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