“Career woman” is a term that enjoyed a certain vogue across the latter half of the twentieth century. An American idiom much bound to the eighties but coined in the thirties, under the guise of defining what a woman is, the phrase points emphatically to what she is not: “a woman whose career is more important to her than getting married and having children.” An archetype born of its time, the career woman is bound to that era’s signature medium: The movies helped midwife her into Western culture; on film she was made unruly (and almost always white) flesh, fed on drive and solo popcorn dinners, dressed in power colors, and sent into an unreconstructed world, where her success or failure typically depended on her willingness to obey a more natural order. There is, of course, no such thing as a career man.
By 1991, a notion of the career woman had been reified and the term’s usage assimilated such that it appears, without apparent self-consciousness, on the first page of the first chapter of Susan Faludi’s Backlash. Per Faludi, “career” modifies “woman” in the same way that “professional” or “independent” might, and does throughout Backlash. But it strikes me as an especially curious, even insidious term, more so for the way its usage penetrated even feminist vernacular, before it began to die out. For one doesn’t hear much about “career women” these days. There are other kinds of women, to be sure: Woman cannot be, much less progress, without qualification; she is such-and-such a woman, a female this-or-that. As ever, her struggle for freedom passes directly through the quick-setting concrete of nomenclature.
At the movies, anyway, peak career woman occurred across the Reagan era. Faludi includes in her indexed account of the backlash against the gains of second wave feminism a survey of the “droves of passive and weary female characters filling the screen in the late 1980s.” It appeared that the women conspicuously missing from the era’s “hypermasculine dreamland” blockbusters, including Die Hard, RoboCop, and Total Recall, were instead making movies designed to demonstrate the “incompatibility of career and personal happiness.” Movies like Baby Boom, Broadcast News, Suspect, and Fatal Attraction, that feature grim, unsmiling, working women with eyes “red-rimmed from overwork and exhaustion.”
Faludi devotes special attention to Working Girl, the 1988 Mike Nichols film that today enjoys a reputation as a feminist touchstone, perhaps because its titular character, a striving Wall Street secretary named Tess (Melanie Griffith), gets both the guy and the dream gig. Faludi, who sees nothing progressive in the story of Tess’s ascent, points out that only by “playing the daffy and dependent girl” does Tess get what she wants, that “only the woman who buries her intelligence under a baby-doll exterior is granted a measure of professional success without having to forsake companionship.” Tess’s more archetypical boss, Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), by contrast, career woman and “cutthroat Harvard MBA with a Filofax where her heart should be,” loses the man and her job. Only one woman may advance, and only at another’s expense.
Some legacy of this predicament runs through Certain Women, Kelly Reichardt’s oblique, lyric adaptation of several Maile Meloy short stories. In successive installments, the film follows four Montana women whose stories are—with one exception—only vaguely interrelated. What binds the vignettes is Reichardt’s placement of each character squarely in relation to her work: Laura Dern’s lawyer, Michelle Williams’s businesswoman, Kristen Stewart’s law clerk, and Lily Gladstone’s rancher each appear restless, very much on their own, and somewhat baffled by their isolation. Though their essential loneliness feels of a piece, Reichardt depicts it without judgment, refusing archetype and insisting on the individual: that these are working women, negotiating vast and often hostile territory, is at once incidental and the film’s strongest undercurrent.
Certain Women opens with Laura Dern agreeing to take a recalcitrant client for a second opinion. When this other lawyer, a white-mustachioed heavy, repeats Dern’s advice exactly, the client is persuaded at once. “It would be lovely to think that if I were a man, I could explain the law and people would listen and say ‘Okay,’” Dern muses afterward. “It would be so restful.” A similar scenario plays out in Toni Erdmann, a droll, German quasi-farce centered on Ines (Sandra Hüller), a young woman in the oil-consulting business. Hard-driving, childless, and without a real partner, the character of Ines hews perilously close to the career-woman ghost of movies past; she even has a lovely, pathetically eager, largely ignored assistant, in the Melanie Griffith mold.
What’s worse, it is her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who acts on the implied sense that Ines is in need of rescue. A retired teacher and incorrigible jokester, Winfried surprises his daughter in Romania, where she is temporarily stationed, and refuses to leave. His worry about Ines, who appears to take little pleasure in life, is both irritating and well placed: She is fearless at work but frustrated at every turn by sexism and subtle degradations. Winfried objects to his daughter’s dilemma, even as he contributes to her belittling: “We’re very proud of her—what she does here and stuff,” he tells a client Ines is desperate to impress. When Winfried begins shadowing her in professional situations, pranking all the way (the title refers to a consultant character he invents for himself), Ines finds her status enhanced, her superiors suddenly able to register her presence.
