I annoy everyone with whom I watch movies because I’m a terrible movie talker. I predict endings, ask if my fellow viewers remember so-and-so actor from another movie, talk about how stupid or misogynistic or homophobic some plot turn may be. I even annoy myself, but I just can’t shut up.
My newest obsession is the careers that women are allowed onscreen versus the careers of their male counterparts. Leading men in movies wear suits. They have careers in which they punch numbers and sit at desks in wood-paneled rooms.
Their girlfriends/wives are their career foils. Women in movies have messy hair and clothes strewn with either flour or paint. They often work from home and sell their products from home studios. They don't leave their homes, specifically their kitchens, for work or play.
If these scenarios are reversed, female characters are punished for their forays into male career territory. If they are successful in traditionally male-dominated fields, they are punished, either in that they are not able to find romantic attachments, have children or—always, it seems—are totally unpleasant.
Take, for example, Diane Keaton’s Baby Boom. I used to think that this movie was progressive and feminist, and, perhaps for 1987, it was. In it, Diane Keaton plays J.C. Wiatt, a Manhattan executive at an advertising firm, who is about to be made partner. She is a "bitch" and doesn't care about marriage or children. Bad, bad J.C.! She inherits a little girl from her long-lost British cousin who is her only living relative (I know...what?). She first wants to get rid of the girl, but eventually she falls in love with little Elizabeth, quits her job, her boyfriend and her Manhattan life for the baby. She moves to the Vermont countryside where she falls in love with a snaggle-toothed veterinarian (whom she will presumably marry) and starts a business making baby food. Now, she is happy and sweet.
Again, J.C. is punished for her extreme success in a man’s world. She can’t have it all, and, the movie seems to say, women shouldn’t have it all. They should still remember their place, and their place is the kitchen, even if that kitchen makes products that sell all over the country.
Baby Boom isn't the only example. Take Meryll Streep in It’s Complicated—she’s a chef married to a lawyer. Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids is a baker who gets with a cop. Demi Moore’s character in Ghost is a sculptor; her husband is a banker.
The disparity between the partners’ professions certainly seems to signal a monetary gap in their salaries. In fact, in the real world, the earning gap between the male and female partners would certainly signal the man that the man would financially provide for the woman. Whether or not these women could support themselves independently is irrelevant because the man would take the primary breadwinning position in all of these relationships.
The women’s professions, too, are not threatening to male dominance in the workplace because they are created out of a traditional female sphere, the kitchen, or a profession typified by flightiness and a lack of seriousness, the arts.
What do you think about this phenomenon? Can you name a movie that doesn't punish a woman for her non-traditional success?