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Why the Bad Female Leader Is Everywhere Onscreen

In recent years, TV and movies have focused a lot on the figure of the failed or bad female ruler. From making Daenerys the ultimate villain of Game of Thrones to centering dramatizations of real-life cautionary tales like Elizabeth Holmes, popular stories tend to paint women leaders as either too idealistic and emotional; ruthless, conniving Lady Macbeth types; or self-serving, hypocritical Girlbosses who tout their gender as a reason to trust them but turn out to be corrupt frauds. Historically, women have had less opportunity to take power, but when given the chance, they’ve proved just as effective as men, and some more so. So why is Hollywood so against women being in charge?

TRANSCRIPT

Why is Hollywood so against women being in charge? In recent years, TV and movies have focused a lot on the figure of the failed or bad female ruler. From making Daenerys the ultimate villain of Game of Thrones to centering dramatizations of real-life cautionary tales like Elizabeth Holmes, popular stories tend to paint women leaders as either too idealistic and emotional; ruthless, conniving Lady Macbeth types; or self-serving, hypocritical Girlbosses who tout their gender as a reason to trust them but turn out to be corrupt frauds.

Interviewer: “Do you hold yourself responsible? For not having critical oversight?”

Elizabeth Holmes: “I’m, I’m a better leader now and like I said it’s devastating.” - The Dropout 1x08

All this is in contrast to plentiful examples of real women, past and present, who have excelled as level-headed, intelligent, and inspirational leaders. Historically, women have had less opportunity to take power, but when given the chance, they’ve proved just as effective as men, and some more so. Here’s our take on the overrepresented trope of the dangerous female leader, and what we really see happen when women take the reins.

“Typical” Women Ruling Badly

Fictional female leaders get painted with the common misogynistic stereotypes that plague all women.

Selina Meyer: “I can tell you’re very emotional, because I’m very emotional too—about this issue.” - Veep 6x02

Women in power are depicted as driven by emotions that make them unreliable, if not crazy. Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones initially presents as a strong-willed, self-possessed, and effective ruler who hopes to break the wheel of Westeros’ oppressive government, but by the end of the series, her urge for revenge turns her into an unstable tyrant who senselessly burns down an entire city in a fit of sudden rage.

Other fictional female rulers lean into a different stereotype: of power-seeking women as being unnaturally cold and conniving. This characterization has its most iconic roots in Lady Macbeth, a woman who manipulates her husband into committing murder.

Lady Macbeth: “When you durst do it, then you were a man.” - The Tragedy of Macbeth

One of the core takeaways in stories about this type of character is that, by being so ruthless and ambitious, she’s trying to detach from her very womanhood. The long shadow of Lady Macbeth strongly informs Daenerys’ primary foil throughout Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister. We start the series with glimpses of how Cersei is trapped in her marriage to King Robert, which she eventually manages to maneuver her way out of by getting him fatally wounded in a hunting accident. Through years of machinations, she becomes queen in her own right. In some ways, Cersei is the best player of the Game of Thrones, but only because she has no morals holding her back– she’s willing to do absolutely anything for power, including mass murder.

House of Cards presents a similar character in Claire Underwood, who starts out the series ruthlessly ambitious and cold as ice, and only becomes more Machiavellian and power-hungry as time goes on.

Claire Underwood: “Presidents aren’t allowed to be human. You have to choose: power or love.” - House of Cards 6x04

Female rulers are also often depicted as being hypocrites who use nice-sounding rhetoric to gain power, then prove to be even worse than the guys. Of course, there have been high-profile cases of “bad girlbosses” in the last decade who’ve made big promises and failed to live up to their own hype.

But our media and pop culture seems set on foregrounding and revisiting these examples, repeatedly unpacking exactly what was so bad about them. Sometimes, it’s that their dreams are too big and they have too much hubris to listen to the smart people around them or see their own limitations

Other times, this character is portrayed as just lacking in some basic moral feeling or decency. President Coin in The Hunger Games – like Daenerys – starts out acting like a capable, empathetic ruler, helping lead the resistance against President Snow and the institution of the Hunger Games.

President Coin: “Miss Everdeen. This revolution is about everyone. It’s about all of us. And we need a voice.” - Mockingjay Part 1

But once Snow is defeated, Coin plans yet another Hunger Games as a way to consolidate her own power, this time using the children of the vanquished rulers in order to enact revenge. She even stages a false flag operation by bombing and killing civilians.