Toni Erdmann is most intriguing for its extended and intimate look at Ines’s acute isolation within this predicament. Writer-director Maren Ade (Everyone Else) complicates her career woman, allowing her both cold-eyed pragmatism and very real potential for injury, blood that spurts red. Ines is right to question her father’s sentimentality, his simple-minded take on the world; Winfried is correct to feel distaste for his daughter’s profession, and pity for her soul. Ade allows father and daughter to be as right about each other as they are wrong, and to embrace their freedom from the certainties of archetype. Ines both is and is not in need of rescue, as most human beings tend to be.
In her letters to her mother, Sylvia Plath invokes the career woman to signal various things she does not want to be. “Don’t worry that I am a ‘career woman,’” she writes in 1956, as if to qualify the previous paragraph’s statement of grand ambition—to publish well, and to live “a full, rich life.” Ambition is in fact the central, animating quality of Plath’s letters home; she burns with it, is burned by it, and declares it constantly. “Love affairs would stop me from my independent freedom of creative activity, and I don’t intend to be stopped,” she writes at twenty. Several years later, delirious at having met Ted Hughes, if her ambition is still keen, she is sure of one thing: “I was not meant to be a single woman, a career woman.” The next year, unhappy with a newly secured teaching job, she uses the phrase to suggest an aversion to professional confinement: “I envision myself as writing in the morning and reading widely and being a writing-wife. I am simply not a career woman.”
What Plath wants is as nebulous as her desire for it is pure: immortal greatness, and to be great. What she definitely doesn’t want—and what perhaps lies at the heart of her pointed invocations of the dreaded “career woman”—is to be her mother, a teacher and the sole provider for her children following her husband’s 1940 death.
Among the many notable correspondences between Things to Come and Elle, two recent French films centered on a woman in crisis, perhaps most striking is each film’s treatment of the central character’s mother, whose sole function in both stories is to provide an absolute contrast to her daughter, and to die. Both mothers are garishly feminine, vain, carnal, idle, dependent, antique specimens. Both daughters are tiny, accomplished, solitary, inscrutable, creatural, and, in late-middle age, boundlessly chic. At once self-possessed and permeable, both daughters are, in other words, Isabelle Huppert. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s melancholy ode to a late-career intellectual and Paul Verhoeven’s thrilling, lunatic study of a dauntless CEO, with every ripple of her features and glide of her dancer’s frame, Huppert embodies a larger story about what it means for a certain kind of woman to survive. In each film, along with killing one’s mother, survival is a matter of exploding a legacy of confused ideas surrounding the career woman, that impossible figure whom Plath cast as both the antithesis of true ambition and the enemy of domesticity, “a rich, full life.”
“To think: my kids are gone, my husband left me, my mom died…I’ve found my freedom. Total freedom…It’s extraordinary.” Spoken by Nathalie (Huppert), these lines provide a basic summary of Things to Come. A philosophy professor in Paris, Nathalie has enjoyed the comforts and weathered the burdens of family and domestic life, but it is work that has provided her greatest satisfaction, and work that remains constant. That is, until Nathalie finds her position—her relevance—challenged by a male former student and protégé, and she is dropped by her academic press. The world, perhaps at best a conditional ally, now appears poised to erase her, to retract its semblance of a well-rounded life.
A brief, impassively observed sequence suggests that what remains to Nathalie—her status as a woman—is an ambivalent thing indeed. When she goes to a movie alone, a strange man grabs her thigh, then lunges at her; she moves, then flees the theater. The man follows Nathalie through emptied streets. “You’re beautiful,” he says, before pushing her against a wall and forcing his mouth onto hers. She breaks free—“Go away; I don’t feel like it”—and walks off, more irritated than afraid. Hansen-Løve offers no further comment on the assault, which might well provide the lynchpin of another film. Here it is part of an experiential continuum, one more derogation to endure.
