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  • Professional LivesCareer Women on Film
  • Michelle Orange (bio)

women, feminism, profession, career woman, film

Toni Erdmann
Directed by Maren Ade
Sony Pictures Classics, 2016
162 minutes
Certain Women
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
IFC Films / Stage 6 Films, 2016
107 minutes
Things to Come
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve
Sundance Selects, 2016
102 minutes
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Sony Pictures Classics, 2016
130 minutes

"Career woman" is a term that enjoyed a certain vogue across the latter half of the twentieth century. An American idiom much bound to the eighties but coined in the thirties, under the guise of defining what a woman is, the phrase points emphatically to what she is not: "a woman whose career is more important to her than getting married and having children." An archetype born of its time, the career woman is bound to that era's signature medium: The movies helped midwife her into Western culture; on film she was made unruly (and almost always white) flesh, fed on drive and solo popcorn dinners, dressed in power colors, and sent into an unreconstructed world, where her success or failure typically depended on her willingness to obey a more natural order. There is, of course, no such thing as a career man.

By 1991, a notion of the career woman had been reified and the term's usage assimilated such that it appears, without apparent self-consciousness, on the first page of the first chapter of Susan Faludi's Backlash. Per Faludi, "career" modifies "woman" in the same way that "professional" or "independent" might, and does throughout Backlash. But it strikes me as an especially curious, even insidious term, more so for the way its usage penetrated even feminist vernacular, before it began to die out. For one doesn't hear much about "career women" these days. There are other kinds of women, to be sure: Woman cannot be, much less progress, without qualification; she is such-and-such a woman, a female this-or-that. As ever, her struggle for freedom passes directly through the quick-setting concrete of nomenclature.

At the movies, anyway, peak career woman occurred across the Reagan era. Faludi includes in her indexed account of the backlash against the gains of second wave feminism a survey of the "droves of passive and weary female characters filling the screen in the late 1980s." It appeared that the women conspicuously missing from the era's "hypermasculine dreamland" blockbusters, including Die Hard, RoboCop, and Total Recall, were instead making movies designed to demonstrate the "incompatibility of career and personal happiness." Movies like Baby Boom, Broadcast News, Suspect, and Fatal Attraction, that feature grim, unsmiling, working women with eyes "red-rimmed from overwork and exhaustion."

Faludi devotes special attention to Working Girl, the 1988 Mike Nichols film that today enjoys a reputation as a feminist touchstone, perhaps because its titular character, a striving Wall Street secretary named Tess (Melanie Griffith), gets both the guy and the dream gig. Faludi, who sees nothing progressive in the story of Tess's ascent, points out that only by "playing the daffy and dependent girl" does Tess get what she wants, that "only the woman who buries her intelligence under a baby-doll exterior is granted a measure of professional success without having to forsake companionship." Tess's more archetypical boss, Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), by contrast, career woman and "cutthroat Harvard MBA with a Filofax where her heart should be," loses the man and her job. Only one woman may advance, and only at another's expense.

Some legacy of this predicament runs through Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt's oblique, lyric adaptation of several Maile Meloy short stories. [End Page 178] In successive installments, the film follows four Montana women whose stories are—with one exception—only vaguely interrelated. What binds the vignettes is Reichardt's placement of each character squarely in relation to her work: Laura Dern's lawyer, Michelle Williams's businesswoman, Kristen Stewart's law clerk, and Lily Gladstone's rancher each appear restless, very much on their own, and somewhat baffled by their isolation. Though their essential loneliness feels of a piece, Reichardt depicts it without judgment, refusing archetype...