Working for Justice

Maleficent Stages the Runway: Wear What You Want

Films in the past have overwhelmingly perpetuated two paradoxical perceptions of women: the Charlie’s Angels-style seductive and naïve-yet-smart female; or the infamous Miranda Priestly’s vicious bulldog persona (from The Devil Wears Prada). Sarah Palin underscored the pervasiveness of these two stereotypes when she married them, offering the public her own self-designed portrait as a “pitbull with lipstick.” Hilary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, both highly influential and powerful women, have each been described as solely bulldogs.

These two stereotypes of sexy-sweet-approachable (“lipstick”) vs. dominant-demanding-brusque (“bulldog”) are socially constructed by the same force—the entertainment industry—and have infected and diluted the public’s idea of who women are. At a time when the social influence of Hollywood is as strong as ever, the images of these rigid roles for women inescapably force young women to accept, or willfully reject, being shoved into a confining personality.

The conversation regarding the way in which the Hollywood stereotypes have become woven into the fabric of our culture has been cycled and recycled through popular press, talk show debates, and other forms of social media. In a recent article for Politico, entitled The Princess Effect, Sarah Kendzior argues that when female leaders are asked to grace the front covers of glossy and dazzling magazines like Vogue, a part of their seriousness is stripped away. The crux of this argument is tucked comfortably within the bulldog or lipstick paradox — viewing an attachment to either identity as mutually exclusive. However, this argument completely overlooks the way in which presentations of women are transforming.

Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent (which has grossed almost $700 million worldwide) is helping to phase out this passé view of women. Her character transcends the female Hollywood caricature and captures the complexity of real-world women. In the film, Maleficent cycles through deep stages of character development, beginning as a young and wise child who later experiences a loss of her sanctity (her wings). As a result, she is filled with rage, but she later finds peace through love and forgiveness.  This film demonstrates the media’s move towards offering a new lens through which to view women; that is, through a range of depth.

Disney’s Frozen raked in over one billion dollars worldwide. The film betrayed the Disney tradition of a prince’s kiss saving a princess (also echoed in Maleficent, where she herself awakens Princess Aurora with a kiss, unlike the classic 1950s version). Jennifer Lawrence has broken box office records with her semi-vulnerable and mostly powerful Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies. Complex female protagonists are now in the spotlight and they are transforming social perceptions and, with it, culture.

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco criticized the premise of the Princess Effect in a recent Washington Post op-ed by emphasizing how society needs to rethink the way in which it demands that women in power portray themselves. Ultimately, the bulldog persona, which oftentimes is interpreted as being more traditionally masculine than feminine, need not be the only way a woman presents herself to others in order to be taken seriously.[1] In fact, criticizing effeminate presentations of women directly perpetuates stereotypes that femininity is inextricably linked to weakness.

No woman should feel that she needs to define herself in any one way. Women, like all those along the gender spectrum, are complex. Any effort at trying to conform to a particular standard in order to satisfy a presupposed expectation can be a hindrance to one’s success both personally and professionally.

Like the individual shards of glass that follow from a shattered glass ceiling, every woman is unique. And of course, one can shatter glass with lipstick on — or without it.

[1] Nor should women be punished for transgressing this male/female binary.

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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