Sharp Shoulders Break Glass Ceilings

What I learned about being a woman from the “lady bosses” of my youth.

Female characters in Who’s the Boss, Working Girl, Don‘t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and Big Business.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies Inc., Twentieth Century Fox, Touchstone Pictures, and Warner Bros.

Executive Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.

Years before I’d filled out my first W-2 or deposited my first paycheck, I knew all there was to know about bosses. There were the bosses you wanted to avoid at all costs, like the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” Franklin Hart Jr. from 9 to 5. There were the bosses you might have to supervise from time to time, like the drunk but well-meaning Lou Grant. And there were the charmers, like Roseanne’s foreman Booker Brooks. These were the men I thought I’d probably have to work for someday.

And then there were the bosses I dreamed I might become: tough as nails, usually rocking shoulder-length hair and shoulder pads, with a pink suit and a Machiavellian streak stashed away in her closet. The bosses whom everyone seemed to hate but who sucked my childhood self-right into their yuppie, future-sleek offices: lady bosses.

In the movies and TV of the late ’80s and early ’90s, lady bosses were a special class of executive. For one thing, while male bosses ran the gamut from handsome to haggard, lady bosses were gorgeous. With each hair perfectly in place and an always-tasteful face of makeup, these women’s clothes told us all about how fabulous they were—and they told us loudly. Their angular shoulders, tight pencil skirts, and impractically large hats made me wonder as a kid just how women in my hometown could be so out of touch.

But though they looked fabulous on the outside, there was something a bit off—alluringly so, to me—just beneath the surface. In the worlds they occupied (usually Manhattan but sometimes sunnier, sexier Los Angeles), these were strange women. They weren’t nurturing or sweet like women were supposed to be, and there was nothing ladylike or polite about their no-nonsense attitudes and love of Martinis at lunch.

Sometimes, this maternal deficit would be played for laughs, as when Judith Light’s Angela Robinson Bower had to leave her child rearing to a brutish but sweet jock housekeeper so she could focus on her job as an ad exec on Who’s the Boss?

Other times, a correction had to be made, such that the lady boss could learn that she wasn’t supposed to be a boss at all. She might, in fact, actually be suited for a quiet life of child rearing and baby applesauce making in Vermont (Baby Boom). And though lady bosses themselves rarely knew it, as the audience, we knew they really just wanted to love and be loved. While making partner at a big firm (which I assumed was a goal all professionals shared) could satiate that hunger for a while, it was ultimately a man, a boyfriend and someday-husband, they were desperate to find. Losing a multimillion-dollar deal might be a hit, but losing Harrison Ford to bright-eyed Melanie Griffith (Working Girl) was a full-blown catastrophe.

Maybe it was this confusion about their own desires that made them so untrustworthy, at least in the eyes of their writers. A lady boss was always ready to double-cross you. She might take your brilliant investment ideas and claim them as her own. She’d even sell off your small town’s only industry to Italian strip miners if you let her do it (even after she’d just been reunited with a long-lost twin sister who lived in said small town!), all to please the stockholders and launch herself all the way to the top (Big Business). Ethically, these women had more in common with Ursula the sea witch than with their male colleagues or doe-eyed female underlings.

But wow, how they got things done! Even with all the time they spent scheming and coiffing, they somehow managed to be really damn good at their jobs. With nothing but a high school diploma and some chutzpah, they could almost single-handedly save their whole company with one last-minute backyard fashion show (Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead). They didn’t have to be the best educated or the most popular. They knew how the world worked, they saw it for the rat race for what it was, and they were ready to make moves—often dangerous ones.

When I was growing up, the damage a jilted lady with a corporate car could cause was apparently on everyone’s mind. Sure, we got Miranda Priestly, the titular “devil” who wore Prada, in the 2000s, but the high-heeled lady boss is really a creature of the ’80s. That’s probably because the ’80s are not only the decade when the “glass ceiling” entered our everyday lexicon but also when we began to reckon with the cracks that were starting to show in it. Starting in that decade, the percentage of women in the workforce skyrocketed, from only about 40 percent to almost 60 percent of adult women (roughly where it stands today). Of course, women of color have always been in the workforce in much higher numbers out of economic necessity, but it’s no surprise the flood of middle-class white women into America’s workplaces brought with it a distinctive cultural fixation on the few white women who were making it through the ranks to the top of the corporate ladder. What did all this change mean for office politics, families, and the moral hygiene of American cities?

The lady bosses moviemakers imagined didn’t follow anyone’s script for how women were supposed to behave, what they were supposed to want, and how they were supposed to live. They could be almost impossible to predict, harder still to reason with. That’s what seemed to make people so uneasy about these women and what they might do with their newly found power. As a kid, that’s exactly what I found so mesmerizing about them. They taught me there is more than one way to be a woman. You could be bad, good, absolutely fabulous, or all three at the same time. With all that moral ambiguity resting on their shoulders, it’s no wonder they needed so much padding.

Read more from Executive Time, Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.