In movies, the careerist ice queen usually lives alone. You know the type. After a long day at the office, she goes home to an empty house: That’s the price she pays for caring so much about work, too much, leaving her staring down the barrel of spinsterhood or contending with a shattered marriage or two. Maybe she keeps a cat for company; maybe she owns an exercise bike as a symbol of her steely discipline. Her singleness is not always a permanent condition, for sometimes she’s rescued from it by love, like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or Renée Zellweger in New in Town or Katherine Heigl in everything — all the uptight, type A rom-com sisters ensconced in sleek apartments they never seem to have time to enjoy until a strapping suitor comes along to thaw them out.
Other times she’s an antagonist, and aloneness is comeuppance for her ruthless ambition — like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, finally showing her underbelly sitting miserably in that beautiful Upper East Side townhouse, speculating what the headlines will be when the news of her latest divorce goes public (“Snow Queen Drives Away Another Mr. Priestly,” she hazards bitterly). Or Sigourney Weaver’s magnificent executive empress Katharine Parker in Working Girl, whose lover (played by Harrison Ford) flees her luxe Manhattan digs when she proposes marriage as if he were an adventurer escaping a Gorgon’s lair, off in search of less demanding romantic prospects. It’s never a choice in these films, solitude — it’s a sign of failure being flown over an otherwise successful life. No matter how high these women climb, the fact that they don’t have a partner is evidence that something is wrong with them, that they’re incomplete.
It’s Working Girl, Mike Nichols' pleasant, lightly poisoned fable of white feminism in a white-collar workplace, that suggested there were two types of female empowerment. There was the “bad” kind, in which women become calculating and emasculating and too much like men; and the “good,” in which they remain soft and straightforward and mostly take aim at each other. It’s a movie that, in the 28 years since its release, has managed to age poorly while at the same time remaining regrettably relevant, given how much this artificial dichotomy cropped up in the narrative of and commentary during the recent presidential election.
These ideas of “good” and “bad” female empowerment were the undercurrents of discussions of Hillary Clinton’s likability or lack thereof, her preference for pantsuits, the blame placed on her for her husband’s infidelity, her perceived arrogance and coldness, and that ineffable quality about her that just “bugs” people. They were just as present in the contrasting alt-feminism offered by Ivanka Trump, one that bolstered the Trump family brand while never threatening anything so uncouth as to infringe on patriarchal structures or appear indifferent to the male gaze.
But they’re also challenged and undermined in a crop of elbow-throwing fall movies that tackle the dilemma of being powerful and female in a world in which forcefulness and femininity are still treated as incompatible. Films like Elle, Miss Sloane, and Toni Erdmann not only provide some much-needed rethinking of the careerist ice queen, but they suggest she was never in need of being solved or vilified in the first place. The main characters in these movies are much more than a type or a foil — they’re carving out tricky and not always happy paths for themselves in cutthroat industries, upending expectations of how women are supposed to behave, and bearing scars from the battles they’ve fought. And what do you know: They all live alone.
There is a downside of living alone that has nothing to do with romantic inadequacy. It’s the sense of physical insecurity that can come when nobody is around to call on for help. It’s a feeling that haunts Michèle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) after a man in a ski mask forces his way into her tasteful Parisian house on a quiet afternoon and sexually assaults her. That’s the scene with which Elle starts, a brutal opening gambit that will leave some audience members unwilling to stick around for everything to follow...though that would be a shame. Elle isn’t really — as some have described it — a rape revenge tale, because Michèle doesn’t set out to destroy her rapist. It’s instead a broader portrait of a woman so familiar with and well-versed in misogyny that she’s come to treat it as a reliably exploitable male weakness — it’s even made her rich. Michèle and her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) run a successful video game company that earns its profits from titles featuring extreme, occasionally sexualized violence.
