How can we talk about heroes in our culture and not talk about leaders? We have plenty of leaders, far too many, who are not very heroic. But what about fictional heroes? Life imitates art imitates life. Heroes become leaders, whether they like it or not, because their admirers imitate their actions and attitudes. Celebrities support charities. Picketers protest a school’s abrupt closing. Fans support a hero’s hasty and foolish tweet. Actors and artists of every kind influence their fans in good and bad ways, it takes only a little digging to find horrible examples. Heroes can’t help leading unless they work in total secret and none know about them or their acts.
Debating what makes for the best leaders is a long discussion by itself, but whatever those qualities are, they overlap considerably with what the best heroes display; the main differences are that heroes work mostly alone and leaders give orders. But you say ‘leaders’ in movies and TV and the default image, the one you’ll follow into danger to life, career, and future, that default is male: GW Mclintock, Lou Grant, Captain Kirk, Sherman Potter, John Sheridan, Nathan Ford, Don Eppes, Mac Taylor, and the plethora of current team investigative and action team leaders. Military/Strike teams are the most common leader from most of Hollywood’s Golden Age to more recent Agent Gibbs and Jack Bauer. Crusty editors are well established with Lou Grant, Perry White, and JJ Jamison. Business leaders are less comrade and more short term mentor at best, or more often evil and/or buffoon, especially on TV today (look at how the butler manipulates the boss on Downton Abbey) Moral leaders in fiction are modeled on priests, reverends, and ascetics.
But you look in the popular media it’s still men despite queens, prime ministers, presidents, governors, and admirals. Not that real life has reached proportionate gender representation, but it’s improving. Even in futuristic settings or high tech missions like investigation, no one seems to know how to write a good leader who happens to be female.
SF females who have earned their rank always started the story with ‘peanut head’ hair styles, closely bound to their heads. Apparently they aren’t taken seriously as officers if their hair isn’t tight against their heads. If the show and character lasted, the hair would soften. What became disturbing was noticing the same thing for female bosses on various detective shows. The female boss was the second female in the cast, and often a token minority of some kind because the investigative team was majority male.
There just aren’t enough archetypes for a female who leads others. ‘The Bitch’ is by far the most common: demanding, cruel to subordinates, clients and public, claims all credit for team effort, waste others effort, and how does it benefit them. This is not tough but fair who looks out for juniors much, the bitch cares more for herself and advancement than others around her. She uses co-workers and subordinates.
The second archetype is not seen as much, ‘Mama Bear.’ She’s more easy-going until one of her children, or someone under her protection is threatened. Susan Ivanova was usually ironic and funny, but she could get scarey if her base was threatened. Delenn both spiritual and often Mama Bear. Buffy started as a solo hero but threaten her sister? Lindsay Messer ended the kidnapper’s standoff over her daughter.
Sadly, I haven’t seen any other specific archetypes for female leaders. Those that started as male aren’t often used for female characters, even when there’s nothing in the story that says it must be male. The gruff commander, coasting-to-retirement, crazy uncle, hotshot jerk-off, wise old man… why are these only men? We have grandmothers born after the big wave of the women’s movement, why is media lagging so badly? Why do female bosses still start as peanut heads and bitches? And more importantly why are professional women who’ve earned their rank always written as bitches, always out for themselves over everything else? Is this some kind of lingering fear that women only got promoted without earning it? Or that a growing belief that you can’t get promoted unless you use everyone like serfs?
That may be more troubling.