“You can’t have your cake and eat it too” seems to be the mantra for Hollywood’s directors and producers depicting professional women on the big screen. I was raised in a single-parent household. My mother emphasized the importance of academic achievements, career mindfulness and being financially independent. I was never told women would eventually have to choose between romantic relationships or a career; that success would bring inevitable emotional despair. I wholeheartedly believe women can achieve professional success while maintaining a healthy balance between their profession and their private lives, but apparently, Hollywood doesn’t agree. In movies, success comes at a price, often, of a personal nature.
When a successful career woman is depicted on screen, she’s usually a miserable bore, with too much book sense and not enough common sense. She’s humorless, feared by her subordinates and disliked by her co-workers. She’s most likely “too busy” to date, probably has never been married, or has gotten divorced, and doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body. She dresses in muted colors, hairstyle is immaculate, rocks dangerously high heels and a cellphone is permanently glued to her hand. Her work is her life, her private life takes a back seat or is altogether non-existent. I used to believe that all exposure was good exposure. In cases like these, depictions of professional female characters on screen do more harm than good. 1) It strengthens the stereotype that women are not successful leaders. 2) It reinforces the belief that being true to yourself, and taking pride in your accomplishments is not enough to secure a romantic partner. 3) You MUST secure a partner!
I decided to explore 3 movies depicting professional women. “The Proposal”, “Jurassic World”, and “Ghostbusters” (2016). To explore these representations further, I set out to answer a few questions; What do these representations have in common? How are the different? Who oversaw these creative decisions? Last but not least, does the target audience influence representations? I will also be including whether these movies passed the Bechdel Test, which is a way of evaluating whether a film or other work of fiction portrays women in a way that is sexist or characterized by gender stereotyping. To pass the Bechdel test a work must feature at least two women, these women must talk to each other, and their conversation must concern something other than a man. 
Let’s run through the movies’ sequence of events. Warning, spoilers ahead.
Margaret [Sandra Bullock] is a publishing executive. She dresses sharp; dark colors, pencil skirts, ponytail, 6’ heels. She’s great at her job, and multiple characters allude to her best in the business. She’s in her early 40’s, not married, no children, and no family. Even though she’s successful in her career, her co-workers seem to be terrified of her. She has a reputation of being ruthless and humorless. She fires a subordinate when he fails to meet her standards. Irate, he calls her a “bitch”, but she seems unfazed and embarrasses him with her response. Margaret is consumed by her work, so much that she forgets to make it to her immigration appointments, which results in her visa expiring. She bribes her assistant to marry her to stay in the country.
Andrew [Ryan Reynolds] is her condemned assistant. He is younger, good looking, funny, and quick witted. They travel to Alaska to attend a family reunion, and inform them of the upcoming nuptials. His family welcomes her and suggest they have the wedding there. She beings to bond with him and his family, and her demeanor changes. She loses her heels, and her cell phone, wears jeans and a sweater. She realizes that love is what she has been missing from her life. Margaret falls for her assistant, and decides to let him off the hook. He falls for the “new” version of her, and they end up together.
Power suit/Heels? Check. Humorless/stiff? Check. Single/no kids? Check.
Margaret is a career driven, strong character, but instead of being respected, much like she would be if her character was male, she’s feared. Everyone around her walks on eggshells, because apparently, you can’t be the Boss without being another B word too. The movie highlights how her cold and calculating demeanor has served her well career-wise, but puts off prospective partners. The movie makes the assertion that a woman’s life is not complete without a romantic interest, and she’s responsible for changing to a more approachable version of herself in order to attract a mate. She only becomes attractive after her character is softened.
-The Proposal did not pass the Bechdel test.-
Claire [Bryce Dallas Howard] is the operation’s manager for Jurassic World, a resort that offers tours and shows of cloned dinosaurs. She’s very successful and very busy, we know this because she’s always on her phone. She’s dressed in a muted color suit, her hair and makeup are immaculate, and she wears really high heels, even when being chased by dinosaurs. Just like Margaret, her work keeps her so busy that has forgotten her nephews were visiting her that day. Claire quickly hands them off to her assistant when they arrive, setting the stage to showcase she’s not maternal. She’s awkward around her nephews, yet there’s a scene where she looks at a baby longingly. Claire is tasked to recruit Owen [Chris Pratt], current Raptor trainer, to evaluate the paddock of the park’s new hybrid dinosaur.
Her co-star is charming, smart and witty. He lives “off the grid”, rides a motorcycle, and makes it clear that her serious personality is the reason why he didn’t ask her on a second date. The new hybrid dinosaur escapes his enclosure, and Owen is tasked by the park’s owner to find it. Claire follows Owen to find her nephews. From this point on, all decisions regarding their safety and plan are made by Owen. Even though she’s criticized for being too smart, they often rely on his training skills, not her intellect, to make the right decisions.
Power suit/Heels? Check. Humorless/stiff? Check. Single/no kids? Check.
Claire is a smart and independent character, yet she’s soon reduced to following her co-star’s lead. The humorless/stiff personality angle is relied upon tirelessly. In one scene, the nephews blatantly state that they’d prefer to go along with Owen instead of her. Nevertheless, they rescue her nephews, evacuate the island, and fall in love. All in a day’s work.
-Jurassic World did not pass the Bechdel Test.-
Physicists Abbigail Yates [Melissa McCarthy] and Erin Gilbert [Kristen Wiig], alongside mechanical engineer Jillian Boltzmann [Kate McKinnon], and MTA worker Patty Tolan [Leslie Jones] attempt to rid NY of a ghost infestation. Erin tries to convince Abby to stop selling their book online, a book written years earlier where they both express their beliefs in ghosts. Having since moved on from researching the paranormal, and expected to receive tenure at Columbia, Erin promises to introduce Abby and Jillian to a potential client if the book is removed from circulation. After experiencing a paranormal apparition, (and being fired from their respective teaching jobs), they decide to pursue their passion, and find some ghosts! After witnessing an apparition, Patty joins the team offering her expertise in NY history. They form the Ghostbusters, and eventually save the city from impending doom.
