The latest female villains

Meanwhile in the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, Meryl Streep’s POTUS Janie Orlean – described by more than one critic as a “girlboss” president – is spectacularly uninterested in the imminent apocalypse in comparison to her own personal fortunes and branding. On being told that a “planet-killer” comet is headed to Earth, she comments that it just doesn’t really work for her right now: “Bottom line is, what’s this going to cost me? What’s the ask here?…The timing is atrocious.” Later, she tells a female member of her staff that she’ll have to take the fall for her failing to act sooner, before scientist Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) confronts her with the real reason she believes Orlean is finally taking action: because she “got caught” sending explicit pictures to her “porn star sheriff boyfriend, so now it’s to your advantage to act on the comet.” In this movie – a barely-concealed allegory of the climate change crisis – the self-centred and self-serving nature of this woman literally puts the entirety of humanity at risk. This is what will happen if we have a world led by myopic girlbosses, it seems to suggest.

Of course, it could be argued that this demonisation of girlbosses is, for some at least, an acceptable new form of misogyny – after all, do “boybosses” get pointedly targeted in such a way? Is all this anti-girlbossery simply a new way of taking down successful women, dressed up in a fancy new phrase? Zaslow thinks there are certainly elements of that at play within this cultural phenomenon: “I think successful women are always a threat to men, but I also think that misogyny operates at a deeper structural level; like thinking about who owns media, who collects data, who has control over that data – and misogyny and the patriarchy are at the root of that. On the flip side, who is positioned in the media as never enough, never satisfied, never body positive enough, never powerful enough? It’s women. Women are targets of most advertising and the whole commodity industry is built on women’s dissatisfaction – in that market economy, women can never win at being a boss. At that level, I think misogyny perpetuates that.” 

Certainly, there are parallels to be drawn between today’s berating of the girlboss, and the way the career woman was often characterised as a crazed, power-hungry fiend in Hollywood films of the 1980s and 1990s like Fatal Attraction, Working Girl and Disclosure (the first two of which are currently in the process of being remade as TV series, incidentally). What’s noticeable among most of today’s screen girlbosses is that like those forebears, they too, are spiritually empty or fundamentally unhappy. Zaslow suggests that that these portrayals can tend towards the one-note: “In real life, women with power are complex and have diverse experiences, but popular culture generally relies on backlash rhetoric and depicts the girlboss as unhappy and dissatisfied. Even when women get access to power and success, it is often portrayed as a failure of feminism.”

On the other hand, perhaps all these unfulfilled girlboss narratives simply do reflect the Catch 22 of the system women find themselves locked into: implored to worship at the altar of self-empowerment to be successful, but then made to feel even more wretched when things go wrong because according to the ethos of the girlboss, the blame lies with them for not trying hard enough. Just like the big gambles made in the kind of financial institutions we see in Industry, the house always wins. 

Industry is running on HBO in the US weekly and premieres on BBC One and iPlayer in the UK in the autumn.

Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *