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Female villains go corporate in movies, TV

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By William Loeffler
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
 

Evil women• In movies• On television• Nooooooo.

From Marlene Dietrich's femme fatale in "The Blue Angel" to the double-crossing dames of film noir, bad women have played an integral part in Hollywood.

And there would be no "Dynasty," "Melrose Place" or "All My Children" without the treachery of Alexis, Sidney and Erica.

Recently, however, female villainy has gone corporate. And, if certain films and television series are to be believed, women who get the corner office apparently sacrifice their mental stability.

As attorney Patty Hewes in FX's "Damages," Glenn Close behaves like a woman possessed. In "The Devil Wears Prada," Meryl Streep is deliciously dishy as the tyrannical fashion editor Miranda Priestly. In the conspiracy thriller "Michael Clayton," Tilda Swinton plays a coldly ambitious litigator who orders a hit on one of her firm's attorneys when he threatens to turn whistleblower.

The professional woman has come a long way since Mary Richards called her boss "Mister Grant" on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." But are these reckless women post-feminist anti-heroes• Or do their screwy, scary personas tilt backward toward male chauvinism?

Author and critic Molly Haskell wrote "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies" (University of Chicago Press)." Her latest book is "Frankly My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited" (Yale University Press).

The formidable women in "Damages" and "The Devil Wears Prada" transcend stereotype, Haskell says, because of the acting skill of Close and Streep. They may be borderline nuts, but they're also competent and highly effective achievers who command respect, if not outright fear.

"I think first and foremost these are fantastically juicy roles at a time when older women go begging for work," Haskell says. "They're not quite realistic, more operatic, and yes, they're women so work-obsessed, so coldly determined, that they risk not just their own sanity but everyone else's. ... They're more exciting than discouraging to watch: workaholic divas making their own rules. We don't necessarily want to be like them ... but we don't quite despise them either. We recognize them, these "boss ladies" who are scary rather than ridiculous."

Linda Hernandez, an attorney with Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, says she saw one episode of "Damages" and remembers feeling sorry for Close's character.

"I found some of her balancing issues (work vs. family) realistic, but generally I did not find her professional behavior realistic," she says.

Hernandez is also Gender Equality Coordinator with the Allegheny County Bar Association. They created the position after a 2005 membership survey showed the pay gap between male and female attorneys had changed little in the last 15 years.

A double standard still prevails, Hernandez says. A powerful successful male character is lauded as Machiavellian while a female in the same position may be portrayed as manipulative or duplicitous.

"Very often when those women succeed, they're labeled," she says. "I'm looking forward to a world where this doesn't happen anymore. I just wish these (movie and television) portrayals weren't so entertaining."

Chris Posti is owner of Posti & Associates, a coaching, human resources and outplacement consulting firm in Greentree. Powerful, slightly unhinged females are fun to watch as long as they remain fictional, she says.

"The Glenn Closes and the Meryl Streeps and Leona Helmsleys of the world, they are exaggerated because that's entertainment," she says. "In corporate America, we do see behaviors that are appallingly similar to that."

Posti coaches male and female executives who are highly effective, but lack interpersonal skills.

"Typically, I work with people who get results, but they leave body bags," she says.

Robert Thompson, professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says that authority figures, male or female, usually are unsympathetic roles.

"A lot more people in power in popular culture end up being bad guys than good guys," Thompson says. He cites the evil banker Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life" and mean Dean Wormer in "Animal House."

"Now that we see it happening with women, I don't' see it so much as a backlash of the emerging equality of women as integrating women into what was an age-old theme," Thompson says. "Susan Lucci on 'All My Children' as Erica Kane can tell you often times the very best role was the evil one. What was the coolest role, Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker?"

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