There are structural reasons that female leaders may feel more pressure to compromise their ideals and harden themselves against a hostile work environment – but instead of thoughtful investigations of that, so much of the time we just get power-hungry female characters who are cartoonishly hypocritical and lacking moral boundaries or feelings: Rebecca Webb, the desperate CEO of a soulmate-finding company in the Netflix series The One, leaps pretty suddenly to killing one of her best friends when he threatens her business.

On Prison Break, Vice President Caroline Reynolds actually poisons the president in order to get what she wants.

Caroline Reynolds: “And you said I couldn’t get things done.”

Samantha Brinker: “Madam Vice President, perhaps we could get together and discuss how to move–”

Caroline Reynolds: “It is President, now, madam.” - Prison Break 1x22

The female ruler is held to an impossible standard – that she should be a mythically feminine caretaker who’s simultaneously free from emotion, unflappably logical but never cold, and always entirely authentic and selfless in helping other women no matter how difficult it is for her to rise up or maintain power in the first place. Clearly, this standard is built for women to fail it – and thereby reinforce our cultural expectation of the untrustworthy female leader.

The Big Bad Girl Boss

So why is all this negativity around the female ruler character happening now? In part, it’s a backlash stemming from the rise and fall of the 2010s “girlboss.” Named after Sophia Amoruso’s book and the TV show based on her life as the young CEO and founder of NastyGal, the girl boss phenomenon built on Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” to argue that women being individually successful is politically important. Sandberg and the movement did identify some pervasive stereotypes and obstacles facing women.

Sheryl Sandberg: “As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women. And as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked.”

But the promise of the girlboss was that, by simply occupying the same positions as men, women could make things better for the world. And unfortunately, whatever individual successes high-profile girlbosses achieved didn’t seem to change anything, structurally, besides putting a woman on top. Sandberg is leaving Meta, under scrutiny about whether she inappropriately used company resources to focus on building her own personal brand. Senator Kyrsten Sinema used girlboss energy to attract fun headlines about herself as a disrupter but she’s largely channeled that energy into obstructing agendas for change – like when she voted down a motion for a $15 minimum wage.

And a whole series of other women CEOs have faced public falls and been criticized for fostering toxic work environments, in sharp contrast to their promises of being better.

Zoe Schiffer: “CEO Steph Korey was going into Slack and, on public channels, really berating them when they made mistakes, asking them to work harder and longer.”

These failures aren’t necessarily rare outliers, either, but a feature of powerful women who try to follow the old-school playbook.

Still, pop culture has focused perhaps a bit too intently (and gleefully) on fallen girl bosses. And the stream of depictions and media attention end up replicating the same misogyny we were trying to overcome in the first place. Women working in Silicon Valley have commented that they face even more intense scrutiny now, finding themselves constantly compared to the specter of Elizabeth Holmes.

When done right, stories about flawed female leaders can hit on some important insights about why things go wrong. For example, because women are so often denied power, some may be willing to go further to hold onto it. Or some feel they need to become cruel, hard, or ruthless in order to overcome structural obstacles.

The Crown offers a three-dimensional exploration of how British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative, antifeminist stances were partially formed by complex factors like her class background and having to constantly watch her back with the male politicians around her

Margaret Thatcher: “The way those men patronize me, lecture me. Those squires and grandees. Upper-class bastards.” - The Crown 4x02

The Dropout illuminates how Holmes’ case is incredibly complicated—it’s clear that she did face sexism and at the same time was able to benefit from being a pretty young woman who could charm investors and board members. She was influenced by successful male examples into believing that selling a big idea before she had the science was just good business and (because people saw her as an inexperienced little girl) she felt she had to hide it when she was out of her depth. Yet while all of that’s true, none of it excuses the clear ethical transgressions she as an individual chose to engage in. And she also got ahead by buying into the whole pernicious girlboss myth that feminism is fundamentally about your own self-interest.

The Dropout cuts to the heart of that girlboss mythos in its first episode, when Elizabeth naively assumes that Phyllis Gardner, a female professor at Stanford, will be eager to help her just by virtue of their shared gender – but Gardner is one of the few people who sees from the start that Holmes is trying to skip ahead to major success before putting in the necessary time for study and research.

