Women

Dispelling the Bitchy Boss Trope in Pop Culture

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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.

12 Comments

  1. 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!

  2. 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!

  3. 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!!!

  4. 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.

  5. 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 !!!

  6. Naincy Winget

    I have had bad bosses of both genders and also good bosses. Now I am older and wiser I am also able to nip any signs of negative behaviour in the bud. However, I do always look at my own behaviour, to make sure I am not contributing negative myself. Some people are so quick to assume that a female boss will be dreadful that I wonder if they give them a fair chance.

  7. I wish media would be able to portray positive traits of female leaders as well. I’m not against of these “bitchy bosses” on film or TV because they do exist, but I wish media highlight positive more than the negative.

    A dislike of ‘female bosses’ from some people may perhaps partially be caused by an experience of some women in charge having an inferiority complex which makes them more aggressive. I’ve experienced it before, and it’s unhelpful.

    But personal experience taught me that there are many excellent women bosses: firm, clear, good leaders and good with people.

  8. If you’ll ask people from media, they would claim that what they show are based from “real experiences.” But if I’m going to say a word, “women are just as good bosses as men.” So yeah, bitchy boss should be “dispelled” from pop culture!

  9. Well, media plays a huge role and it’s disheartening that women leaders are portrayed negatively. I’m an aspiring leader, I’m organized but frank and I know these qualities are taken against me. But I don’t care as long as important projects are accomplished, they can say all they want.

    If you’re to ask me, I prefer competence and gender is irrelevant. A good leader, regardless of gender should understand, advise and take full control when problems arise.

  10. I think as women go up the corporate ladder, men’s ego are insulted and this situation has created a need for the media to downplay the intelligence and true talents of strong women and to fall back on the sensationalism of catfights and the jiggly butts and fake eyelashes of the “Barbie Dolls” who permeate the airwaves and Internet websites.

    Thanks for writing this, powerful indeed!

  11. Reading this article reminded me of the best boss I had… and she’s a woman! I consider her the best boss because she cares about ALL her employees, she offers guidance when needed, she gets out of her way to help, inspires and empowers employees. Yeah, she empowered me, that’s why I myself is a female boss now. And I’m sure, I would be like her — an inspiration to colleagues someday.

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