Women in Law

A previous article on The Attic exploring the portrayals of women in law on TV provoked some interesting discussion in the office about fiction vs. reality. So, we decided to dig a little deeper, and conducted a survey of practicing lawyers on how they felt about their fictional counterparts, and the influence they have on women in the legal sector.

Professional women across different sectors face certain challenges of greater magnitude than their male counterparts – from gender bias and pregnancy discrimination, to the gender pay gap. A seemingly superficial but no less significant challenge is the pressure that many women face to ‘dress to impress’ in the workplace. Our survey found 9 out of 10 female lawyers agree that they often feel pressure to prove their competency by dressing a certain way, and 8 out of 10 believe that some of this pressure comes from stereotypes of female lawyers perpetuated by on-screen portrayals in popular culture. Think modelesque Charlotte Richards or immaculately dressed Jessica Pearson, all undeniably glamorous women with not a hair out of place, always perched on top of stiletto heels that “no working woman could survive a day in,” as quoted by one surveyee. “Living up to such standards would be a tall order,” claimed another, emphasising that hours of primping, polishing and a limitless fashion budget to maintain such an appearance are hardly compatible with the day to day realities of being a lawyer.

Smart, Sexy, or Both?

On the flipside, perhaps these portrayals are aspirational and liberating: the strong presence of these women in a traditionally male-dominated sector is reflected in their powerful fashion choices. Yet this still continues to feed the idea that a lawyer’s competency is directly linked to his or her physical appearance. While to an extent all lawyers face this pressure; many female lawyers claim that their appearances are scrutinised more heavily than those of their male colleagues. “Dressing professionally seems to be a combination of smart and sexy, the pencil skirt and heels look is almost a uniform”, says one lawyer, “clothes and styling imply your professional capability and commitment to work”. The pressure to be simultaneously “smart and sexy” is somewhat paradoxical; while a certain degree of ‘sexiness’ is apparently expected, studies show that sexualised women are seen as less intelligent and less competent. This contradiction is brought under the spotlight in Legally Blonde, with Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods defying all stereotypical expectations of her intellect – notably without comprising on or altering her appearance, or personality, in the process.

Ageism and the ‘Ally McBeal Effect’

When Ally McBeal debuted in the late 90s, the series was praised for its forward-thinking take on female sexuality; Ally’s “mini [skirts] take centre stage”, and in It’s My Party, she is even held in contempt by the judge when she refuses to wear a longer skirt to court. This might be considered a bold move to prove that a lawyer’s competency holds no connection to her appearance; Jane Pratt, editor-in-chief of Jane magazine, says “we can all look at Ally and see her as some kind of icon. Women find themselves emulating her, feeling ok wearing shorter skirts to the office because of her. She’s freeing women up.” However, around 35% of female lawyers are partners, and generally between the ages of 45 and 54. Do female partners really see Ally as “some kind of icon”? One lawyer in her 40s replied that “normal office dressing for women is biased towards how 20-somethings dress. Does a middle-aged lawyer have to try to look like a 25 year old? Are we allowed to go grey? Wear more comfortable shoes? Put on weight? I think if women did we would be seen as unprofessional.”

The Litigatrix

In his article, Farewell Ally McBeal, Enter the Litigatrix, David Lat seeks to revitalise the perception of female lawyers in Ally McBeal by profiling the ‘Litigatrix’, a “supremely confident” female lawyer whose job description is to “make men feel pain”. Think, Glen Close in Damages, who one lawyer describes as a “power-hungry, ball-breaking psychopath”. The term used in the title, a portmanteau of litigator and dominatrix, conjures the cartoonish and somewhat insulting image of a whip-cracking, cold, browbeating female.

The invention of a new term distinguishes successful female lawyers as a breed of their own, and suggests that accomplished women are a novelty in a man’s world. It suggests that women are “objects” rather than “active agents”, as art historian Linda Nochlin discusses in her essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’. While a “man’s gender is proof of his accomplishment”, a woman “has to go further to prove her worth” and push past this objectification. The term ‘Litigatrix’ again ultimately implies a connection between a woman’s sex appeal and her competency as a lawyer. Lat’s effort to empower female lawyers “downplays their intelligence, hard work and success,” and “does what it intends, to sexualise a woman.”

Empowerment Through Appearance

But is it really so wrong to want to look good at work? Maintaining one’s personal appearance can “instill confidence, both inwardly and outwardly”, says one lawyer respondent. The Good Wife and spin off The Good Fight has received praise for its empowering use of makeup and clothes. The three leading women, Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart and Kalinda Sharma, as well as Lucca Quinn are examples of how ‘power dressing’ builds and demonstrates confidence (see also Jessica Pearson in Suits). The sharp suits, knee high leather boots and lip liner accentuate their competency and confidence in their ability. Their bold fashion statements are reflections of their bold personalities, and enhance their presence in a male-dominated environment.