Michèle understands all too well the tangled impulses of resentment and humiliation men can feel about a woman being in control — she rules over an office full of young guys who mostly loathe her. When one questions her credentials during a meeting (the “fake gamer girl” meme is just as irritating when flung around in French), she smacks him down, totally unruffled, replying, “Maybe we’re just two bitches who got lucky, but the fact is the boss here is me.” Then another employee composites an image of her face over that of a game character in the process of being violated by a monster's tentacle and sends the video around the company, an unintended animated echo of the physical assault she recently endured.
They’re not alone in their simmering acrimony. There are flickers of rage against women lurking within even the most seemingly innocuous of male characters in Elle, including the ex-husband with whom Michèle is still friendly but divorced after he hit her; the doofus of an underemployed son she sometimes feels is a stranger to her; even the mild-mannered, married neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) who stops by to help the single lady with things around the house. The latter becomes a source of fantasy and a target of flirtation for Michèle in the wake of her attack, this bluff, capable, safe-seeming fellow who works as a banker and then comes home to help his wife set up a nativity scene for Christmas — but, in a grim undermining of the idea of the gallant protector, he turns out to have one hell of a dark streak.
What makes Elle so reverberant (especially on second viewing, when its shock tactics have less effect) isn’t just the world it presents, which places the ingrained misogyny of the day-to-day on a spectrum with the viciousness of masked rapists. It’s the arid equanimity with which Michèle treats the resentment and mistreatment lobbed at her — she is inured to but intolerant of it, and has similarly grown indifferent to the behavior that is expected of her because of her gender. That extends to the attack, and the extraordinary expression on her face as she looks down on the bloom of blood over her torn crotch, coloring the bubbles of her subsequent bath. It’s the countenance of someone confronting evidence of the latest in a lifetime of affronts that started in childhood with her father, who committed an infamous series of murders in which she was unfairly implicated. It’s the look of a woman who will, when she discovers her rapist is someone close to her, decides to initiate sexual contact with him — not as some kind of warped continuation but as an exorcism of what he did to her, a complicated way of diminishing him.
Nothing surprises Michèle. Rather than make her bitter, low expectations have left her bitterly funny, as if they (and the occasional fantasy about beating her attacker to death) have provided her with an infinite well of strength. Elle comes from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, the former Hollywood blockbusterer behind RoboCop, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers who’s returned to working in Europe, to whom the movie likely owes its lurid streak and desire to provoke. But it’s the terrific Huppert who holds the whole chancy enterprise together, finding for Michèle more completeness than is there on the page, a combination of world-weariness and the unbowed weightlessness of not giving a damn, creating in the process one of the year’s most intriguing roles.
The title character in director John Madden’s Miss Sloane is, like Michèle, a redhead and, like Michèle, would probably be described as a stone-cold bitch by anyone who’s had the misfortune of tangling with her. She’s a DC lobbyist played by Jessica Chastain, one who — thanks to the efforts of Jonathan Perera’s labored script — is defined by a collection of enthusiastically signposted habits. Elizabeth Sloane takes pills so she can get by on almost no sleep, a physical stand-in for her addiction to the job. She eats at the same crummy Chinese takeout place around the corner every night because food is just fuel, caring as little about her meals as she does with most other sensory pleasures in her life. She does occasionally book time with a sex worker (Jake Lacy) so she can enjoy orgasms and human contact without all the accompanying baggage, though she affirms she has zero regrets about her decision not to have a relationship. Elizabeth is a self-conscious and performatively chilly protagonist, prone to saying things like “I understand you have feelings and a life, but I have no duty to them.”
Despite the heavy hand in how she’s characterized, Elizabeth’s a pleasure to spend time with, because Chastain plays her like she’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, an unstoppable villain newly weaponized by the side of the angels. Or, at least, for the forces of gun control. Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) recruits her away from her moneyed firm with the promise that she’ll lead a smaller, scrappier team in the battle for better gun regulation, a fight that even he seems to think is unwinnable. With her trim bob and her matte red lipstick and her array of tailored, monochromatic outfits, Elizabeth projects an aura of such bloodless severity that no one in the film — or in the audience — buys the reason for why she signs on: that she believes it is the right thing to do. She’s asked, more than once, if someone close to her died in an incident of gun violence, a personal connection being easier to reconcile than ideological commitment.
