Women, power and popular culture

iu-1There’s a business school in the US in which female students routinely use the “interrogative lilt” when speaking in class.

This “lilt” turns assertions into questions. The phrase “this strategy looks promising” is made to rise at the end, becoming “this strategy looks promising?” The speaker is now asking for agreement instead of insisting on it.

In a business school!  If women are not learning to be forthright here, something is entirely wrong with the world.  I mean, really.

Popular culture continues to cultivate images that make woman look little, unassuming, unthreatening, unintelligent, and incapable.

Happily, some women are fighting back and using popular culture to redefine themselves. Videos from Ingrid Michaelson (Girls Chase Boys) and Meghan Trainor (All About That Base) give us two great cases in point.  But neither of these go after the “lilting” problem.

I am persuaded that this work will be done by actresses in the world of film and TV. They will portray women wielding power. They will show us how to transcend acts of deference.

The early days were frustrating.  Some actors would overcorrect. They “butch up” their performances but this had the unhappy effect of costing them nuance, as actors and as characters. There was a lot of growling and shouting.  But of course real power usually comes in a more subtle form (and is more effective for its subtlety).

But we are getting signs of a new approach.

In Murder in the First (TNT), Bess Rous as Ivana West and the acting CEO of Applsn confronts her boss.  She is leaving the company and wants to let him know.  He’s a world class bully and tries to intimidate her.  She doesn’t blink.  She doesn’t back down.  In a great performance of self possession,  Rous/West just doesn’t care. She meets his hostility with an attitude that sits somewhere between pity and contempt. No bluff, no rattling of arms. Just an implacable presumption that he doesn’t matter and that she does.  No lilting here. (Please could someone get this scene on YouTube.)

In episode 3 of The Killing (Netflix) we get Joan Allen (pictured) as the head of a military academy. And the pity of this performance is that it is designed to make her look a bit of a monster. But even as Allen satisfies this requirement of the role, she works in little grace notes everywhere. Which is to say this actress can deliver an overbearing authority and not lose control of subtle messages. This aspect of Allen’s art, the ability to assume authority without diminishes it or herself, was also on display in the Bourne Conspiracy.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary (in Madam Secretary, CBS) is giving us a variation on the theme. Her approach to power exhibits a light hand. Madam Secretary leaves no doubt that she has power and what she will do with it when dealing with people who disappoint her, but mostly she is alive to the humor and the ironies of the moment.  Call this a sprezzatura performance of power.It’s a welcome addition to our power vocabulary.  (Men have something to learn here.)

Compare this performance to the one being given in Homeland by Clare Danes as Carrie Mattheson.  This is a wonderfully ferocious “let it rip” approach to power. Clare/Carrie goes at it. (She succeeds in making the men around her look like time-serving careerists.)  This is sheer intensity, with no trace of ego or self aggrandizement.  (Men could learn something here too.)

Our culture is under reconstruction.  Gender, especially, is changing. And I think of all the ways the US qualifies as a “city on a hill,” as a prime mover in social progress, it’s surely here on the question of gender that we are most watched and most admired.

9 thoughts on “Women, power and popular culture

  1. Juliette

    Really interesting post Grant. It’s kind of funny to me that the ‘lilting problem’ is even a problem? (ironic question mark intended) – I just find women so much more collaborative than men to work with that I don’t see the lilt as coming from a place of weakness per se – just from a place of – well – collaboration. It is forthright(ness) in the end – just a different way of getting there.

  2. Grant Post author

    Juliette, Great point. I gave some thought to it and decided that while some people (women and Canadians, among them!) will take the lilt as evidence of a wish to collaborate, others (and men especially) will take it as a failure to lead. And in that event it is an expensive gesture. Thanks for the comment! Best, Grant


    The US admired for their handling of ‘the gender question’? That is funny, and entirely untrue. If we are watching the US it is in trepidation for your violations of womens rights transfering to our civilized societies.

    1. Grant Post author

      Amberwitch, thanks for your comment. Best, Grant
      p.s., I will persist in the idea that the US has taken the lead here but I do thank you for another perspective.


        Then you are delusional. The US used to set the standard back in the day, but these days there is approximately one abortion clinic left in all of Texas, abortion providers are killed by insane fanatics, and women are arrested and performed cesarians on against their will.

        1. grant27

          Charmed, I’m sure. To judge the whole of the US with data from Texas is just odd. There are millions of men and women in the US who call themselves feminists.

  4. Patrick

    We’ve gone from I Love Lucy to Mary Tyler Moore to Broad City with no doubt lots of steps backwards and sideways in between. In today’s cultural personas there are many behavioral outliers, and I sense a long distance between the role models they uphold and the impact they can have on a stressful peer-pressure environment such as a business school, where both guys and girls are more trying to survive and fit in somehow, with a long way to go before they figure out who they are.

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