Lady Business: The Three Types of Businesswomen in Pop Culture

It’s only been a little while and I’m already missing Joan and Peggy from Mad Men. I can tell because their roles this season made me think about the archetypes of women in the workplace and how some of them have played out in popular culture.

This of course was prompted by Joan’s power play and Peggy’s uneasy flirtation/acceptance of power.

Here in the 21st century, women who wield power in business are placed into one of a few categories. You can add more.These are just the ones that came to mind:

Oprah on the cover of Fortune

Lifestyle Goddesses: Just to put it out there, Oprah is central figure of this archetype, as one of the most valuable brands in the world, and as of March, her net worth was $2.7 billion. Way to Live your best life, O! I sat through a really long, tedious Paul Mooney set where he basically went off on Oprah—a lot of people hate the way she’s revived her popular book club, the way she’s always on the cover of her magazine, etc. “No one person should have all that power,” Mooney said. Cue the Kanye West track. Other women who are living the dream and building brands along the way include Iyanla Vanzant, Marianne Williamson, Brene Brown and of course, Martha Stewart.

Corporate ladies: These are women in our culture who we know little about, in comparison to Oprah, and otherwise. I’m thinking here of Sheryl Sandberg, Carly Fiorina and potentially the character of Peggy Olson. They are women in male contexts, usually without business narratives that take into account their expressions of sexuality, how they balance work, career ambitions and family and the link. They are almost like politicians in the sense that their bios in our culture don’t deviate from a relatively safe script.

Television mavens: Murphy Brown was the first of these examples. I miss her. Modern day examples include women in front and behind the cameras/web cameras, including Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl fame, Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham, Suze Orman, Diane Sawyer, and Katie Couric.

What am I missing? What other types of women in business do you see represented in pop culture? Previously: When Men Are Condescending at Work, Paid Parental Leave in the U.S. Sucks

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by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is the author of I Can Write the World, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color, and The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in the Bronx, New York, and sometimes tweets @JoshundaSanders.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted

More Types of Business Women

There's also the space that Kim Kardashian, Kimora Lee Simmons, and Rachel Zoe inhabit: Celeb Fashionista Moguls. Of course, they tend to have reality shows made about them where they are turned into caricatures of themselves, but they're still fabulous, sometimes witty, and obviously entertaining.

Another one is the Female Small Business Owner, who we've seen frequently in Rom Coms. The women of Rom Cons tend to own or operate businesses that cater to women or provide a stereotypically feminine service. For example, Kristen Wiig's character in Bridesmaids owned a bakery that was forced to close. There are also the comedies starring Black actresses where a woman-owned hair salon features prominently.

P.S. Glad you mentioned Issa Rae. She rocks!

Oh, wow, those are great.

Yeah, the Celeb Fashionista would also be a good category for someone like Tyra Banks.
And the small biz owner is totally an archetype! Yeah, Queen Latifah came to mind as a hair salon owner in Beauty Shop, and there was also Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail.

That small business archetype

That small business archetype isn't just present in rom coms: Maggie Gyllenhaal from Stranger Than Fiction, Catherine Keener from The 40 Year Old Virgin, and even Tiana from the Princess and the Frog. And notice the *kind* of small businesses these women usually own-- restaurants, salons, muffin shops...

Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore

Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls got a business degree and ran, then owned, her own inn.

cupcake trope

To me the woman with a cupcake bakery - trope is the female equivalent of the male hand-made furniture designer/carpenter. Mostly to attribute creative, caring and sensitive qualities to the character. I.e. the job as a way of describing their character, rather than being a real part of the plot and different than for example Ronnie Chase from Veronica's Closet who owned her own business, or Murphy Brown.

That's true

I'd never thought of that before, but this particular trope does reinforce the idea that women can be nurturing/do womanly things while also being all responsible and making money and what not.

"accidental" success

I think about the "accidental" successes. There's a woman who is just doing something for fun, and all of a sudden, she's famous and monetized. I'm thinking of mostly bloggers here. For example The Pioneer Woman, who was blogging about her life/food/ranch/family and now has a tiny empire.

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