Women and Ambition and Power – It’s Complicated

Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl

“She was a woman of charm, style and wit, and will and savagery.”

That is a description of Anne Boleyn (second wife of Henry VIII) by Susan Brigden, author of New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603.

Natalie Portman portrays Anne in The Other Boleyn Girl [2008], and says she saw the film as “a cautionary tale about capitalism.

“All of the characters who subscribe to these values of rising up and gaining power and who will step on anyone to get there are punished. Anne is certainly the most forward about it, but she is following her family’s values…

“I think it’s very different to be ambitious and to be ruthlessly ambitious, which Anne certainly is in the movie.

“In reality, an argument can be made that Anne Boleyn was witch-hunted because she had so much power.”

Natalie Portman on being “ladylike”

Asked by Elle magazine about her own independence and ambition, Portman said:

“It’s definitely complicated. I bury it a lot, which is a very common woman thing to do.

“They say women often preface their statements with ‘This might sound stupid, but…’ It sort of tempers what you are going to say.

“It takes the edge off so you can still be seen as ladylike. I think I have a lot of that in me. I’m very nonconfrontational; I’m definitely a pleaser.”

But she has also started her own production company, Handsomecharlie Films (named after her late dog, Charlie).

She says, “It is proactive. It gives you more control over creating things, as opposed to having to get hired every single time… Having your own company is a nice way to concentrate your ideas and make the kinds of movies you want to see.”

From Natalie Portman interview by Ariel Levy, Elle, April 2008; more quotes in my article She Is Running The Show.

Being a pleaser

Being a “pleaser” may be one reason for many women having conflicted feelings about leadership and power.

As “Fried Green Tomatoes” co-producer Anne Marie Gillen once noted, “If you look at how little boys play on a team, there’s a leader, they pick you or they don’t pick you, they go out there and beat each other up, they win the game and it’s over and they put their arms around each other and go on.

“But little girls play one-on-one (and think), she’s my best friend – I don’t want to hurt her feelings, because if she leaves, I’m alone.”

…Or not

And psychotherapist Laura Morris, who works with a number of women in the entertainment industry, thinks “We are brought up to compete with other women. They are ‘The Enemy’ – they’re going to get something we’re after.

“Men have a closer bonding… they aren’t that competitive with each other… I think we make our own glass ceiling by not being very nice to each other.”

[Both quotes from my article Women in Film: Identity and Power.]

Defining ourselves

But do women have to “play like men” to gain leadership roles, corporate power or to realize other talents?

Judy B. Rosener, Ph.D., a management professor at the University of California, Irvine, thinks “we have defined everything in our society in terms of male behaviors, attitudes and values. Straight, white male. So if you’re anything but that, you are perceived as deficient, and have internalized that.”

She also asserts, “From the day we’re born, we are told – in the United States, anyway – that only white males are smart, and the rest of us haven’t quite got it. It’s scary.

“I’m married to a white male, I’m the mother of one, and I’m the daughter of one. It isn’t white males against the rest of us, it’s that white males think it is unfair that they now have to compete with women and people of color.

“Until now, they only had to compete with other white men – and they understand them. They don’t understand the rest of us and that makes them anxious.”

From my interview with Judy Rosener – she is author of America’s Competitive Secret: Women Managers – “This book proposes an audacious idea: that leveraging the talents of professional women will lead to more innovative, productive, and profitable organizations.”

A related comment by Sharon Stone: “If I was just intelligent, I’d be OK. But I am fiercely intelligent, which most people find very threatening.”

[From my article Gifted Women: Identity and Expression.]

Perhaps many women of high intelligence and competence share her experience.

But some of the most compelling women in literature, films and on television are characters who use their sexual, intellectual and political power effectively – and with evident pleasure, though not without complications and conflicts.

Julianna Margulies on portraying power

Julianna Margulies played defense attorney Elizabeth Canterbury on “Canterbury’s Law.”

In an early scene her character walks into a men’s bathroom to demand answers from another lawyer.

Julianna MarguliesMargulies explains why she liked the scene: “Because it’s what’s important to her. To me, it’s nothing’s going to stop her from getting to the point. And if you’re in the men’s bathroom, I don’t care.”

[From interview on blog.meevee.com March 07, 2008]

She continues, “I personally, as Julianna, would have waited and waited, and then the moment goes by and then the person comes out and then you forget your whole point, you know?

“This is a woman who gets what she wants. She’s diligent; she’s unbelievably pushy and bossy. She doesn’t care if anyone is in there; she wants to go and get what she’s after.”

Related article: Women of Talent – Power and Leadership