful executive who manages hundreds of employees, is thoroughly dedicated to her job, and is very direct. Though Priestly possesses qualities considered desirable for any high-power executive, she is regarded as an antagonist and an obstacle — a devil. Along with being labeled “too assertive,” female bosses are usually imbued with an ingrained repulsion for kids and a ditzy cluelessness when it comes to dating — starkly contrasting with their workplace personalities. Case in point: Katherine Heigl’s character in The Ugly Truth who, despite being a major-league TV producer in an environment obviously requiring stellar social skills, has to print out conversational topics for a first date. Most recently in Jurassic World, a franchise formerly acclaimed for its feminist undertones, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character scoffs at her sister for having children, and in spite of having a job managing park employees, can’t seem to figure out how to keep her two nephews entertained.
Why has Hollywood been hardwiring career women to be overworked and undersexed for so long, despite the reality clearly showing otherwise? Peter Glick, a social sciences professor and gender expert at Lawrence University, tells Fusion that the root of all gender stereotypes are in its implicit prescriptions.
“Women and men are prescribed certain behaviors on how they ought to be, not how we think they’ll be," Glick says. "Violating these prescriptions incites a strong emotional reaction and highlights what we find distasteful.”
In other words, Hollywood violating a woman’s God-sanctioned attributes of compassion, calm, and nurture creates a sensational value that’s repulsive enough to draw our attention. Unintentionally, this tends to reinforce a stereotype in the off-screen career world where women have it hard enough. Alice Eagly, specializing in gender psychology at Northwestern University, told Fusion that the biggest challenge women face is learning to combine the qualities of being caring and people-oriented while maintaining charisma and assertion. “Men don’t have to add kindness — they can get away with being more harsh,” Eagly adds.
A column on the bossy women stereotype — written by Jill Filipovic — was published by The Guardian in 2013. In the column, Filipovic writes:
"The problem isn't the fact that some female bosses suck, it's that if you have a crappy boss and he's a man, the conclusion is "I had a crappy boss". If you have a crappy boss and she's a woman, the conclusion is "I had a crappy female boss, so female bosses are crappy." No one sees a bad male boss as a reflection on all men everywhere, or emblematic of male leadership capabilities. But bring up women at the head of the table and every bad female co-worker or supervisor suddenly becomes Exhibit A for what's wrong with female bosses."
Could this mirror a chicken-or-the egg situation for candid career women versus Hollywood’s depiction? Filipovic told Fusion in an interview that despite Hollywood’s primary motive to entertain, these stories have significant impact on the mind.
“Media has a role in caricaturing,” she said. “Studies in actual workplaces have shown that a lot of bias for powerful women is subconscious.”
Lots of research has been conducted on workplace biases. A study at Yale University asked students to rate a male and a female candidate with similar qualifications and found both men and women overwhelmingly rated the male candidate as more qualified and were willing to pay him more. A poll at Glassdoor ranked the most well-liked CEOs of 50 companies, and not a single female made the list. Not to discount the merits of the CEOs who did make the list, but seeing an absence of women, especially that of notable female CEO favorites — Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer, General Motors' Mary Barra, and Hewlett Packard's Meg Whitman, among others — leads one to conclude that Americans continue to prefer male bosses. A Gallup poll conducted in 2013 found a preference for male leaders consecutively and comfortably beating a preference for female leaders from the early 1950s until the early 1990s, when an indifference to gender took over. The poll’s last recorded results in 2013 still showed a strictly, significantly higher preference for men.
Still: women in distinct managerial or leadership positions are proliferating, and so are the diversity of their talents. A study published in the Harvard Business Review conducted by consulting firm Zenger/Folkman discovered that in nurturing competencies and developing talent, women scored higher than men. At all levels, women were rated by peers, subordinates and bosses as better leaders. Women are also found to thrive in career environments largely dominated by women.
“It’s really exaggerated that women shouldn't have power; if they do there's something wrong with them and if they exercise they are horrible people,” Glick says. "Donald Trump’s popularity is increasing despite how overconfident and arrogantly he expresses himself. Hillary [Clinton] knows not to act in that way.”
Television, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to reject powerful, multifaceted ladies. While it could be argued that television has more time and therefore more space to work with character development, many shows have established their character's personality and mannerisms in the pilot episode. Within the first 20 minutes of Secretary of State's pilot, Téa Leoni established her professional prowess and calm assertion while not only balancing but consistently prioritizing her family life. Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knope is passionate and efficient with her work and simultaneously adored by all her coworkers. 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon shuts down The Ugly Truth’s rigid media executive trope by showing television company executives are are allowed to be authoritative while still revealing a little bit of healthy vulnerability.
If you think about it, Dianna isn’t all that bad of a person. She attends Amy’s father’s funeral and openly encourages pitch suggestions from her employees. In fact, she is inherently nice enough to have her mean-boss qualities assessed as blown out of proportion. But maybe Hollywood's problematic portrayal of female executives should come as no surprise, considering a recent report on Hollywood diversity — commissioned by UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies — found 100% of Hollywood's top executives are male. Having actual women in executive roles in the movie business is an important step toward shattering the silver screen ceiling and making sure women on screen are more multifaceted. Because authority and assertiveness should not and do not have a gender assigned to them.
Nikita Redkar is the editorial intern for Fusion who loves writing all things pop culture and feminism - sprinkled with the occasional punchline. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.