The ‘Working Woman’ trope


I want to begin this article off by disclosing the fact that I have seen The Devil Wears Prada upwards of thirty times and loved every watch. To be completely honest, even my most recent watches did not reveal to me the movie’s problematic aspects, even though I consider myself to be a more progressive and (at least a little) more educated person than when I saw the movie for the first time. But I think that exact ignorance illustrates the point of this article most obviously. The element of a problematic trope which slips away from the obvious is that which is most dangerous. It seeps into the audience’s thinking and unconsciously influences us. It leaves the consumer with an impression that controls their actions and perceptions without making them aware that they are being controlled at all. The working woman trope works, mostly, like this: a woman has a job to which she is fully dedicated. She puts all her effort into it with hopes of succeeding in her field. She neglects other parts of her life- maybe a boyfriend, husband (almost always heteronormative), or kids. Her conflict arises from that neglect. She learns her lesson when she realizes that her career alone cannot fulfill her like a family could. Here are (just a few) examples of films where this trope is used.


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will celebrate the 50th anniversary of ÒImitation of LifeÓ with the screening of a recently struck print of the film on Friday, August 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.  Hosted by film critic Stephen Farber, the evening will feature an onstage discussion with Oscar¨-nominated actresses Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore, conducted by KohnerÕs sons, filmmakers Paul and Chris Weitz.  The print, which is part of the Academy Film Archive collection, was made from the Universal Pictures restoration. Pictured:  Karen Dicker, Juanita Moore, Terry Burnham, and Lana Turner in a scene from IMITATION OF LIFE, 1959.

An Imitation of Life (1959) Deemed to be a progressive narrative at the time of its release, An Imitation of Life follows “self-made woman” and single mother Lora Meredith. As she rises to fame on Broadway, she continually neglects her womanly responsibilities at home. Her career dedication is demonized, pushing her to quit her acting career and return home to take care of her now high-school-age child, who illustrates the audience’s disapproval by holding her mother’s absence in her life against her. As an audience, you are are pushed to see Lora as selfish and neglectful. This film presents one of the earliest instances of the working woman trope, its devaluation of the female professional hidden under the guise of false progression.


The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is a special case of the “working woman” trope because it features two working women with different approaches to the dynamic of their lives and careers. Nevertheless, the movie does possess some of the negative aspects that accompany the trope. Miranda Priestly, without a doubt, enters the movie as the absolute villain. As the seemingly soulless editor-in-chief of Runway magazine, she treats all people around her with undeniable cruelty. When journalist-turned-assistant Andy Sachs strives to further her career by taking a job working for Miranda, she is at first repulsed by Miranda’s demeanor but later grows to appreciate it. The entire plot is built upon Andy’s evolving (or devolving) into Miranda, assuming the harsh traits she learns to need in order to “make it” in the business. Scattered throughout the movie, the audience gets subtle glimpses into Miranda’s life, and it is portrayed as highly undesirable. We see her daughters who are bratty and conniving, no doubt due to the neglect of their mother, and, in a climactic moment, we see Miranda mourning the loss of “another husband” gone, presumably because of her cold and heartless demeanor. As female audience members, why would we ever want to be Miranda? Being a woman who is good at her job is equated with unfeminine iciness, a definite disincentive to mimicking her actions.


The Proposal (2009) tells the story of high-strung executive editor-in-chief Margaret Tate in conflict when she bribes her assistant, Andrew, to marry her so she doesn’t get sent back to Canada due to a visa mishap. Andrew is another figure of contrast, mellow and even-tempered, used to conciliate Margaret by showing her how, basically, love is more important than your career. She learns to be more traditionally feminine from Andrew’s Alaskan family, eventually adjusting to embrace womanly traits as opposed to the masculine ones she had adopted to succeed in her field of work.


Leap Year (2010) follows the story of real estate professional Anna Brady as she journeys to propose to her boyfriend on leap day. Ignoring the obvious problematic aspect of a woman only feeling empowered or comfortable enough to propose to a man on one day every four years, the movie also juxtaposes Anna’s uptight manner with that of easygoing Declan, a man she meets in Ireland. Throughout the movie, she learns to relax, to not be so bossy, and to just let go of the mannish behavior she exhibits in favor of adopting a more stereotypically feminine calm. Even eventually leaving her business professional almost fiance in order to be with down-to-earth, non-professional Declan, the movie teaches that a woman who assumes masculine traits to succeed in her job will ultimately be unhappy until she curbs to her “instinctual” femininity.


When watching these films, the audience is led to disapprove of the woman’s traits while she is career oriented. She is cold, insensitive, heartless (A.K.A. everything a male boss is known to be). By placing the female character under the rule of this binary conditional- that if you are a working woman, you will be seen as an unlikable, detached person, the idea that a woman belongs as a mother or wife naturally is perpetuated. This is a prescribed ideal infiltrates reality through the perception of real women. A woman who does not want kids is seen as pitiable. A woman who prioritizes her career over her love life is seen as tragically misguided. In a substantial way, it is because of the movies that permeate these ideas that they ceaselessly exist in our modern era.

by Olivia Kelliher

oliviaOlivia is an 18 year old from the US, originally from Chicago but currently attending film school in Boston with hopes of becoming a screenwriter. One day, she hopes she will write a film so insightful that her parents will think maybe letting her live a thousand miles away from them as a teenager was worth it. She likes movies with lots of words or at least a few words that mean something. Whip it, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Beginners, and A League of Their Own are some of her favorites.

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