Ambition is not ladylike. Not in real life, and not on screen.
Ambition is often synonymous with ruthlessness, and that’s an admirable quality in characters who became pop culture icons to be praised and imitated. In the words of Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987), “greed is good”. What’s unspoken is that greed is good – but only when it comes to men.
Ambition makes for a powerful character arc for men on screen – it feeds into the idea that men are designed to go out and conquer, consequences be damned, from Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008–13) to Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Meanwhile, ambitious women, in the real world and on screen, are presented as glamorous cautionary tales, frequently coded as villainous in film and TV, whether it’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) or aspiring designer Cruella DeVil in Cruella (2021). What makes ambitious women such a threatening cinematic presence?
The Woman Scorned is a trope we see across genres: in thrillers she goes to extremes to humiliate or destroy (physically or socially) the man who rejected her (think Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons, Acrimony), and she’s also the comedic heroine, achieving the same goal through hilarious hijinks like in The First Wives Club (1996).
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” goes the saying, adapted from William Congreve’s play The Mourning Bride (1697), which routinely neglects the first line: "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned”. But while the Woman Scorned is rooted – as Congreve implies – in love, the Ambitious Woman has no need for relationships, which makes her much more dangerous.
The Scorned Woman wants revenge, but the Ambitious Woman wants power for herself. If she doesn’t have much inclination towards romance or domesticity, how can she be tamed?
She represents danger because she doesn’t need anyone, relationships are merely currency. She prioritises money, power and status above all else, which she pursues by manipulating people’s expectations. No wonder we’re afraid of her – her aggressive independence is usually reserved for male characters.
There were many examples of business-minded, no-nonsense female characters in pre-Code Hollywood, like philandering CEO Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) in Female (1933), who trades men as comfortably as she trades stocks. Precursors to the Ambitious Woman like Drake though, are often seduced away from their career by the “right guy”, and they’re often forced to choose between the business or the heart.
Another precursor is the femme fatale of film noir like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) or Kitty Collins in The Killers (1946), who use their sex appeal to get what they want. While the femme fatale is manipulative, treacherous and faithless, the downfall of a male character defines her, not her own ambitions.
The Ambitious Woman has a richer interior life than just men. One of the most iconic is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve (1950), who is a devoted fan of theatre star Margo Channing (Bette Davis). But Eve’s not quite the wide-eyed ingenue she initially appears to be. She uses the aging actress to ingrain herself into the theatre world, and ultimately becomes Broadway’s shining new star, with Hollywood beckoning. The film begins and ends with Eve delivering a speech at an awards ceremony, being watched with uncontained disdain – and a touch of admiration – by Margo.
Cut to thirty-nine years later, and we have one of cinema’s greatest, most threatening Ambitious Women: The Last Seduction’s Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino). The 1994 film evokes the femme fatale, but Bridget fits into the Ambitious Woman trope best. She goes on the run with a bag of money after her husband hits her. While the film presents this as the inciting incident, the truth is that Bridget couldn’t give a damn. She’s a self-described cold-hearted bitch, laughing in the face of the Woman Scorned trope. When she’s approached by a man in the small-town bar, she shoos him away, quipping, “Go find yourself a nice little cowgirl and make nice little cowbabies and leave me alone”, until he declares he’s “hung like a horse”. All of her relationships in the film, whether monetary or sexual, serve her needs. Just like Eve, and in an extremely rare case for cinema’s bad women, Bridget gets away with it. Dressed in an impeccable black suit, she disappears in an expensive car, leaving a trail of bodies behind her whose names she probably can’t remember.
The cinema of the 1990s gave us several wondrous examples of female ambition alongside Bridget Gregory, including Suzanne Stone (To Die For, 1995) and Meredith Johnson (Disclosure, 1994), but unlike Bridget they were punished and disposed of. By the end of the decade Election (1999) gave us a portrait of an ambitious woman in the making.
Tracey Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a sixteen-year-old overachiever running for high school president with a perfectly mapped-out career path – but also engaged in a sexual relationship with a teacher. However, what we remember, and what’s perpetuated in pop culture, is Tracey’s ambition, which categorises her as a villain. Tracey also leaves a trail of bodies behind her (metaphorical, this time). She’s not greedy for money, but for power. Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber puts it like this: “She cares, about her own interests and those of everybody else, so insistently, and so aggressively – indeed, so ambitiously – as to blur the line between the two. She strives and she wants and she works so, so hard. That is the source of her villainy.”(1)
If Tracey was a boy named, say, Travis, these qualities would be positive. And while ambition within politics is a nuanced arena, Tracey’s ambition is coded as negative because it’s perceived as entirely self-serving. The ambition of Parks and Recreation’s (2009–15) Leslie Knope on the other hand, who is essentially a grown-up version of Tracey, is rooted in helping others. Everything she does benefits her community and her friends, her ambition is a means to a selfless end, rather than a goal in and of itself.The millennial spin on the Ambitious Woman trope is the Girlboss. A term born from fashion entrepreneur Sophia Amorouso’s memoir of the same name (which inspired a scripted Netflix series), the Girlboss is a rebranded Ambitious Woman, and no one embodies her better than Emma Stone as the titular fashion designer and future puppy-killer in Cruella.
