Sex-crazed, bitchy and sadistic: Why do female bosses still come across so badly in TV and film?

(Clockwise from top left) Tina Fey in 30 Rock, Jessica Hynes in 2012, Jennifer Anniston in Horrible Bosses and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

(Clockwise from top left) Tina Fey in 30 Rock, Jessica Hynes in 2012, Jennifer Anniston in Horrible Bosses and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation Photo: BBC/AP/REX

Female bosses are still widely lacking in the modern world – with a 25-year wait until a third of chief executives are women – and it’s just as depressing in film and TV. Helen Coffey lists the five worst examples on screen

By Helen Coffey/UK Telegraph

With the recent news that it’s most likely going to be 25 years before a mere third of CEO’s  will be woman, it would be easy to get morose. Certainly my colleague Louisa Peacock is pretty down about it all.  She writes:

“This is entirely depressing. The figures, which are based on the largest 2,500 public companies in the world, show that even in the next quarter of a century, the number of women being appointed to run the biggest companies globally still fails to be anywhere near half.

“It seems that company chairmen and recruitment committees (many of them overwhelmingly male) will still be recruiting like-for-like appointments; images of their younger selves – and will be doing so for decades – rather than taking a chance on someone who, shock horror, might look and sound a bit different to them.”

Usually in times of despair, I turn to the TV or the films for a bit of light relief. But alas, when it comes to the topic of female chiefs, modern media has let me down and failed to lift my spirits. This is because if the women bosses on our TV and film screens are in any way representative of most employees’ reality, I wouldn’t want to be working for a single one of them. They are stone cold bonkers; a comprehensive freak show of female-in-charge stereotypes, from clueless, shoe-obsessed idiots to sadistic bitches. Here are the five worst:

1. The ice queen

Women who secretly feel insecure in high up jobs express it in many ways. One of those ways is, unfortunately, to become a total biatch so that everyone – men, women and children alike – is too terrified to question them.

Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, played by a convincingly icy Meryl Streep, is so downright evil she is compared to Satan in the film’s title. Satan. That makes her, literally, the archetypal boss from hell. As she ritually tortures her put-upon assistant Andy (portrayed by Anne Hathaway), giving her nigh on impossible tasks to complete within the hour – getting her home from holiday when all planes are being held at the airport, or finding a copy of the new, unreleased Harry Potter book for her daughters – it becomes clear that she does not just have unrealistic expectations of her employees. She wants to break them. She wants to snap them like twigs. The worst part? The film is based on Lauren Weisberger’s novel of the same name, and she claims it’s inspired by her and her friends’ real experiences. Shudder.

2. The micromanager

Ah, micro managers. They’d like you to think it’s because they care, but it actually just signifies that they don’t trust you – or anyone else – not to F everything up. And they never get pulled up on it because they look like they’re working harder than everyone else. Which they are. They’re doing eight people’s jobs, after all.

The cheerful, endlessly positive Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler), lead character in Parks and Recreation, is in many ways downright adorable. She becomes a gay icon when she weds two male penguins at the zoo because “it’s cute”. She pulls off a stunning funeral for Lil Sebastian, her town’s beloved tiny horse. She’s always tucking into a plate of waffles. But is she a good manager? As the camera pans around the department of parks and recreation where she works, and you take in April, the uninspired intern, Tom, the wannabe entrepreneur who’s on the phone trying to organize a club night, and Gerry, the terminally depressed office punchbag who gets verbally abused every time he speaks, you realize the answer is a giant, booming NO. Leslie’s ineffective management style is summed up by April when the team go on a camping trip to come up with ideas.

April: I didn’t come up with anything.

Leslie: Why?

April: Because I know what we come up with isn’t going to be good enough anyway, and we’ll just go with your idea.

To sum up – micromanaging is the worst. Leslie Knopes of the world take heed, and mend your ways.

3. The nympho

There used to be the good old stereotype of women sleeping their way to the top. Now there are more women actually at the top, this has flipped to the stereotype of crazy, sex-starved nymphomaniacs using their power to “get some sugar”.

It started with Samantha Jones in Sex and the City, regularly having her way with delivery boys and assistants willy nilly (excuse the pun), but was epitomized by Jennifer Anniston’s character in the 2011 film Horrible Bosses. She plays a senior dentist with a sex addiction so bad she makes Russell Brand look like a mild-mannered gent you wouldn’t mind taking home to your mum. In fact, when it transpires that it’s not only her reticent male assistant she’s making a play for, and that she sexually abuses patients when they’re under anesthetic (making it rich comedy fodder because, you know, she’s a woman, so it’s somehow OK), you question whether she shouldn’t actually be sectioned.

4. The mother

No one wants their boss to be their mum. Lots of us already have one of those, and one is more than enough. Maternal instincts and pastoral care is one thing, but nagging your employees as you would a teenage boy to tidy his room is quite another.

Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock, tries to herd up her largely male team like a pack of unruly schoolboys who haven’t done their homework. She nags, she whines, she cajoles, she bargains. She ends up running around New York doing everyone else’s work because, just like a manipulative tween who’s figured out how to play their parents, her staff know they can get away with it. Beware the put-upon mother figure boss though – yes, they may end up doing the jobs you hate, but they may just crack at some point. On the edge of a stress-induced breakdown, Liz almost lets her entire team of writers and actors die in a fire. Let that be a warning to us all.

5. The bragger

Ever had a boss who wore expensive shiny suits and fancy shoes and strode around looking busy and important, flinging jargon around like it was going out of fashion, but who you were pretty sure had no idea what they were doing? You just knew their pay packet was five times the size of yours whilst the actual amount of work they did was questionable, to put it mildly. They probably spoke a lot about “liaising” and “synergy” and, oh yes, “monetizing”. Ugh. I feel nauseous just thinking about it.

Jessica Hynes’ character Siobhan Sharpe, who appeared in BBC comedy series Twenty Twelve and more recently W1A, is the newest to join this breed. Her smooth talking head of PR for the Olympics says lots of long words without actually making any kind of point, and commissions a countdown clock that no one, not even the artist, appears to understand. (But it’s totes fine, because she uses the word “synergy” in every other sentence.)

And, before you despair entirely…

6. The competent one

Where Hollywood fails us on decent female bosses, France excels. Catherine Deneuve, in Potiche, (it means ‘trophy wife’) is the kind of female boss we all dream about; rational, calm and a model example of feminism.

When her sexist husband gets kidnapped by his angry factory workers, Deneuve decides to stop being that trophy wife and sort things out. But does she stroll into the factory and start discussing synergy or touching up the employees? No; she gets her former lover on board, improves the employees’ working conditions, and puts the strikes to an end. Transport for London could really do with a Deneuve in charge.

But, bar Ms Deneuve, I cannot think of one on-screen woman I would want as my boss. The parade of clichés routinely trotted out by film directors and TV producers often focus on some of the worst qualities you sometimes encounter (if you’re unlucky) with women in positions of power, and twists them into caricatures.

So what do we want to see in our future women CEOs and female powerhouses then?

Like a teenage girl creating a dream man by combining various celebrity body parts in her head, I would like to amalgamate bits of the above women, please.

Miranda Priestly’s poise and self-assuredness (without the malevolent cruelty bit); Leslie Knope’s raw enthusiasm and unashamed passion (without the inability to delegate); Liz Lemon’s maternal way of looking after her employees (without being a push-over); and Siobhan Sharpe’s ability to walk normally in heels (without…well, anything else). Yes, I didn’t mention Jennifer Anniston’s character, because I’m pretty sure there’s no part of sexually abusing your subordinates that you can put a positive spin on. But I’ll keep thinking on that one…