Bitch, buffoon or bit-on-the-side: Why TV is putting women off leadership

Fictional female stereotypes are putting off future generations of women leaders. TV needs to get real, argues A Very Good Company founder Natalie Campbell.

by Natalie Campbell
Last Updated: 07 Nov 2014

I recently read an article about Dr Who, which argued that over time and under specific writers the Doctor’s female companion has been dumbed down to the point of plot insignificance. The theory was backed up by the Bechdel Test, which asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who have a conversation with each other about something other than men.

The article got me thinking about the portrayal of women in leadership positions or where we are the central character. After an hour of jotting down women in various TV shows and movies - Glenn Close in Damages, Miranda Hart in Miranda, Kerry Washington in Scandal, Maxine Peake in Silk – I was somewhat perturbed. For us to assume the role of leader or lead woman we must be a bitch, barren, buffoon or bit-on-the-side.

Really? I mean really really? What does this tell young women about what it means to be a leader? Are we not socialising them to think that leadership is undesirable, as it effectively means being a social outcast? I forgot to mention that most of the characters were also single, bad mothers or just asexual. Given that TV, after mothers, sisters and friends, is the vehicle by which most young women hear about careers and leadership, and in most cases is a precursor to knowing about the Merkels, Sandbergs and McCalls of this world, it’s important to get the balance of depiction and reality right.

And before anyone says, ‘But it’s drama’, I understand that. Characters need a plot; it’s just unfortunate that we seem to have lost the plot when it comes to showcasing strong, professional, smart, sexy (yes I said sexy) female leaders and leads on TV. There are exceptions, of course, and when I find some I’ll let you know. Even better, if you know of any, send me a Tweet.

Another reason this topic sparked my interest was that someone recently called my ‘leadership behaviours’ into question. Apparently my eye-rolling, straight-talking ways are not befitting of a leader. I think my hot pink lipstick and blazer may also offend said person. The underlying sentiment was that to be taken seriously ‘as a woman’ in a leadership position you should wear a blue or black suit, lose all form of personality and always toe the party line.

I’d rather be shot, thanks.

To me, great leaders bring who they are to the table, and unashamedly so - even their dark side (if you don’t believe me read The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton). I have the pleasure of knowing tonnes of brilliant female leaders and they are, reassuringly, more rounded, intellectually captivating and friendlier than those portrayed on television. They don’t forsake their femininity in order to lead, they bring their ‘whole selves’ to work and they are charming and warm.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the mainstream picture the media paint of women right now. Indeed, I worry we’ll be facing an even bigger struggle to get women into boardrooms in the next 10 to 20 years, because, at least on TV, being a leader and a woman appears to have little appeal for future generations.

TV people (I am a renegade broadcast journalist so I’m speaking to myself too) and content creators, let’s be more responsible. Women are not all bitches or buffoons, so let’s start telling a better, more real story about powerful ladies.

Meet Natalie Campbell at MT's Inspiring Women programme on 20th November. Check out the programme and book tickets here.


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