Woman in a Power Suit: Critical Analysis

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You and I are just a tiny fraction of people all around the world that consume Hollywood media products, namely films on a daily basis. Such films seeking to persuade us to accept profound roles and help shape our ideas about social and cultural issues. These films are peppered with messages that reach audiences far and wide, with these exact messages contributing to the view of the world and the relation to society’s perception about women. Women have made great successes in all facets in life, but their depiction on screen has been fixed to stereotypes and normative ideologies that do not reflect reality. This in fact leads to the underlying trope of women in a power suit. The powerful women indicating their prowess through an equally powerful suit. However it is not the suit that gives a women power but it is the image it projects that she must not be messed with. To familiarize this trope, shows like The Good Wife, How to Get Away with Murder and Suits show the popularity that has been captured in the wide range of shows and films that speak to fictionalize the notion of the power suit. Like fish, we swim in a sea of continuous images that allow the media to use this trope as a means to shape the views and ideas of women on screen. Through the Hollywood motion lens, it can be seen that society has trouble accepting women in the workplace and the so called ‘power suit’ as it aims to purposely change women’s demeanor and attitudes, becoming ever so harmful and disempowering.

The power suit. A phrase that ignites a vision of shoulder pads and purposeful walking, with perhaps a clipboard in hand, sounding very masculine, yet may people called it the power of ‘female grace’. Karl Lagerfeld, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs…. These are a handful of the many successful men who’ve credited a small portion of their achievement to having a ‘work uniform’. Although society granted these men and other like-minded men with the easy choice of dressing plainly, it hasn’t always been so sympathetic to women in the workforce. An article released by The Guardian; Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed, speaks out about women who are judged and misinterpreted into a negative light through work colleagues’ assumptions on female appearance in the workplace. It is well known that a suit conveys authority and power in the workplace in overly assertive ways. However The Guardian suggests otherwise. “When a man wears a suit, he is simply adopting the standard uniform of a conventional authoritative masculinity, but when a women wears a suit it is described as “power dressing”, coded language used to accuse a woman of asserting herself in overly-ambitious ways.” How different is it for a male counterpart! He doesn’t need to power dress as they are simply perceived to be professionals and smartly dressed, already carrying the authority. Whereas women need to adopt the dress code of masculinity in order to be taken seriously, yet at the same time they are considered a try-hard. Through the implications, “dressing to be taken seriously” specifies the undermining perceptions of a woman’s intellectual and specialized skills. This is seen as an act of disempowerment as women throughout the modern day workplace are still frequently held to account on their appearance, overshadowing their role, expertise and experience.

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Women who display conventional male characteristics, for instance self-confidence and dominance may suffer from a ‘backlash effect’ thus they are then viewed negatively for not acting in a feminine manner. In The Proposal, the audience is presented with the trope through a woman adopting a masculine appearance in order to be successful. The motion picture, centres around New York editor, Margaret Tate, and her assistant, Andrew Paxton. Margaret is due to be deported back to Canada as a result of the expiration of her visa. She comes up with a solution of marrying her assistant in order to stay in the county and keep her job. Margaret is seen with the power heels and the power hair, slicked back to look more masculine and match her power suit. Yet, again, the woman boss is treated unsympathetically. [Insert video] Margaret is presented as cold, callous and her assistant sends an email describing her as “a witch on her broomstick” when all she is doing is a necessary, if unpleasant part of her role as a boss: firing an employee who is “lazy, incompetent and entitled”. This image of the female boss presented is a dangerous visualization: especially to impressionable young women at beginning their career in the workplace. It portrays women as the eternal losers. They can have either a successful career or successful personal relationships but not both. Yet the same trope is not presented of their male counterparts.

And what female boss trope would be complete without depicting cattiness? It is as if Hollywood cannot accept that women in positions of power could possibly work co-operatively with others. In the fast-paced world of New York fashion, Runway magazine is the ultimate prize, overseen by Miranda Priestly, (Meryl Streep), the most powerful woman in fashion. To make Runway the fashion icon for New York and therefore the globe, Miranda has let nothing stand in her way, creating a job no self-respecting person could survive. Yet it’s an opportunity a million young women in New York would kill for. Miranda’s newest assistant Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) a recent college graduate stands among the clackers, the small army of staff at runway, super slim fashion divas clacking their stilettos down the halls of the headquarters. Miranda has a devil of a time finding and keeping a good assistant. The harsh female executive is this time clad in a Prada power suit. Yet she has nonetheless been as carefully molded by the media. She is portrayed as an insatiably demanding woman who refuses to change her demeanor to make other people comfortable. This point is driven home over and over again as Miranda slams down her coat and handbag whilst demanding errands are done. (Coat & handbag multi-fling video muted). The moral tale presented by Hollywood is clear: beware the female boss if you are a female employee. She will be unappreciative and uncaring. And especially beware you do not emulate the successful female boss for this will lead to you being too independent and being punished (Faludi, 1993) with “another divorce splashed all over the papers” and being labelled “The Snow Queen; the Dragon Lady’”. It is also seen, Andy complains to her co-worker Nigel of Miranda that “if I do something right it is unacknowledged. She doesn’t even say thank-you but if I do something wrong she is vicious”. Presenting the trope of the female boss as unappreciative and ruthless creates an expectation that if a woman rises to an executive position she must have trodden upon others to get there. However a male boss who has risen to the same level is not portrayed as catty. This creates an atmosphere of suspicion of women bosses and acceptance of male bosses.

There is no harsher way to disempower young women than to suggest they should fear a successful female boss rather than look to her as a mentor and ally. Likewise it is dangerous to present to a young woman the idea that even if she works hard; gains qualifications and skills and finally achieves success in the workplace that this will result in personal unhappiness. What does the power suit represent? If you are a man – competence, legitimate authority, success and something to be admired. If you are a woman – ruthlessness, unattractive masculinity; cattiness and a tragic personal life with no friends. This is surely one of the most dangerous tropes that can ever be presented to young women entering the workforce and aspiring to one day be the boss. It even more dangerous because it is dressed-up as entertainment, hidden by humour, innuendoes and disguised in the form of a popular actor.


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