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11 Movies Every Professional Woman Must Watch

Lifestyle |

In movies, women are usually assigned two roles: doting mother and wife, or single workaholic klutz who’s constantly frazzled (and yet always played by a ridiculously gorgeous woman). Actually, make that three: A lot of the time they also play hookers.

But there are a few films where women get to kick ass, either literally (hello, Lara Croft and Lisbeth Salander) or figuratively (in their careers or alone in the woods), or just make us laugh ’til we cry (Kristen Wiig in pretty much anything). Today we’re focusing on the ones that have made us think about our lives as professional women and the lessons we can learn from them. Whether an overanxious TV producer, a legal assistant with a push-up bra, or a devil that has great taste in handbags, our hats are off to them. Make some popcorn and get to watching.

Up in the Air (2009)

“Sometimes it feels like no matter how much success I have, it’s not gonna matter until I find the right guy. I could have made it work; he really fit the bill, you know. White collar, six-foot one, college grad, loves dogs, likes funny movies, brown hair, kind eyes, works in finance, but is outdoorsy. I always imagined he’d have a single syllable name like Matt or John or Dave. In a perfect world, he drives a 4Runner and the only thing he loves more than me is his golden lab. And a nice smile. What about you?” —Natalie Keener

This is a great film about corporate culture, but my favorite part was Anna Kendrick’s go-getter, type-A character Natalie Keener. She’s guns a-blazin’ when it comes to her career, and yet her image of happiness is completely dependent upon finding the right guy (well, in the beginning of the film). The movie is really about George Clooney’s journey, but we also get to see him mentor Natalie (and who could ask for a better mentor than George Clooney?!) and watch her grow and realize that people are not numbers and can’t just be discarded.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

“Do you know why I hired you? I always hire the same girl—stylish, slender, of course… worships the magazine. But so often they turn out to be—I don’t know, disappointing and, um… stupid. So you, with that impressive resume and the big speech about your so-called work ethic—I thought you would be different. I said to myself, go ahead. Take a chance. Hire the smart, fat girl. I had hope. My God, I lived on it. Anyway, you ended up disappointing me more than any of the other silly girls.” —Miranda Priestly

We saved the best for last! The Devil Wears Prada, or D Wears P, as I like to call it, is an amazing film exploring all the dynamics of women in the workplace, especially the scary ones. But again, Miranda Priestley is a victim of her own powerful persona and people don’t know what to do with that. Her character is based on the always scary, but completely brilliant Anna Wintour, Editor-in-chief of Vogue, and the similarities (from the office design to the soft-spoken commands) are amazing. The beautiful fashion in the film helps, but really this film is all about women and their careers.

[Related: 5 Career Lessons We Can Learn From The Devil Wears Prada]

Working Girl (1988)

“You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.” —Tess McGill

Working Girl was made in the late, great ’80s when shoulder pads were all the rage and business was the game. This film, directed by Mike Nichols, was a great look at the modern workplace and the prejudice against looks (specifically teased hair), education, and pedigree. It’s drama, romance, corporate espionage, and humor (thanks to Joan Cusack) all set to an inspiring soundtrack by Carly Simon. If only all of our workdays started off with “Let the River Run.”

Erin Brockavich (2000)

“For the first time in my life, I got people respecting me. Please, don’t ask me to give it up.” —Erin Brockavich

Oh, if there was ever a case about judging a book by it’s cover, this would be it. And the fact that it’s based on a real woman makes it even more awesome. Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of a down-on-her-luck single mom who made a cantankerous lawyer hire her as an assistant. When she starts looking into a case involving a community that was horribly affected by the presence of a multi-million dollar power company, she single-handedly (at first) leads an investigation. It’s David versus Goliath, except in this case David is a tough-talking mom in heels and a push-up bra. This is the story of the underdog succeeding, fighting for what’s right, and, ultimately, achieving major career success.

His Girl Friday (1940)

“Now, get this, you double-crossing chimpanzee: There ain’t going to be any interview and there ain’t going to be any story. And that certified check of yours is leaving with me in twenty minutes. I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up. If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I’m gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours ’til it rings like a Chinese gong!” —Hildy Johnson

In this Howard Hawkes film, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell in some of the greatest hats you’ve ever seen) is done with the newspaper business. She’s getting married and wants to be a full-time wife and mother. Her ex-husband (Cary Grant), who happens to be her editor, is not willing to let her go (both from the job and his life). The dialogue is brilliant and spoken at lightning speed. This film also marked the beginning of a Hollywood tradition that shows the conflict for women in deciding between love/marriage and professional careers.

