Dispelling the Bitchy Boss Trope in Pop Culture - URBANETTE: Lifestyle Magazine & Blog

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Dispelling the Bitchy Boss Trope in Pop Culture

What’s up with bitchy female bosses?

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Like most overworked urban women, I often come home at the end of a long workday and collapse in front of the TV. It’s a great way to escape, and I love getting wrapped up in the characters portrayed on my favorite shows. But I recently started wondering: how is society (and how am I) affected by what I’m watching?

On the rare occasions we see female bosses in film and TV, they are usually bitches. Frosty, manipulative, backstabbing bitches. Older, but not any less insecure, they’re jealous of the interns with fresh ovaries. They’ll steal your ideas and pass them off as their own. They don’t care about your feelings or your personal life, just their coffee exactly the way they like it. They want you kept in your place, which is far below the glass ceiling they haven’t completely cracked either.

Dispelling the Bitchy Boss Trope in Pop Culture

Sigourney Weaver stars as a financial executive who encourages her secretary to share business pitches only to later devise a scheme to steal her ideas and claim them as her own.

Male bosses, on the other hand, can be portrayed in a variety of ways—the nice guy, the hard-ass, the jerk, the idiot, etc.—but the female boss? Hollywood says there’s only one ‘type’.

I’m sure bitchy bosses do exist in real life or they wouldn’t strike such a chord with us. The Devil Meets Prada is based on a real person after all. But kind, well adjusted, and inspiring female bosses are out there too. As entertaining as the boss bitch villains are to watch on screen, we can’t be what we can’t see. The negative depictions of female bosses are scaring some women off from leadership roles. Young women don’t want to cast themselves in the role of the villain—and who can blame them?

I’m sure it doesn’t help that A) Hollywood, and the media at large, is largely run by men, and B) because of that, girls are taught (via the media) to be competitive with each other, rather than supportive (I’m pointing at you, Disney!)

Dispelling the Bitchy Boss Trope in Pop Culture

The 2006 dramedy stars Meryl Streep in the role of Runway fashion magazine’s editor-in-chief whose icy demeanor has all of the publication’s employees on their guards and at her service.

Female leaders are a rarity, in both pop culture and reality, partially since the working woman is a relatively new phenomenon. Until World World I, the home was the woman’s domain. After the soldiers went off to war, women filled their positions for lesser pay (we’re still battling gender pay gaps today). It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve received the same education as men, and not been bred merely to attract a husband (although that’s still a work in progress in many parts of the world).

But, boy, have girls ever stepped up to the plate and hit a homerun. More girls than boys are graduating college, and women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men—and having far more entrepreneurial success. After centuries of playing the subservient role, we are finally starting to demand more.

Dispelling the Bitchy Boss Trope in Pop Culture

In the 2009 film, Sandra Bullock plays an overbearing boss who forces her assistant to marry her when she learns that she may face deportation to Canada due to an expired visa.

Still, our model for getting ahead in the workplace is based on men’s ways of doing things. The problem is, emulating men does not work for women. A man can communicate in a direct and impersonal manner and be praised as macho, but a female behaving in the same way would get her labeled one of the B-words. Let’s face it: men and women are not equal, and we will never be equal: each gender comes with its own strengths. But that doesn’t mean one sex is inferior to the other.

Women have great potential to be strong leaders. In fact, women-run companies have a higher success rate than businesses run by men. So, instead of following the man’s path, we must lead with the strengths unique to us. When a female is deemed bossy or bitchy, chances are she is reacting from a lack of recognition, respect, and self-esteem. This fear-based approach to leadership is not unique to women, but since there are so few female bosses, the ones who act this way give a bad rap to everyone else. Fair or not, we should take it as a cue to do things differently.

Dispelling the Bitchy Boss Trope in Pop Culture

Good bosses: Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski got very lucky when they were hired to play well-rounded and realistic characters on The Good Wife

What makes a great leader? Confidence, creativity and clear communication skills. The best boss is approachable, inspires others, leads by example, and takes responsibility. These qualities are not exclusive to either sex. When women connect to their internal power and lead from a place of confidence, the bitch labels won’t be a problem. Instead these women will be goddesses. Equality will not be an issue either. Men bow down to goddesses.