The four female leads are dressed conservatively, yet their wardrobe is fun and eclectic. Throughout the movie, constant references are made addressing their intellect, degrees, career goals, areas of expertise and current individual projects they’re working on. Their accomplishments are not a source of shame or ridicule, and they do not obtrude their social life or relationships, it actually bonds them to one another. The only reference to a love connection made is between Erin and the office’s assistant, but it’s mostly platonic and it does not affect the plot of the movie.
Power suit/Heels? Negative. Humorless/stiff? Negative. Single/no kids? Not mentioned.
The women in this film do not dilute their personalities, or downplay their accomplishments in order to fit a set standard, or to gain others’ approval. They work together and achieve career success, along with government funding to continue their studies/experiments.
-Ghostbusters passed the Bechdel Test.-
What do these representations have in common and how are they different?
In The Proposal and Jurassic Park, both female leads are depicted almost identically. They dress similarly, they’re “stiff” workaholics, aloof and detached from those around them. Their personalities are constantly mocked due to their perceived rigidness. Finally, they are only found attractive by their romantic interest after becoming vulnerable and adjusting their behavior. The most interesting contrast I noticed was the consequences of dedicating themselves to their careers. In Ghostbusters, it gave the main characters a purpose, and ultimately facilitated success and friendship. In the other two, it hindered their ability to empathize with others. Their accomplishments were diminished by the constant reminders that they were not amiable, funny or maternal enough.
Who dictated these creative decisions?
Before embarking in this journey, I had a sneaky suspicion that the reason why I disagreed with the way professional, strong women are represented in the media, is because the people producing these images are mostly men. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, generates several large annual studies documenting women’s representation and portrayals, as well as substantial investigations of the business environment surrounding women in film and television. Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is the researcher behind It’s a Man’s Celluloid World (2016) and The Celluloid Ceiling, an ongoing study tracking women’s employment on top grossing films for the last 19 years. 
Of the top 250 films in 2016:
92% had no women directors
77% had no women writers
58% had no women exec. producers
34% had no women producers
79% had no women editors
96% had no women cinematographers
Male characters were more likely than female characters to have work-related goals (75% vs. 54%). Female characters were more likely than males to have goals related to their personal lives (46% vs. 25%).
The Proposal was directed by Anne Fletcher (who also directed The Devil Wears Prada & 27 Dresses) and produced by Todd Lieberman & David Hoberman. Jurassic World was directed by Colin Trevorrow and produced by Frank Marshall & Patrick Crowley. Ghostbusters was directed by Paul Feig and produced by Amy Pascal & Ivan Reitman. Even though lack of representation is an obvious and serious problem in the film industry, behind the scenes personnel is not a definitive variable for predicting accurate depictions.
Does the target audience influence representations?
Unfortunately, MPAA movie ratings (PG, PG-13, R, etc.) do not come with an appendix explaining target audiences. In my experience, romantic comedies are targeted towards middle aged women, action films toward young-middle age men, and regular comedies have a broader range for an audience. The representations in our first two movies are similar, probably marketed for middle age women and young/middle age men, tying the two is the love connection between the characters. Ghostbusters could also be directed toward middle age women due to the all-women cast, however a younger female audience is probably equally targeted. Overall, target audience is not a definitive variable for predicting accurate depictions.
A woman’s professional success will be experienced differently based on a multitude of variables; age, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation are just a few among many others. While in the military, I had the honor of serving side by side with assertive and inspiring female leaders; women who worked tirelessly to serve their country, as fiercely and with as much dedication as they offered their own families. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. Needless to say, I find any notion that limits women’s capabilities down to their reproductive capacities not only insulting, but simply ridiculous.
Even though film/TV may never truly encompass the wide range of possibilities, two steps can be taken to change the way successful career women are depicted by Hollywood. 1) The audience should demand accurate and respectful representations. We could start by redefining the definition of success, which is almost always represented by women in “executive” positions, and completely unrelated to career fulfillment.
2) More women behind the scenes. Women must be able to express and reproduce their own experiences; professional single women, wives and mothers, happy or unhappy, the good, the great, the bad and the ugly. Depicting a more realistic approach to balancing work and their social lives will undoubtedly empower audiences, highlighting the fact that it doesn’t have to be “either or”. You truly can have your cake and eat it too!
Week 2. In an essay describing how Muslim women are represented in the media, Diane Watt asserted that “the meaning of an image is not inherent on the image, but is a process of exchange between image and viewer. Beliefs inform interpretation.” I found that to be such a powerful and true statement. If images aid beliefs, and beliefs inform interpretations, then representations matter! It brought home the point that not every representation we see is accurate, and it’s our duty to not be persuaded without doing our research.
Week 6. The article “News: Balance Bias with Critical Questions” was a fantastic read. The writer not only highlights that every reporter (at times influenced by their company) bring his or her own bias into writing, but it also provided a list of concrete questions to help determine whether we are getting the whole story. I will be using these strategies to further dissect news stories I come across in my daily life.
 The Bechdel Test Movie List. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://bechdeltest.com
 Lauzen, M. M., PhD. (2017). The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2016. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2016_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report.pdf
 Lauzen, M. M., PhD. (2017). It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2016. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2016-Its-a-Mans-Celluloid-World-Report.pdf