Norma Rae (1979)

“Forget it! I’m stayin’ right where I am. It’s gonna take you and the police department and the fire department and the National Guard to get me outta here!” —Norma Rae

This is a film that’s not only important for women, but also for the necessity of unions and how important they are to American society. Norma Rae, another down-on-her-luck single mom living with her parents, works at the mill in a small town and depends on this company to survive. But unlike her co-workers, Norma will not stand for the terrible working conditions—and when a union rep comes to town, she leads a charge.

Legally Blonde (2001)

“No more boring suits or pantyhose; I’m trying to be somebody I’m not.” —Elle Woods

Though this film is disguised as a light-hearted comedy, it’s actually a really good film about leaning in. Elle originally goes to law school to follow a guy, but the fact that she gets into Harvard is pretty impressive. But it’s there that she realizes she does want to be a lawyer, and that even though people judge her on her looks and ditzy exterior, she’s a very smart woman. She also ends up picking a partner who supports her career path.

Baby Boom (1987)

“I can’t have a baby because I have a 12:30 lunch meeting.” —J.C. Wiatt

It’s the classic single-workaholic-woman-suddenly-inherits-baby-and-has-to-choose-between-her-career-and-motherhood movie. Actually, she (J.C. Wiatt, played by the always fabulous Diane Keaton) feels like she’s forced to choose because her boyfriend won’t support her choice to keep the baby… and then the baby gets her fired when she brings her to work. But then, after moving to Vermont, Wiatt discovers she’s an entrepreneur in a very interesting way. What you thought your path was supposed to be doesn’t necessarily always pan out, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for your career.

Picture Perfect (1997)

“I want a billboard in the middle of Times Square. Okay? I want… I want a commercial in the middle of the Academy Awards, and I want a 10-page layout in Vanity Fair—and that’s… that’s what I want.” —Kate Mosley

This is one of Jennifer Aniston’s first forays onto the big screen, and it’s also one of her best roles. The film looks like a mediocre romantic comedy, but it brings up the interesting point that sometimes singles, especially women, are discriminated against in the workplace because people don’t think they’re serious. A recent survey by Forbes Woman in collaboration with TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com found that around 29 percent of women said that an engagement ring would improve their chances of being hired. In the film Kate feels like she’s not getting promoted at her advertising agency—even though she has great ideas—because she’s not married. Now, in real life Kate would probably just look for a better agency to move to, but because this is a movie she decides to hire a guy (Jay Mohr) to pretend to be her fiance so she can get promoted.

The Proposal (2009)

“I went to the bathroom and cried after Bob called me a poisonous bitch.” —Margaret Tate

Though it’s a classic, corny romcom complete with Sandra Bullock as the lead, there is some depth here. Sandra Bullock’s character is perceived as a cold b*tch at work. Now it’s true she isn’t the nicest, but she feels like the only way for her to get ahead in publishing is to show this tough exterior, including treating her gorgeous male assistant (Ryan Reynolds) terribly. But as with all romcoms, chaos ensues, then they go to Alaska, Betty White is there, and the rest is history.

Morning Glory (2010)

Jerry Barnes: ‘Day Break’ is understaffed, underfunded, and whoever works there will be publicly ridiculed, underpaid, overworked. Awful.
Becky: I’ll take it.

Rachel McAdams gives a fabulous performance as Becky Fuller (she makes coffee look tired) as a driven-to-the-point-of-insanity young producer who takes a job on a failing morning news show. Becky is too obsessed with the job (she barely has time for her adorable love interest) and can’t calm down, even when the show starts to do well (thanks to getting a curmudgeonly Harrison Ford to cooperate). When she’s offered her dream job at The Today Show, she’s faced with sticking with the show she built or moving on.

What other movies would you add to this list? Share them in the comments!

Photo: Paramount Home Entertainment / Facebook

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34 Comments

'Ugly Truth' should be added to this list

8d

The TV series, Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce, in it's second season. Smart show about professional women in LA with a similar feel to SITC.

5mo

I joined this website, but I'm not sure whether this is for women only, because I don't see any males in the management/editorial profile.... Coud someone please enlighten me about this...? Thanks!

12mo

Love all of these! Need to see Baby Boom asap.

12mo

Where is "9 to 5?!"