Every day, I’m inspired by the women around me, from older women with their wealth of wisdom and their generosity to impart them, to gutsy younger women with the confidence I’m sure I never possessed when I was their age. As I take on more leadership responsibilities, I turn to these strong women for guidance. While their types are greatly underrepresented on screen, they are my role models.

Good roles for women are still hard to come by in film and TV. They do exist, and I’ll be watching for more positive portrayals of female bosses so I can count them on more than one hand.

Annie Zhu is the founder of Terumah, a lifestyle site covering ethical fashion, green beauty, art and travel. Follow her personal blog at AnnieZhu.com.

Reader Discussion: 18 Comments

  1. Sasha Smith

    Keep calm.
    Working with people you can’t stand is, unfortunately, a fact of life. But, being calm in every situation and believing in Karma, will not make you do things you might regret doing after. your boss will never know how often you considered spitting in his coffee; instead, he’ll just know you as a respectful, diplomatic professional.

  2. Paulina Vintani

    I had no bitchy female boss, but I had a few bad experiences with men. As an example, my ex-boss was getting a lot of power so he felt better than everyone else. He was getting mad with that and most of the time he was a real jerk. Once we talked seriously about him and his life and I learned to know him, I saw that it was just power that changed him.

  3. Those films really annoy me. They seem so fake! NOBODY is that big of a jerk to the people around them. Right?!

  4. I don’t work in a traditional corporate industry, butttt my best girlfriend is always complaining about how she can’t get promoted, and I feel her pain. It is truly unfair that her less-competent male colleague was promoted above her when he gets less work done and is less smart. She’s too afraid to speak up about it because she really needs her job. Sad.

  5. Jenna

    My boss is a total B. Not because of some stereotype, but just because she is. Mind you, she’s not the CEO. Our CEO is male and he’s a complete jerk too LOL

  6. When I watch TV shows, videos and news featuring women boss, I can’t help but be in conflict — between what others are saying women today can do (that they can be successful in career equally with men) VS. how women are depicted in media.

    It’s disheartening because popular media focuses on limiting (or negative) aspects of women, including scrutiny of looks, how demeaning they can be to other women or how they’ll work hard (sexism?!) in order to rise to the top.

    *Sigh* We need more interesting and intelligently written articles like this!

  7. Lady Boss Stereotypes! They exist because of the fact that women were brought up to be “nice girls.” We are trained and encouraged to be pleasing (always). In contrast, boys are trained to stand out, they praised if they are competitive, combative and outspoken. Until adulthood, women are just expected to “fit in.”

    It’s high time that we break these! Empowering article, keep writing!

  8. Kudos, Annie Zhu! I agree to your points! It’s definitely long past due that Hollywood embrace a more progressive and positive portrayal of the strong and hard working female executive, as they’ve long done for our male counterparts.

    I can just conclude that media are afraid of women climbing up the corporate ladder, but why are they afraid or I should say, why are they insecure?!

    • Francis Woods

      I know right!!! They are afraid of us because WE can do better!!! Yes, we cry and show weakness (unlike men) but when we bounce back, we do it big time!!! That’s what we have and can do that media CAN’T show!!! Too bad!!!

  9. In my opinion, media plays a role (that’s their main reason for existence anyway — to influence). But the sad thing is people (or I should say MORE WOMEN) allow themselves to be labeled and not to think for themselves, they allow “indirectly” permit name calling. Media intimidates and offend, but why are we allowing it? I appreciate you writing such empowering article, it’s an eye opener and might be a good start of something positive!

    For me, there’s a difference between a “power struggle” and speaking and doing what’s right and what you have to do.

  10. Jessika Hag

    Women don’t get much encouragement, and empowerment, as on the other hand, a lot of men think that they deserve that role because they are well, men. In a lot of cases, men are driven by their ingrained attitude of being the superior sex which justifies their behavior (which is mentioned in the article) toward women. But it’s not just that. Insults, unspoken assumptions or unconscious biases toward women are present in the workspace which is holding them back. Nevertheless, I believe that women will sooner or later get the recognition that they deserve !!!

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