Why Calling a Female a Strong Women or a Lady Boss is Insulting

Credits: Photo - Anonymous, Styling - Sarah G. Schmidt, Location - Sarah G. Schmidt's home

I’ve been binge-watching a lot of Netflix these days. The recent programs most influential to me have been House of Cards and The Fall. Both have immaculately dressed, professional women in demanding jobs. The women are focused on their careers yet are allowed to be emotionally complex and even compassionate. What a luxury (sarcasm intended). 

Claire Underwood from House of Cards is a fantastic, layered character played by Robin Wright. She is cunning, persistent and persuasive. The Stella Gibson character in The Fall, played by Gillian Anderson, is a calculated, dauntless and perspicacious. They are articulate, accomplished and effective at what they do. As with most visual entertainment, they also look great while being great. To borrow from social media culture: those outfits though.

The costume department on these shows does a super job of showing the personalities of the women. They help to build the character through specific wardrobe choices. I’ll give some examples. Claire’s structured skirts, jackets and dresses are ultra-conservative, yet feminine, in cut and style. The necklines are high. The fabrics tend to be on the formal, stiffer side. She wears full pajamas sets to bed. This all tells the story of a serious first lady who wants to be seen and respected in a certain way.

Stella too has a classic, no fuss wardrobe but her sexuality is more apparent than what you see from Claire. The show puts great emphasis on dressing the detective character in more sensual fabrics such as silk and cashmere, juxtaposed against wide-leg trousers or a knee-length pencil skirt. They show clips of Stella selecting her outfits and showing the freshly laundered garments in dry cleaning bags. In evenings, in the privacy of her hotel room, she is shown in silk robes and lace detailed lingerie. It’s a series of intentional filming and editing choice that builds the complexity and dimension of the character. There’s a subtle difference between Stella in private and Detective Gibson on the hunt. The choices shown build the intimacy and humanity of an otherwise guarded, maybe even cold, character.   

What it says to me is that the show’s production team realizes and promotes the idea that some women care for their wardrobes as much as the careers they have. That one can be focused on both their career and can also dress well. Further, that a women does not have to choose between the two. Of course, some do – but not all. I would venture further to say that the two, wardrobe and career, are inextricably linked. The old saying, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” comes to mind. What one wears is the first, and one of the few, silent cues one can use to tell their story.

Some may call these two stylish characters “strong women.” They can be described as both strong and as women, but I am reluctant to use that combo of words as the sole descriptor because what woman would want to be referred to as the opposite?

Let’s say I agree with this notion for a moment, just to see where it could lead me. I could ask myself a few questions. What do strong women wear? Is there a dress code? Would we ever describe a man as strong? If we did, what would be the criteria to earn such a description? Would the description for a man and women be the same? Or would there be blue categories and pink categories? Being a strong person is a compliment. Being a strong woman is a superficial, often backhanded, compliment.

Others may describe these female characters as an example of a, “lady boss.” I become unsettled with this term too. Why can’t a woman just be a boss? A man can. Why is it necessary to have a feminine descriptor shoved in there to adjust its meaning ever so slightly? Have we, over time, created double meaning specified for gender? The Ban Bossy campaign argues that society has and its effects are dangerous to the well being of our young people. Adults too. How many people feel the need to pretty boss up for women in leadership roles and why? It’s so loaded and unclear to me that it muddies it. A boss is a boss. Being a boss is boss.

My opinions on those two phrases aside, these two characters get me excited to be a part of the world right now. Not only can women dress a certain way, it can be counter to what people expect their personality to dictate. It can enhance the person they are or it can confuse. It can be flawed or ideal, depending who is watching. It’s as complex and calculated as humans naturally are. This is exciting. As a female viewer, the variety of women in TV feels more authentic than the typecast women I watch in many films. TV is serving women better.

What is hopeful is that we are starting to have meaningful conversations about unpacking years of harm we have done in perpetuating gender stereotypes. The more we watch characters that challenge us, what we think we know and how we feel, the more we encourage growth. By watching shows with interesting female leads we are telling networks that their stories are worth watching. Interesting, multi dimensional female stories are worth watching. If networks make money, they’ll make more shows with other interesting female leads. Unlike this girl we’ve seen too many times.  

As with many things in modern society: if you follow the money and influence, you get results. This in turn creates more appetite for creating more shows with more diversity. Perhaps Hollywood will wake up and do the same.

Who is your favourite female character on TV or Film? Or is there a character that you dislike?