After a lukewarm reception to its first season, Netflix decided to cancel GirlBoss, a series loosely based on NastyGal founder Sophia Amoruso’s book of the same name. To viewers who gave up after the first episode, the choice is hardly surprising. Amoruso, portrayed by Britt Robertson, was not just a deeply unlikable heroine–she embodied the “privileged, insufferable millennial” stereotype to a T, fabulous leather jacket notwithstanding.
Though GirlBoss is one of the entertainment industry’s more recent depictions of a female boss, it was not a very novel one. Sophia comes in a long tradition of supposedly empowered characters that have, somewhere in the writer’s room, succumbed to stereotypes of what it means to be a female leader. As a female entrepreneur, it’s difficult to see myself reflected in characters portrayed almost exclusively as villains or anti-heroes. And considering how important it is that young women can freely aspire to lead and for society to recognize talented women in all industries, it’s a missed opportunity for real, positive representation.
We all know that life mimics art and vice versa, so when it comes to entertainment, it’s important to portray diverse and nuanced characters in categories like this one. That’s not to say that all female bosses should be “likable,” per se—just that reverting to tired stereotypes is helpful to exactly no one, especially in 2017.
Sadly, leadership skews so far male today that any representation is disproportionate to reality. Just six percent of Fortune 500 companies are women, a number that improves only slightly when expanding to include all female executives. More troubling is the fact that female bosses are plagued by negative perceptions. A 2015 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found substantial evidence of implicit bias against female leaders, while research as recent as 2010 found a shocking 90 percent of MBA students preferred a male boss.
That can’t be helped much by the heartless female boss trope. One of the earlier examples of this emerged in the 1988 film Working Girl, in which Sigourney Weaver portrays a conniving boss named Katherine Parker who steals an idea from her receptionist, played by Melanie Griffith. Almost twenty years later, not much had changed: In the 2006 hit The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays the devious fashion editor Miranda Priestly, who has a similarly contentious relationship with her assistant, Andy (Anne Hathaway). While both characters are arguably iconic, they enforce the stereotype of cold, ruthless female leader, proving that two genders can play that game, but only one gets labeled a bitch.
The second stereotype is that of the sexy, unhinged female boss. Take the popular TV show The Office as an example. While the show’s cringe-worthy manager Michael Scott is ultimately humanized, his boss (and sometimes-lover) Jan is unstable, mean-spirited, and sexually aggressive. In the movie Horrible Bosses, Jennifer Aniston plays the deranged Dr. Julia Harris, who besides being a horrible boss is guilty of sexually harassing her subordinate.
More recently, the trope has evolved to inject concern for the female leader’s wellbeing into the plotline. This trope assumes that for a female boss to be successful, she must be making huge life-altering sacrifices, something you rarely see male bosses in film or TV grapple with. In The Proposal, Sandra Bullock plays a high-powered book editor who must pretend to be engaged to her assistant to avoid deportation. As it’s revealed that she has no love life to speak of, she “relaxes” considerably after falling in love. On a similar note, Anne Hathaway plays a young entrepreneur in The Internship whose marriage suffers due to her commitment to the job. Good thing her intern, played by Robert Deniro, is there to convince her of her self-worth.
It is true that family responsibilities continue to fall to women, making work-life balance a reality most must face. Even Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, juggles her job as head writer with her various social ineptitudes and love life. Needless to say, her boss Jack Donaghy does not have the same issue.
Still, the complexity of Liz Lemon is laudable, and part of this is likely a result of Tina Fey’s hands-on involvement as the show’s producer. The same can be said of The Mindy Project, in which Mindy Kaling both produces the show and plays the title character, a female gynecologist. Even then, the show revolves around Mindy’s attempts to balance the personal and professional.
It’s true that there are absolutely exceptions to these stereotypes. One is Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope on Parks and Rec. Leslie handles her responsibilities with aplomb, and then some, with the show rarely dwelling on her “sacrifices” and allowing her to be immensely likable and professionally demanding all at once. And sure, Leslie is not like most women. But most women could use role models like her.
In the end, the point is not that all female bosses have to be inspiring and heroic — just that the tropes are overdone and there are fewer excuses than ever to fall back on them, especially with the glass ceiling dissolving by the minute. When it comes to GirlBoss, Amoruso herself was less than thrilled by the caricature Netflix turned her into. But it didn’t have to be this way. We have all the resources to tell the stories of complex, empowered female leaders facing new and interesting issues. I have a feeling those are the depictions that will be the ones that have staying power.