Girls on Film: Horrible Female Bosses

Girls on Film: Horrible Female Bosses

Jul 07, 2011

This week, Jennifer Aniston is a Maneater. No, she’s not the Nelly Furtado Maneater who makes you buy cars, nor the Hall & Oates lady “so many have paid to see.” In Horrible Bosses, she’s the Maneating woman of power, hungry for her assistant; she’s not content with flirting and innuendo, but rather blatant sexual assault with photographic proof. She knows what she wants and is willing to use her position to get it. (That is, as long as she isn’t killed in a haphazard, murderous 3-way plan.)

Seeing the trailers, and reading initial reviews that call her character a “one-note nympho,” a “misogynist male fantasy,” a figure who reassures male youth about their “masculine coolness,” and “the most tangential figure in a film that radiates a casual, leering contempt for women,” it’s hard not to be reminded of the continually plagued world of female bosses on the big screen.

Just Google “female bosses in film” and you’ll be greeted with a sea of real-life and Hollywood-concocted drama. The headlines pour in – “Bad Female Bosses,” “Hottest Bosses from Movies,” “Our Favorite Villainized Female Movie Bosses,” or the ever-charming “Female Bosses Today: *itch or Bimbo?” There’s always a qualifier that reduces the female boss to either a maniacal sex fiend or a woman so intent on professional success that she’s utterly inept at every other portion of life.

The big-screen female boss is incapable of having a well-rounded life. She’s stern, domineering, and usually devoid of human emotion. Anyone can become road kill as she strives to obtain and maintain power. And if she’s not that narrowly focused, she’s the sexpot, all too cognizant of her ability to seduce and willing to use it to get ahead.

There was a point where this characterization made sense … at least according to retro societal standards. When women are seen as nothing more than lovers and housewives, a woman so entirely focused on that one facet of life could be the exception to the rule. She isn’t proof that women have been unfairly marginalized; instead, she is a female superhero of sorts – a rare and otherworldly anomaly. Likewise, if the female boss is a femme fatale, her ascension to power makes sense as a result of her seductive abilities. No man can be expected to stand strong against her whiles.

By making one example anomalous and the other predatory, showing women in power is as much about towing to clichéd expectations as it is a progressive breaking of the norm. Those eager to see women in powerful positions can be sated while men and women who feel uncomfortable with the idea can comfort themselves with the belief that these women aren’t the norm, but the exception.

These same characterizations also serve as a warning sign. Cinematic professional women don’t have it all, and according to Hollywood, breaking out professionally usually means living a partial, unfulfilled, and whorish life. In writing about the Maneater boss, MamaPop sums it up: “she’s completely unfulfilled in her personal life, having chosen her professional career over love and family. It’s not that she’s a monster, people! It’s just that, without a man and some babies to nurture, her heart shriveled up and died, and now men are only playthings to her!”

Unfortunately, Hollywood has never shaken the habit. Instead of women like Diana Christensen in Network (an iconic example of the cold female boss) evolving into cinematic professionals whose sex and gender don’t play into their professional lives, we’re treated to any number of professional constructs that relish one-note women. Meryl Streep earned the spotlight for playing a fictionalized version of Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada. She excelled as the professional cold fish in a film where even the ambitious newbie was condemned for her professional choices. (Instead of Andy being applauded by her friends for temporarily exerting blood, sweat, and tears for future success, they berate her for it, equating a short amount of dedicated service with being a cold, terrible friend.)

Sandra Bullock became a powerful real-life figure in the 2010 cinematic scene with The Proposal, by playing the typical “witch” boss. Her character is not only inept at her own life and unable to think and exist beyond her work, but she also requires male intervention to be humanized. As summed up by The Grindstone: “it took Ryan Reynolds to bring out her softer side and let her bring her guard down. She even admitted she cried to herself when a colleague called her a bitch.” Through Reynolds, Bullock’s character was allowed to have a rich life, and to admit her femininity.

Working Girl may have set up a scenario where the harsh female boss is replaced by a more rational and well-rounded woman, but Hollywood has been more content to let the Sigourney Weaver/Melanie Griffith film be one of the few exceptions to the rule. Instead, cinema perpetuates clichés dating back decades to women like Katharine Hepburn in the 1942 film Woman of the Year.

Of course, it’s a plagued notion also running rampant in the real world, but by now, Tinseltown could at least progress to explorations of the “Queen Bee Syndrome,” and the whys behind questionable manifestations of power. Studies have started to look into the evil female boss phenomenon and theorize that women favoring men or acting unusually harsh when in positions of power could be the result of a desire to fit in with their male counterparts – to not be seen as unfairly favoring fellow women. It’s a “no duh” finding, but one that still hasn’t really been explored cinematically because the feared witch boss is the expected inevitability.

Now we’ve got Horrible Bosses, mixing the “sleazy tool” and “slave-driving psycho” with the “crazed maneater.” It’s nothing new; in fact, the premise might seem awfully familiar. As Andrew O’Hehir pointed out in his Salon review: “It actually took a female colleague to nudge me gently toward the glaringly obvious fact that Horrible Bosses recycles its plot from the 1980 hit Nine to Five with the feminism drained out of it, which is to say its entire reason for existing is gone.”

Nine to Five saw Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton play three disgruntled workers sick to death of their misogynistic and inept boss. (Or, as they put it: “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”) Revenge fantasies took on a slice of reality, and before they knew it, Boss Man was rigged up like a gimp leashed to a garage door as the three women set out to improve operations at Consolidated Companies.

Something tells me Horrible Bosses won’t stand the test of time like Nine to Five, so if you want some anti-boss scheming balanced with female competence this weekend, you’ll have to jump back 31 years.

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