Cruella wants to be powerful, successful and recognised. In a reverse mentorship with the high-powered, old-fashioned designer The Baroness (Emma Thompson), she wants to destroy her not because she’s enraged by her cruel methods, but because she wants to take her place. In her review of Cruella, Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastien writes: “Its central character is a white woman whose concerns and politics begin and end with herself. She’s a girl boss pretending to fight against the powers that be. She doesn’t want to overthrow the Establishment so much as become it.”(2)
Before Cruella, we see the proto-Girlboss in Working Girl (1988), where the main ambition of the likeable protagonist Tess (Melanie Griffith) is to join the corporate hierarchy represented by her hard-edged boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver). While at first admired by Tess, Katharine is quickly revealed to be a ruthless faux-feminist and an expert in manipulating her womanhood to get ahead – even if it means stepping on other women, including Tess when Katharine takes credit for her protégé’s idea. Tess falls for a handsome colleague (Harrison Ford), who backs her version of the story in a meeting, thus validating her experience. Through Katharine, Working Girl reinforces the idea that Female Ambition is abhorrent, if not curbed by the men around her – sometimes with the help of other good women – and is corruptive of both the Ambitious Woman and business itself. Tess doesn’t become the Girlboss, but she’s allowed a chance to climb the ladder by the men whose business she helped.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006) gave us an Ambitious Woman that would define millennial cinema: the fashion magazine editor-in-chief Miranda Priestley, based on Vogue’s creative chief Anna Wintour. The film is coded as a light-hearted chick flick, with female ambition and power at the heart of it. Meryl Streep’s boss is influential to the point where she can inspire fear with a whisper or purse of the lips. This was a deliberate choice by the performer, and an unexpected one.
The film disappoints its own intention, though, because it gives Miranda a moment of weakness, witnessed by her assistant Andy, where she laments that all her success has rendered her unpalatable as a partner: “Dragon lady. Career-obsessed. Snow queen drives away another Mr. Priestley”.
There is a difference between ambitious and aspirational. Aspirational implies a level of humbleness, relatability, a certain “I want to be like her” quality. Ambitious women, on the other hand, are selfish, self-centred, grasping for something that’s not for them to want. We don’t want to be like Miranda or Katharine, we should want to be like Andy and Tess.
Author and academic Julianna Baggott, writing on ambition in Pretty Bitches, says: “Male ambition is good and necessary. People assume that any man who’s gotten far in his career has a lot of it. Female ambition, on the other hand, is dirty. It’s selfish. It’s ugly. Female ambition is suspicious. It comes at a cost. It’s necessary to get ahead - we’re told - but if a woman uses it to get ahead, then she’s sacrificed her soul. And she’s going against society’s virtuous goal for her: motherhood.”(3)
And so we come to the underlying reason why the Ambitious Woman of cinema is frequently coded as the villain: ambition is understood to oppose motherhood.
Ambition on women is synonymous with greed. It’s often coded as anti-feminine, because it implies coldness, manipulation and disregard for others. And whereas Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belflour can become poster children for the macho version of live-laugh-love, the Miranda Priestleys and Eve Harringtons offend the institutions of family and the very nature of womanhood by embracing their ambition.
The Ambitious Woman trope is one that stems from a wider cultural allergy to female ambition. While ambitious male characters find a way to transform the exploitative nature of capitalism into flawed, but ultimately aspirational stories; the Ambitious Woman must always be brought down or put in her place.
That is, unless she’s Bridget Gregory.
This article appears in Goddess: Fierce Women on Film. Grab your copy today.
- Megan Garber, ‘Hilary Clinton, Tracy Flick, and the Reclaiming of Female Ambition’, The Atlantic, 10 June, 2016
- Angelica Jade Bastien, ’Cruella Is the Girl-Bossification of the Madwoman’, Vulture, 29 May, 2021
- Julianna Baggot, ’Ambition’, Pretty Bitches: On Being Called Crazy, Angry, Bossy, Frumpy, Feisty, and All the Other Words That Are Used To Undermine Women, Seal Press, New York, 2020, pp. 82