Fact meets fiction when Hollywood takes on women entrepreneurs

Athira A. Nair

Three movies – set in three different decades – have done an exceptional job of showing the ups and downs of entrepreneurship from a woman’s perspective...

The portrayal of daily challenges women face has been done effectively by few filmmakers. In Hollywood, the realistic portrayal of women who struggled to make a career and impact many lives can be counted in single digits – with Erin Brockovich standing out, even 18 years after its release.

It is even more challenging to find the American movie industry doing justice to women entrepreneurship. When, in 1996, Donald Petrie of Miss Congeniality fame showcased an Afro-American woman’s struggles to make it as an investment banker and make it in Wall Street, the well-intended narrative of The Associate turned into a comic, non-viable depiction of what was a much larger, serious issue. Not even Whoopi Goldberg could save it from critical condemnation.

But three movies, set in three different decades have shown us different facets of entrepreneurship. Although they revolve around three white women in New York, these heroines are as realistic as they can get.

Awakening of the 1980s

‍Diane Keaton in Baby Boom

Baby Boom (1987) begins with the following narration: “53 percent of the American workforce is female… as little girls, they were told to grow up and marry doctors and lawyers; instead they grew up and became doctors and lawyers... Sociologists say the new working woman is the phenomenon of our time.” The narrator goes on to introduce the protagonist JC Wiatt (Diane Keaton), Harvard MBA holder and management consultant, who married to her work, and is called ‘Tiger Lady.’  

If this movie was made 10 years later, the narration would have been unnecessary. By then, “working women” had arrived. But when her boss tells JC that he wants to make her partner at the firm, he warns her about the sacrifices she will have to make. “A man can be a success and still have a full personal life,” he tells her. JC, who is around 40, clarifies that she does not plan to get married – “I don’t want it all.” JC does not take vacations, and lives with her boyfriend, a “career man” with the similar priorities as she does.

But when Nancy Meyers is writing a story, a surprise is always just around the corner. When JC unexpectedly inherits her late cousin’s baby, her life takes a scary turn. She does not know how to change diapers, her boyfriend breaks up with her, and worst of all, her career takes a hit.

The misogyny is not quite subtle. In fact, JC has to assure her company that nothing is going to change because of the baby. But even with a nanny to help her, little Elizabeth takes over JC’s life. In the male-dominated corporate world, she soon loses prominence and is denied partnership at her firm.

Unwilling to take any more humiliation at work, she moves to Vermont with Elizabeth. (In one of the cuter scenes in the movie, she reads baby Elizabeth a bed time story about ‘Sleeping Beauty’ waking up after the kiss to tell the Prince that she has an early morning class the next day and that she will be a doctor one day “like all women can be”.)

But in the long term, JC cannot cope with the lazy lifestyle in the sleepy town.  Boredom makes her do new things – like making apple sauce from her orchard for Elizabeth. Ending up with too many jars of sauce, she starts selling it on a small scale in nearby retail shops. Soon, she is at the library (this is the era before the Internet, of course), researching the baby food market. In no time, JC launches gourmet apple sauce for babies, called Country Baby, which becomes a hit within a few months. 

Before long, The Food Chain – which works with JC’s previous employer - wants to buy Country Baby for a whopping $3 million (we are talking 30 years ago!). Although they want her to continue as COO and offer her amazing perks, she declines the offer. She declares that Country Baby is not for sale. When JC walks away from the place that once treated her thanklessly, an entire generation of women breathe a sigh of relief that if one, or even a hundred doors close, you can always open one yourself.

The age of realism in the 90s

‍Jennifer Lawrence in Joy

Post-2010 was the era when Hollywood got more realistic about the hardships entrepreneurs would face only if they were women. David O Russel’s Joy (2015) earned an Academy award nomination for Jennifer Lawrence, who portrayed Joy Nagano, a working, single, mother of two in New York during the 90s.

Russel, famous for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, gave his muse Lawrence a tough job, which she has rendered with grace and skill. Lawrence’s character was a real-life heroine who made the best of her working class background, hitting the bull’s eye with her creative skills on TV.

At a time when info-mericals and telethons were a rage, Joy’s creation – a self wringing mop - was a hit among households. But this is a success Joy had achieved after many failures. Despite her family drama, which involves a friendly ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez as Tony) and an unhelpful father (Robert De Niro as Rudy), supported by her best friend Jackie and her grandmother who is the narrator in the movie, Joy makes it in a men’s world of marketing and manufacturing.

Whether it was making an international call to Hong Kong to investigate her manufacturer, or pretending to ignore her family humiliating her, Joy faces new battles every day. With more downs than ups, Joy embraces entrepreneurship in her 30s and becomes the president of Ingenious Designs. She not only continues to design more household and lifestyle products but also encourages women entrepreneurs by giving them an opportunity to showcase their work. When the movie ends, it is not the inimitable Lawrence or her wonderful co-stars who stay with you, but the struggles and success of Joy Mangano.

The age of woman power with The Intern

‍Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway in The Intern

Although a feel-good movie, The Intern (2015) by Nancy Meyers – in which Anne Hathaway portrays Jules Austin, founder-CEO of an ecommerce firm in Brooklyn – is nothing short of a real depiction of a woman who has to make tough decisions as an entrepreneur.

The hero of the movie is Robert De Niro’s Ben Whittaker, who is 70 years old and ends up working as an intern for Jules. But it is Jules (in her early 30s) who has to go through many day-to-day battles to lead her startup About the Fit, an online commerce platform for fashion.

Jules is married to an educated professional who chooses to be a stay-at-home father to their five-year-old daughter. At little Paige’s kindergarten, her friends’ mothers look down upon Jules for not dropping her off at school, or participating in school activities which Paige’s father Matt attends. Jules exclaims to Ben, “Are we really still critical of working moms? Seriously? Still?”

Apparently, yes.

But our hero Ben jovially tells those mothers, “Jules is a badass. I guess that’s how she became an internet sensation. Must make you guys proud, huh? One of your own out there every day, crashing the glass ceiling of the tech world. So, bravo, good for her, right?”

At work, while her team seems to love Jules, her investors think that she is not handling the pressure very well. Although Jules had grown the team to 220 people in less than 18 months since the launch of About The Fit, she is asked to find an external CEO. To save her marriage by spending more time with her husband who, she knows, was having an affair, Jules decides to take a chance with a new CEO. But Matt apologises and promises to continue supporting her wholeheartedly, and Jules decides not to give up on the company she had passionately built. All is well that ends well.

While women are often praised for multitasking, women entrepreneurs - especially those who are mothers - are often questioned on how they manage to maintain a work/life balance.

JC, Joy, and Jules offer a fitting reply.

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