12mo

North Country- it's truly amazing. Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand were nominated for multiple awards. From IMDB: A fictionalized account of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States -- Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines, where a woman who endured a range of abuse while working as a miner filed and won the landmark 1984 lawsuit.

1y

The movie "I Don't Know How She Does It" with Sarah Jessica Parker.

1y

When I have a bad day professionally, I ALWAYS watch The Devil Wears Prada. And I used to watch Baby Boom with my mom! I work from home, so this post inspired me to watch Up in the Air!

1y

You've Got Mail for small business owners fighting for what they believe in. I Don't Know How She Does It for mothers who juggle it all. And, Sex and the City ... because I love journalists.

1y

will be watching this weekend :)
Another recommendation is the series Lipstick Jungle! You will definitely love it!

2y
Leanne Matullo

Agreed! I loved Lipstick Jungle! And, the different careers that were depicted there, too.

2y

Marie I LOVED Lipstick Jungle. I can't believed it was canceled after only a few shows, I have re-watched it on Netflix

2y

The main characters are men, BUT, I always love the movie In Good Company because it touches on a lot of life stages of the career. Dennis Quaid is feeling obsolete thanks to a 20-something boss, Topher Grace is the 20-something boss who hasn't figured out how to have a life, and Scarlett Johansson is Quaid's daughter and Grace's love interest, who is also figuring out what she wants to do with her life.

2y

Great list! I would add: Woman of the Year- with Katharine Hepburn

2y

My only complaint, and it's not with your list but with the industry in general, is that not one of these women is culturally, ethnically, or racially diversity. I'd say Diane Keaton may be your least 'normal' woman. I really love a lot of these movies, especially Morning Glory, but I'd love to see a black, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim, etc... woman in power conflicted between work and life.

Saana Lathan in Something New popped into my head as an example, especially with many of the issues she faces in falling for her white landscape architect. But the examples are few and far between, and certainly nothing mainstream or Oscar worthy like Erin Brokovich.

2y

I agree. I loved that movie, Something New.

1y

Baby Boom is one of my all time favorites and I fell like no one has ever seen it. Glad it made this awesome list!

2y

It's total fluff, but How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. Yes, she *technically* choses the guy in the end... but she leaves her job because she's not being true to herself and wants to pursue work that she is passionate about. I liked Kate Hudson in that role as someone pulled together at work and competitive. It was actually one of the things that inspired me to have a career in advertising or the media (and I've since worked in both industries). Plus, Matthew McConaughey was the Ryan Gosling of the early 2000s.

3y

Looks like a great list! Curious, though, how many of them pass/fail the Bechdel Test?

3y
Josemar Castillo

First thing I am going to check in Netflix when I get back home..I have only seen a few of these

3y

Baby Boom, Working Girl and D Wears P are definitely in my list of all-time girl power flicks. Love the listing here!

3y

His Girl Friday!! Yes! I found this in Netflix and couldn't believe I'd never seen it. It's excellent!

3y

Thanks for this awesome list! I can't wait to watch the movies I haven't heard of as well as re-watch some of my faves like Devil Wears Prada!

3y

Ahhh love this list Meredith! Well-rounded female protagonists are so hard to find in film. Also, I'm so glad you added Legally Blonde. Elle's a woman who finds strength in being herself. Quite inspirational!

3y

I love that Legally Blonde is included; it's one of my favorite movies because unlike typical rom coms, it becomes less about the guy and more about her finding herself and a fulfilling career.

And I hate to be that girl, but it's "Brockovich," not "Brockavich."

3y

Great list, I would definitely add 'Made in Dagenham' though!

3y

I still haven't seen Up in the Air but as a former management consultant and now with this commentary I feel like I need to make time for it this weekend!

3y

I loved Up In The Air! Definitely one oF my Favorites .

3y

My friends and I have a monthly tradition where we meet up and watch a movie. We call it "documentary night" because when it first started we used to actually watch documentaries. For the past year or so, though, we've been watching 9 to 5, Baby Boom, Working Girl, etc. I used to feel guilty about not watching documentaries, but this column makes me feel totally justified in our selection! :)

3y
Meredith Lepore

Meredith is the Editor at Large for Levo League. Before that she was the Editor in Chief of The Grindstone and was on staff at Business Insider. She has written for magazines including Marie Claire, SELF, Women's Health and Cosmopolitan. She earned her Masters in Magazine, Newspaper and Online journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Meredith resides in New York full time and enjoys SoulCycle, jogging and playing with her Yorkshire Terrier Otis, who also loves SoulCycle.