Moreover, while the women are certainly made-up and well-presented at all times, they are all in their forties and fifties, and perhaps constitute more realistic representations of senior female lawyers.

Acknowledging Reality On Screen

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson documents Marcia Clark’s experience during the OJ Simpson trial in 1994, during which her physical appearance was heavily scrutinised by her colleagues and the media. Based on true events, American Crime Story’s portrayal of Marcia is therefore more accurate than previous portrayals of female lawyers, and the real life challenges Clark faced are on display. The series highlights the contradicting expectations that female lawyers must simultaneously ‘blend in’ and ‘stand out’. “At legal events, most female lawyers who want to be taken seriously wear dark coloured skirts and jackets. Trousers are accepted, but they are definitely not the norm,” one lawyer pointed out. Perhaps not surprising, since women lawyers were only permitted to wear trousers at work  since the 1990s! A degree of femininity is required, and in the series we see Marcia visiting a hairdresser for a “softer, more feminine” look, much like Clark did in real life. “I’m not a model, I’m not an actress, I’m a lawyer”, says Clark. Sarah Paulson, who played Marcia, commented on the role at the time: “it is the dirty little secret of the workplace that how a woman looks matters.”

Beyond The Gloss

From the responses we received, it’s clear that there is some uneasiness about portrayals of women in law in popular culture. Yes, fictional entertainment is typically more glossy and glamorous than the real life it portrays, and there needs to be room for the aspirational and escapism. But while women in male dominated spheres still have to fight against sexist perceptions to be taken seriously in their careers, these portrayals play an all the more influential and important role in changing minds and inspiring the lawyers of tomorrow. While inequality persists, there is perhaps no such thing as harmless fantasy – here’s hoping we see some more down-to-earth, unglamorous lawyer reality hitting our screens in future to provide a balance.

Women in Law

Former Obelisk Support interns Maxie Chopard and Keshara Hallock take us through the portrayals of women lawyers on TV and how characters have grown and developed over time. They discuss the power of representation in popular culture in shaping societal expectations and gender stereotypes.

One of the earliest portrayals of a woman lawyer on American television was Mary Bancroft (played by Elsie Ferguson) in Scarlet Pages in the 1930s. The all-talking crime drama features Bancroft as a successful female lawyer in New York who acts as defense attorney for Nora Mason, a nightclub singer accused of murder. The twist in the plot comes when Bancroft subsequently discovers that Mason is the biological daughter she had given up for adoption.

Interest in female characters in the legal profession seems to have increased in the last decade. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in Scandal, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How to Get Away with Murder and Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres) in Suits, are just a few household names whose on-screen lives we have become fully vested in.

Has the Portrayal of Women Lawyers on TV Changed?

One might be tempted to argue that the depiction of women lawyers on television has not evolved as quickly as one would like. Scarlet Pages capitalised on the novelty of a woman occupying a powerful position in a typically male-dominated industry. That Bancroft was a lawyer in Scarlet Pages was a fact that was referenced. She was never shown as doing anything particularly “lawyerly.”

The Ally McBeal Effect: Drama over Substance?

More than half a century later, Ally McBeal was all about the drama that ensues when the character portrayed by Calista Flockhart finds herself caught in a love triangle after joining a firm where her ex-boyfriend and his current wife also work. Once again, the focus is not on the woman lawyer acting in a professional capacity but the unfolding of her personal story.

Indeed, the juicy details of the leading women in law often seem to dominate the plot. Former lawyer and White House aide Pope’s affair with United States President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is a central pillar of Scandal. Defence Attorney and Law Professor Annalise Keating’s affairs, multiple relationships and closet full of secrets have fuelled four seasons of How to Get Away with Murder.

Equality requires Complexity

At the same time, it is fair to say that women in law are increasingly being portrayed as more complex and nuanced characters. In How to Get Away with Murder, the mercurial, highly intelligent and unscrupulous Keating is fearsome, yet there are times when she appears vulnerable. Similarly, Pope’s groundbreaking role in Scandal has been described by The New York Times as, “possibly the most complex black female lead in television history.”

The marked shift from characters such as the perpetually self-questioning McBeal to the emotionally strong, professionally powerful, and personally complicated women in law on television we see today has been accompanied by a greater emphasis on women as competent professionals.

It is no longer uncommon to see a strong, confident woman litigator who beats men on her own terms. The no-nonsense, straight-talking Pearson in Suits comes to mind, as does How to Get Away with Murder’s Keating, who is often seen browbeating witnesses, opposing counsel and indeed anyone who stands in her path into submission. Founder and managing editor of Above the Law David Lated coined the term “the litigatrix” to represent such women who tend to more demanding than their male counterparts, to the extent of being pushy and domineering.

Empowering… or Emaciating?

The prevalence of women lawyers on television can be seen as empowering, particularly as they are often shown to be breaking the glass ceiling. Pearson, for instance, is the first African-American woman to work as a judicial clerk at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and later becomes partner of her firm after leading a successful coup against the name partners.

