Prepping for a Woman President: 7 Films, 7 Lessons

Hillary Clinton may very well make history this November, becoming the first woman elected to the office of President of the United States. It certainly hasn’t been easy sailing, but pollsters say the nation is ready for a female commander-in-chief. This begs the question: “How and why did that culture shift happen?”

Since movies help to both reflect and shape of our culture, I thought it would be interesting to revisit seven feature films and the things they taught us about women leaders and bosses over the years. Warning: Some spoilers are included!

1. Mildred Pierce (1945)

Widely recognized as being ahead of its time, the film’s central character (Mildred Pierce) is a divorced single mother. She faces her fair share of professional and personal challenges. One of them stands out from all the rest. As her business grows, her daughter also grows into a legendary big screen villain.

There is a reason this movie has become a Mother’s Day staple. It demonstrates the depths of a mother’s love and sacrifice for her child — and how despite your best efforts as a parent, your kid could still turn out rotten. Mildred Pierce taught us that successful women leaders and bosses can still be good mothers, able to balance huge career ambitions with quality parenting.

2. Norma Rae (1979)

Saying a movie stars Sally Field has basically become shorthand for saying it’s good. Field’s Norma Rae is a southern union leader. She is a young woman who seems to own her sexuality while making relationship mistakes that often define one’s twenties. Partnering with Reuben, a more formally educated advocate from the north, she emerges as a dedicated leader. Norma Rae puts her job and family’s well-being on the line for the cause.

Aware of how Hollywood inserts romantic storylines into just about everything, audiences likely anticipate that the relationship between Norma Rae and Reuben will turn into a love match. It doesn’t. Norma Raetaught us that women can be focused, mission driven leaders — you can’t assume that boys will distract us.

3. Working Girl (1988)

Melanie Griffith spends an unexpectedly large amount of time in her underwear in this film so squarely focused on women in the workplace. Her character, Tess McGill, is doing her best to work her way up the corporate ladder. Getting in her way are constant encounters with sexual harassment, sexism, and elitism. Even being assigned to her first woman boss, played by Sigourney Weaver, isn’t an answer to her problems. So Tess gets bold, taking some significant risks in order to achieve her dreams.

Working Girl taught us that other women can thwart our ambitions every bit as much as a sexist man . . . and other women can also be our greatest supporters. The film closes with a group of secretaries, Tess’ former coworkers, being overjoyed and cheering out loud for her major career success.

4. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Meryl Streep received on of her many Academy Award nominations for playing this boss from hell. Miranda Priestly terrorizes her staff with unreasonable demands and a spectacular ability to withhold all forms of appreciation and praise. When the young Andy Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway) accepts an entry-level position at Miranda’s fashion magazine, many laughs and feelings of disbelief follow.

Aside from pointing out that some women leaders can be mean, The Devil Wears Prada taught us something far more important. Those working in spaces associated with femininity are often dismissed or taken less seriously. Even Andy shares a similar attitude at the beginning of the film. As the story evolves, it becomes abundantly clear that audiences should respect the hard work, determination, and talent required to be a leader of “women’s work”.

5. Joy (2015)

Joy Mangano’s invention of a self-wringing mop was a seed that grew into a QVC phenomenon and multi-product empire. Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence portrays the businesswoman in this light comedy. As a child, Joy had dreamed of the life she would eventually create. She overcomes numerous barriers on the road to success — many of them erected by members of her own family. Joy’s persistence and determination eventually wins the day.

Joy taught us that some women are born to be visionary leaders. Some will succeed no matter what. Yet they probably could still benefit from supports and programming designed to help them avoid common pitfalls experienced by many leaders and entrepreneurs.

6. The Intern (2015)

This film did not receive as much critical acclaim as some of the others on this list but it still had some interesting things to say about women leaders. Another Anne Hathaway vehicle, her central character (Jules) is the founder of an extraordinarily successful start-up. The company decides to start an intern program for retirees — enter Ben played by the legendary Robert Dinero. He eventually becomes a trusted employee and cheerleader.

Jules faces pressure to step down as the leader of her own business. She also experiences a marital crisis.The Intern teaches us that women leaders shouldn’t be afraid to have faults or experience struggles. While working through their issues, they can still be good at what they do. Daily perfection is not possible people — even if you’re a member of a historically underestimated group and feeling the pressure to be twice (or ten times) as good as male competitors.

7. The Long Walk Home (1990)

This film stars heavy-hitters Whoppi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek in a story about the 1960s Montgomery bus boycott. In depicting this substantial milestone in the struggle for black America’s civil rights, the filmmakers seemed to go out of their way to avoid common criticisms. The story wasn’t centered on a white protagonist but on the inter-personal relationships between white and black people that helped to define the era. And the focus wasn’t placed on a singular charismatic leader, but on one of the many unknown women who refused to ride the buses. They were the lifeblood of the boycott.

There was a nod to the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and other male preachers but not to any of the black women leaders who were involved in the boycott. Black women leaders were responsible for starting the boycott and some of the later organizing.

Ultimately, The Long Walk Home and so many films, teach us that the contributions of women leaders (and especially women of color) still too often go unseen and unacknowledged. Although there have been some strong representations in film, those representations have been few and far between. Have they, in some small way, been helping to prepare the nation for the momentous real-world event that could occur in November? Possibly.

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