7. Women in power

How does the lack of realistic female representation on screen contribute to the social and cultural response to women in power?

Females in leadership roles

A recent analysis of the ASX200, the 200 largest companies in Australia, showed that only twelve are run by women (Sydney Morning Herald, 2015). The representation of women on screen and the normalising of men in power, with women and minorities rarely trusted and respected in positions of power, is a reflection of the societal pressures which restrict women from holding such positions. Female characters who display leadership on screen are presented as a ‘novelty’ and ‘breaking new ground’, whereas the idea of a lead male character is rarely seen as a new practice in media, it is assumed that leaders are men. Women in politics have long been scrutinised for everything but their intelligence and ability to do the job. Lunenborg & Maier (2005) found that in the media, women politicians either identify or challenge gendered representations in news coverage. To the audience, women can only be relate-able or not, “Women are seen as one thing or its opposite. Shades of grey, it seems, are reserved for men” (Caro, 2013 pg. 23). Men are more favoured in positions of leadership; “…the media coverage of male politicians remains the normalised default position, while the coverage of women politicians was analys ed as exceptional and unusual” (Lunenborg & Maier, 2015, pg. 182). Only recently have women have been trusted and encouraged to leave the nest of domesticity, trusted that they may add value to society in some way, always competing for likeability; “Women, unlike men, face trade-offs between competence/success and likeability in traditionally male roles” (Ely et al, 2010, pg. 379). Audiences in Hollywood are presented with women on screen as a gender minority, in a society that rewards patriarchal behaviour and status. Hollywood has normalised characters on screen to form real life expectations about a woman’s role in the public sphere, at home and in society. Hollywood norms have created a social response to women in power.


Real life leader

American politician Hilary Clinton has held many prestige titles; Secretary of State, New York Senator and First Lady of the United States, and currently holds a nomination to lead the Democratic party in the 2016 American election. She may very well become the first female American President. Discourse about Clinton always comes back to one thing: her gender. “The public nature of Hilary’s activities makes her a focal point for thinking and talking about gender norms…and which norms will prevail” (Templin, 1999, pg. 21). Visual culture has normalised ideologies about gender, sexuality, race and family (Green, 1998) and her role as First Lady was well received as this met the norms of family and females in the public sphere. The nuclear family is seen as the traditional norm on screen, creating expectations of women in the media and real life. Conservative audiences see women as the mother figure role in domestic arrangements, and assume this will result in a harmonious home, with everything in place. Females in positions of power challenge the normalisation of “the family” and these values. Her career and the important roles that Clinton has held so far should see her more than capable to qualify for a leadership position,…“traditional gender expectations and practices .. shape people’s experiences even after they reach the top” (Ely & Rhode, 2010, pg.378). Clinton continues to be challenged and required to show that she has earned the right to nominate to run for President, opposed to her male counterparts. “According to Schwartzenberg (1977) the only feminine model of celebrity available to women in politics would be that of the mother, tying into myths of femininity as nurturing and caring (Van Zoonen 2006, pg. 292)”. By assuming anything other than the nurturing role, women are opening themselves to criticism on everything besides their ability to make policy, and add social value.


On screen leader

American actress Sandra Bullock has portrayed many characters in her Hollywood career. Bullock is quite often typecast as an intelligent, unkempt, lonely single, who gets a makeover and learns to let a man into her life, which provides for her happiness and success. This ‘character’ features in Miss Congeniality, (2000), Two Weeks Notice (2002), Miss Congeniality 2 (2005), and The Heat (2013). Additionally in The Proposal (2009) Bullock plays a woman in a powerful position at work; as a female boss this character isn’t likeable. There is a redemption act near the ending where the character sees her bad behaviour and changes to become more likeable. She is intelligent and powerful, therefore incapable of displaying any human emotion; she can not be anything else. Media psychologist Dr Pamela Rutledge (The Telegraph, 2015) says “Research shows that women who demonstrate ‘aggressive’ and competent social behaviours (speaking up first, making demands, etc.) are judged by different standards of behaviour than men are.”

The Proposal, 2009


In Two Weeks Notice the male lead, played by Hugh Grant, sleeps with all of his female employees; he can’t keep a lawyer on the payroll because he sleeps with them all. As Bullock’s character is intelligent and appears unattractive to him, he can hire her as he wont be ‘tempted’ to ruin their working relationship. While she works around the clock to serve him in her job, he makes times to have love interests outside of work and hobbies. The female can only be one thing, yet the male can be many. When Bullock asks Grant to help her after men keep leaving her, he suggests she can be sometimes be intimidating; “You could loosen up a little, get in touch with your feminine side, soften your appearance, not that I don’t like it, and get dolled up a bit”. In the redemption scene she states “I know I can be harsh and demanding”. Grant plays a womaniser with political morals that don’t match hers, yet in this final scene she makes the gesture and he remains the same “I want to change, because I believe people can change, and I can meet you half way” she tells him, and they live happily ever after. Director Nancy Meyers said recently that “There aren’t enough movies that show working women who are content at their job, good at their job and good bosses. If I see one more movie where a woman is a horrible boss who is hated by her employees …” (The Guardian, 2015) as a response to her latest Hollywood film The Intern (2015). All the mentioned films starring Bullock were all directed by males.


Two Weeks Notice, 2002



Leaders in public

To be in the public arena means notoriety, lack of anonymity and the application of celebrity or fame, that conjures up different meanings according to gender “…fame and celebrity tend to exclude women from the political field, albeit in different ways” (Van Zoonen, 2006). Women are more likely to fall into the celebrity category as it relates to mass media, i.e. Kim Kardashian. Fame is more about a certain achievement, say Richard Branson. “Celebrity’…confines female politicians to notions of femininity which are not easily transposed to the political field” fuelling brash responses from mass media and audiences; “‘fame’ is a quality that is difficult for women to obtain because of their historical exclusion from the public sphere” (Van Zoonen, 2006). Enter female leaders. Often subject to scrutiny regarding their appearance and decision making skills, expectations regarding power and politics differ between men and women; “Charming leadership – a definite style for male politicians based on an understanding of politics as the art of seduction – is no option for women because of the sexual connotations” (Van Zoonen 2006, pg. 292). The glamorous celebrity with an unattainable physical image looks good for her audience and that’s about it. The female leader crushes this version of celebrity, and is often not well received. “The assertive, authoritative, and dominant behaviours that people link with leadership tend not to be viewed as typical or attractive in women..” (Ely & Rhode, 2010, pg.378). The female celebrity is better off endorsing products.


Women as leaders – how can we encourage this?

The appointment of Clinton can help women to see themselves as leaders, and will help mould the cultural view that women can be in charge “…others may view her leadership through a cultural lens distorted by gender bias, so too many women have difficulty developing a viable view of herself as a leader” (Ely & Rhode, 2010, pg. 379). As First Lady, Clinton did not keep quiet, she used her role as a platform to bring issues like womens’ rights to the fore. Western cultures need women in charge; “Historically and currently, feminists have hailed women in such positions of political leadership as potential agents of change, likely to produce new attention for women’s issues in international and national politics…” (e.g. Kruks, 2001 – ins Van Zoonen 2006). With women struggling to see themselves as leaders, Clinton is a beacon for feminism and defies expectations of the nurturing mother type, which she doesn’t need to be to be effective. Seeing women on screen in realistic power roles can contribute to women knowing that they can meet these expectations, and encourage more women to take up leadership positions in the public sphere.