If the depiction of her horrific rape opens Elle, video-game mogul Michèle (Huppert) appears determined that it will not be the event upon which her story hinges. Beginning with her immediate response to a brutal attack by a masked intruder on the floor of Michèle’s home office—she gathers broken porcelain, takes a bath, orders sushi, and receives her shiftless son for dinner—Elle builds for this formidable woman’s experience of the attack a particular context, having much to do with her all-too-well-established relationship to violence and violation. Michèle’s distrust of the police and aversion to media attention, we later learn, keeps her from reporting the rape: As a child she was implicated in the legend of her psychopath father, a religious zealot who went on a killing spree. Bound to her father’s crimes, Michèle remains a figure of public fascination: A restaurant meal might end with a stranger dumping trash in her lap; her invariably young, male employees keep secret dossiers on their boss, titillated by old news clippings, images of a haunted, defenseless young girl.
A throwaway moment opens a scene set at Michèle’s company, a video-game design firm that merges its founder’s expertise in mythology with the medium’s demand for epic sadism, inventive savagery, bestial rape, and “boner moments.” As Michèle enters the office, the camera rests on a group of young men crowded around unseen monitor images. “What do you feel now: fear or anger?” the leader of the impromptu focus group asks. “Anger!” the five white, hoodie-clad men bark in unison. Michèle would be pleased; she appears to know her audience better than they know themselves. Reviewing a scene in which a beast named Stix penetrates the skull of a shrieking maiden with one of his many tentacles, Michèle complains that the maiden’s “orgasmic convulsions” are still “too timid.” When a designer challenges her authority, Michèle literally stands up to him, measuring a full head shorter as she reminds him that “the boss here is me.”
Poise in the face of impossibility is Michèle’s game, or seems to be. When they are not agents of utter destruction, the men in her world are needy, dependent, and ineffectual. Despite this, their kind continues to enjoy a sort of ultimate domain. Though absent a worthy superior or even an equal, Michèle’s power and selfhood are mitigated in ways large and small, obvious and insidious, but always as a matter of her sex. In this, Elle can be viewed as a parable of what Huppert has called “a new type of a woman,” for whom the terms of the old career-woman paradigm—whether to marry or breed or wear shoulder pads; how to do all three at once—are obsolete. Still, the accomplished women of Elle and Toni Erdmann especially find themselves in a sort of existential limbo: In that lonely place, they are forced to hold a position and not hold it at the same time. As suggested by the rape that opens her story, Michèle’s apparent control is just that.
Huppert has described the characters that attract her as “winning victims,” and Michèle takes a place of honor in that line. Literally victimized while alone in a place of ostensible safety, Michèle appears at the mercy of the isolation and the dichotomy that Elle suggests is essential to the experience of her kind. She is perpetually subject and object, free and delimited, her agency subject always to (usually sexual) humiliation. Mastering this dichotomy is a condition of her existence, and of her success; more than plausible, Elle treats as logical the idea that Michèle’s rapist might be one of her employees. (“Anger!”)
“Make yourself useful,” Michèle instructs a lover during her Christmas dinner, and indeed Elle depicts a woman in need of even one person of use. When she drives her car off the road, we are to believe that the only person available for Michèle’s rescue is her rapist, whom she identified as an acquaintance during his attempt at a second attack. This is the moment upon which much of Elle turns, and the one that seems to test even the most lenient viewers. It is also the moment that guaranteed Verhoeven would not make Elle in America, as he had originally planned: When American actresses recoiled at the role’s brazen ambiguities and the story’s subversion of the rape-revenge narrative, Verhoeven took his English script, adapted by David Birke from a French novel by Philippe Dijan, and had a fourth man, Harold Manning, translate it back into French. With the film back in France, Huppert, who took an interest in the project even before Verhoeven was attached to it, claimed Michèle from the male brain trust who conceived her. And indeed, Elle’s success on the narrative high wire between daring psychodrama and rape-mongering is bound quite strictly to Huppert’s performance as an act of repossession.
In this, Huppert becomes a part of the predicament she enacts as Michèle, who in order to prevail over her rapist deploys to an extreme the skills familiar to every new kind of woman living in an old kind of world. It is not precisely revenge she seeks, but to win. To fight dichotomy requires dichotomous means: Divided against herself, Michèle appears to submit to her own destruction. It is all to be regretted. But only one character commands the viewer’s respect, without want of her love. In this interim time of careers and women, still unreconciled, she is a figure of ferocity and resignation, canny and recklessness, endeavor and redoubt. Her lament is for a struggle without apparent end; her triumph is a matter of everyday mastery, a sense of how to win by losing, but just a little, and just for now.