Elizabeth Holmes: “I just thought as a– as a woman, you–”

Phyllis Gardner: “Well as a woman, let me explain something to you. You don’t get to skip any steps. You have to do the work.” - The Dropout 1x01

Still, while everyone loves a good rise-and-fall story, why aren’t we collectively giving the same level of attention to the stories of the women who do get it done?

The Actually GOOD Female Leader - And the Accidental Female Ruler

This primarily negative focus on female leaders is especially frustrating because many of the major historical and contemporary examples of female rulers are in fact positive examples. And we can see this in plenty of stories about historical women leaders. Depictions of Queen Elizabeth II emphasize her being grounded and committed to her duty as the queen. The Crown shows many of the ways Elizabeth had to navigate double standards and higher expectations for women, but still managed to pull it off.

Queen Elizabeth II: “The trouble is, I have the sort of face that if I’m not smiling, then everyone says, ‘Oh, isn’t she cross?’” The Crown 1x08

Numerous films and shows spotlight how Queen Elizabeth I broke the mold as an exceptionally accomplished queen. Meanwhile, The Great offers a highly divergent, stylized version of Catherine the Great to paint an aspirational picture of an idealistic ruler who is passionate about wanting to rule well. The actual history of Catherine’s reign is complicated, and the show’s Catherine certainly isn’t perfect, either. She’s pulled between her personal idealism and the lures of pragmatism, cynicism, and revenge. But overall, The Great creates a version of Catherine who embodies the potential that women have to rule and usher in progress.

Many historical female rulers were royals who took power by virtue of their birth and rose to meet the moment, rather than campaigning to prove merit in advance. The fact that powerful and competent women have frequently gained their position by accident is reflected in fictional American presidents on TV shows like Commander in Chief, Quantico, and Madam Secretary, all of whom take the job when the male president is incapacitated or forced to resign.

Plenty of countries in Europe and around the world have elected women to their top jobs, yet we seem further than ever from seeing a woman take over the White House in America. .

Donald Trump: “Such a nasty woman.”

Many, if not most, fictional female presidents are loose analogues to Hillary Clinton because, for years, Clinton was the only female politician even imaginable as a potential president. And after Clinton’s 2016 electoral loss, many people seemed to decide the prospect of electing a female president was doomed.

So now, we’re in a post-Hillary, post-girlboss, post-Lean In moment. Where do we go from here? Part of the solution might be avoiding our instinct to lionize people who hold power simply because they might be a good example – and then setting up the inevitable disappointment when they don’t turn out to be a perfect savior of humankind.

There are clearly effective and competent female rulers, at least on the same level as male ones – but if we interrogate the nature of power itself, the truth is there might not be such a thing as a totally good ruler at all.

Claire Underwood: “My turn.” - House of Cards 5x13

Sources

Griffith, Erin. “They Still Live in the Shadow of Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes.” The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/08/24/technology/theranos-elizabeth-holmes.html.

Herman, Alison. “Karyn Kusama Is Glad You’re Into ‘Jennifer’s Body’ Now.” The Ringer, 17 Nov. 2021, www.theringer.com/tv/2021/11/17/22786290/yellowjackets-showtime-karyn-kusama-director-interview.

Lowry, Brian. “‘The One’ Ranks Second Among Dramas About Finding Love Through DNA.” CNN, 11 Mar. 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/03/11/entertainment/the-one-review/index.html.

Mull, Amanda. “The Girlboss Has Left the Building.” The Atlantic, 25 June 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/girlbosses-what-comes-next/613519/, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/06/girlbosses-what-comes-next/613519/.

Seetharaman, Deepa. “Meta Scrutinizing Sheryl Sandberg’s Use of Facebook Resources Over Several Years.” The Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2022, www.wsj.com/articles/meta-scrutinizing-sheryl-sandbergs-use-of-facebook-resources-over-several-years-11654882829.

St. James, Emily. “TV Has Been Readying Americans for a Hillary Clinton Presidency for a Decade.” Vox, 15 Apr. 2015, www.vox.com/2015/4/15/8418047/hillary-clinton-tv-president.

“14 Memorable Women Presidents From Movies and TV.” The Hollywood Reporter, 20 Feb. 2022, www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/women-presidents-hollywood-movies-tv-female-characters-representation-945297/.