Of the many reasons to love the movie “Working Girl” (i.e., the epic dialogue, the epic love triangle, Joan Cusack’s epic eye makeup), watching Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill grow from wallflower to ambitious executive is at the top. Unfortunately, there are far too few strong female leaders on film and TV; even more unfortunately, these characters are often portrayed as either inherently unlikable or loveable, but “punchlines for being sexless and sad” (as this article from The Wire points out). With that in mind, let’s take a moment to recognize what makes these women great — and why they should be celebrated instead of reviled or ridiculed.
The Best Female Leaders on Film and TV
Tess McGill, “Working Girl”
What makes her great: She challenges the status quo.
Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill isn’t content with just being a secretary. She takes chances and risks losing everything to eventually get to the top. While impersonating one’s boss might not be the best — or most legal — route to success, Tess’ journey illustrates that sometimes, breaking the rules and taking risks can get you farther than you ever thought possible.
Peggy Olson, “Mad Men”
What makes her great: She tells it like it is.
Though many may find Peggy’s growing assertiveness off-putting, few realize it’s the same trait that has helped her mentor, Don Draper, find professional success and earn respect from his colleagues. What makes Peggy a great leader is that she is comfortable with who she is, which gives her the confidence to say “no.”
Erin Brockovich, “Erin Brockovich”
What makes her great: She doesn’t conform to other people’s standards.
She might have an unconventional approach to work (and wardrobe), but ultimately, her refusal to conform to listen to other’s view of what people think she should be, how she should act or what she should wear prove to be her biggest strength. In a world where many women still lack the confidence to be themselves, Erin Brockovich proves that success is not dependent on other people’s standards.
Olivia Pope, “Scandal”
What makes her great: She refuses to be bullied.
A wallflower she’s not. Though many have tried to intimidate her, Olivia Pope has proven again and again that they’re messing with the wrong gladiator. Of the many other reasons the “Scandal” character makes a great leader: She never backs down from a challenge, trusts her intuition and doesn’t take sh** from anyone — even the President of the United States.
Liz Lemon, “30 Rock”
Why we love her: She unapologetically goes after what she wants.
If there’s anything Liz Lemon hates more than the word “lovers,” it’s being told she can’t do something. She may not always take the most conventional way to get there, but she always meets her goal. Liz is the living embodiment of the phrase, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Miranda Priestley, “The Devil Wears Prada”
What makes her great: She’s not afraid to take risks.
Sure, she doesn’t have the greatest bedside manner, but were Miranda Priestley a man, no one would blink an eye at her brusque demeanor. Though Priestley gets a bad rap, she owes much of her success to the sacrifices she’s had to make in her personal life, and yet, even she’s not immune to getting emotional over the unfair double-standard imposed on her.
Mindy Lahiri, “The Mindy Project”
What makes her great: She knows she’s not perfect, and she owns it.
Who did we miss? Share with us your favorite female leaders from TV and film – and what makes them both admirable and watchable.