As a powerful socialiser, the media makes its marks on both self-image and societal expectations. Professor Ric Sheffield who teaches Law and Society Kenyon College observed that starting from the 1980s, his 19-22 year old students seemed to have an acute understanding of what it meant to be a lawyer even though they had not been to law school. The students did not know famous U.S. female judges such as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor but knew Pope from Scandal. It was clear that his students had gleaned this knowledge from pop culture.

Portrayals of women lawyers on television could inspire and encourage girls to join the profession. However, not everyone is of the view that these characters are positive role models. Others argue that these female characters are detrimental, as they entrench gender stereotypes and normalise the disparity between men and women in the legal profession.

Shaping Fiction to Shape Reality

Are the women in law in the media a source of empowerment or disenfranchisement? What do you think? The jury is still out for us on this one overall…

That said, it is important to acknowledge just how far portrayals have come, and one particularly good example is Jessica Pearson of Suits, the Managing Partner of Pearson Specter Litt. Gina Torres, who plays Pearson reveals that for her, the character’s strength comes from the fact that “her drive and her ambition has nothing to do with her gender or cultural background”. Torres is right; Pearson’s role is equatable with her position at the firm. Her leadership, intellect and the respect she garners from her colleagues are all in keeping with the person at the helm of the firm irrespective of their race, gender or anything else. The portrayal is thus at one level reassuring, demonstrating a woman judged on skill, who has thrived in a meritocracy.

“Jessica was conceived as a man” – Gina Torres

Some might say Pearson’s presentation is not progressive in portraying women in positions of power. She is tough, straight-talking and physically domineering, towering over other characters, men included. Does she in fact reinforce the stereotype that it still in really is a man’s world and the only way a woman can be successful is to assimilate?We would disagree with this. Pearson is not void of femininity – yes, she casts a powerful figure and is business-like but this is hardly surprising; she is managing a corporation. Furthermore, Pearson is undeniably elegant. Her deportment and costume choices are symbols of grace as much as of self-assurance.

Work-Life What?

Aspects of her presentation, however, do make us question the industry’s accommodation of women or anyone who aspires to anything beyond their life at a powerhouse firm. Pearson’s life is the firm and this is not because she has to try that much harder to prove herself. It is the same for the male characters working at a senior level too. The show reinforces the idea that work-life balance is seemingly unattainable when at the top of the industry. Somewhat disturbingly however, we are not often made to feel as though anything is lacking.

It is hard not to notice that the workplace becomes the forum for all other activity. Characters constantly refer to each other as their ‘family’ and the most successful relationships are between co-workers, which seems to be a curious attempt to compensate for the fact that maintaining a life outside the firm is near impossible for them to achieve.

Non-Linear Depictions

The Good Wife is in this respect of greater significance for women in its depiction of the more modern struggle to merge career success and life or family. Alicia Florrick is as inspiring a lawyer as Jessica Pearson; she is quick, sharp and respected for being very good at what she does. However, and the clue really is in the name, she is a wife and a mother and the domestic space features as heavily in the show as the workplace. There are no illusions and the roles are quite realistically in conflict at times but in terms of female empowerment, this is still a positive step. It is more important for it to be shown that there are career-minded mothers than to depict only mothers or career women because we are uncomfortable with not having found a fool-proof equilibrium between the two yet.

Moving with The Times

The fact that the programme is not afraid to illustrate changing ambitions and priorities is also beneficial; Florrick is a Georgetown Law attendee, who leaves the profession to raise a family but a decade later wants back in. This may be because she has a monetary need but quite quickly she comes to value professional stimulation as much as she does being a mother. It is positive that this shift is shown without judgment and furthermore that after an adjustment period, it is proven that she is more than capable of performing at this level in spite of time away.

The Future is Yours. No, Really…

Finally, the way that Florrick’s relationship with the firm fluctuates, charting her desire to start her own firm and eventual return to the firm on new terms is powerful in expressing more modern values and mentality towards career progression. Her journey illustrates the increased importance of a feeling of autonomy even when working within a corporation and compares nicely to her senior, Diane Lockhart, who spent her life devoted to the firm she is now in charge of. Showcasing a woman who is unapologetic in shaping her career path proactively according to what she wants and not within the constraints of where she is granted to go by another is refreshing. The audience does not always approve of her decisions nor are they always fruitful but nevertheless her fearlessness is surely a powerful lesson for the next generation of women.

TV writers are clearly increasingly realising and exploiting the potential of female lawyer characters. Solidifying the image of success women lawyers on TV is an important step towards reinforcing this as a working norm for future lawyers of both genders. If television can help spark conversations of how the profession makes this work for women in reality as they advance in their careers, surely this is a bonus.

Next on the agenda ought to be getting British writers on board. Whilst we do seem to have a penchant for the female detective, female lawyers are decidedly few compared to U.S. TV series, but perhaps that discussion is for another article!