But ideology, for Elizabeth, is enough. Miss Sloane is a political fantasy of someone willing to fight dirty for a good cause, Washington lobbying as a heist to be pulled off. It’s also, maybe more poignantly in the wake of the election, a fantasy about the ice queen triumphant, the person you really want to have on your side, using all her sway and intense focus to plant a designer heel on the neck of her former employers and on the gun lobby who hired them. Her brusqueness, obsession, and willingness to use others and to turn her entire existence over to getting the job done are all positioned as assets (rather than tendencies she needs to abandon), even as Miss Sloane acknowledges they’re unsustainable and include lots of collateral damage. Long after the movie’s made its last, not terribly satisfying twist, the character lingers, more powerful in concept than the sum of her parts.
Unlike Michèle LeBlanc and Elizabeth Sloane, Toni Erdmann’s star, Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), isn’t at the top of her field. She’s right in the middle, employed by a German consultant group contracted with an oil company in Romania to execute layoffs, trying to climb her way up in a job in which she’s often the only woman in the room who isn’t an executive’s wife or assistant. But like the other two protagonists, she’s got her own slick, impersonal apartment she uses for (too little) sleep, work, and hosting what turns out to be an unforgettable department party. She’s got a lover in the office, though she keeps him at arm’s length, their relationship a secret and unlikely to lead to more. Her life is careful, controlled, and entirely dominated by her job until her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek) — a shaggy-haired music teacher from whom she’s grown distant — turns up without warning at her doorstep. Then he refuses to leave, upsetting the ecosystem of her existence, inserting himself into her life by pretending to be a stranger (the “Toni Erdmann” of the title) after she refuses to acknowledge him as her father.
It’s the framework of an Adam Sandler movie — the tightly wound businesswoman reconnects with her goofball dad, lets her hair down, and learns she doesn’t need her lousy corporate gig to get by. Except that’s not how Toni Erdmann goes at all — it refuses to pathologize Ines’s desire for professional success, or to conclude that contentment for her is a simple as quitting her crummy job. Who’s to say another one would be better? It’s not like anyone around Ines is malicious. Instead, writer-director Maren Ade captures with unbearable accuracy how workplace sexism can be a death by a thousands cuts, and how hardening yourself to it or adjusting to fit in can make you read as brittle. When Ines tries to talk to a client, she’s passed off to take his wife out shopping instead. When men she works with go off to explore the “famous Bucharest nightlife,” she’s left behind because they have no interest in a woman witnessing their potentially extramarital adventures.
And when she has to bend her life to accommodate something work-related, her father calls her out on it, his joking-but-not-joking comment “Are you really a human?” having enough sting to it that he apologizes afterward. But the gap between them at that moment is yawning. It’s a difference of experience not just between their industries and generations, but between their genders, the double standards of what’s expected of her and how much more she has to give of herself as a woman just to keep up. Winfried doesn’t solve Ines’s dissatisfactions with practical jokes, because for the character, nothing about her situation is funny to her. Ines has her own sense of absurd, and it’s a testament to how good Toni Erdmann is that it emerges stealthily, amusingly, and heartbreakingly over the course of her father’s chaotic stay, a sign of what the two have in common, in the face of everything keeping them apart.
The secret of the career ice queen is that, despite the label, she’s always been passionate — just passionate about things that women haven’t traditionally been expected to prioritize. She’s often used as a case study in the dusty but never discardable discussion of whether women can, in fact, have it all, or whether getting ahead at work means letting another part of your life languish.
More unfairly, she’s been leveraged to imply that ambition itself can make a woman undesirable — unfeminine, off-putting, bitchy. In Working Girl, Harrison Ford ends up with Melanie Griffith’s plucky character Tess, drawn to her because she’s not the caricature of the ball-breaking female execs who surround him in their sexless boxy suits, going on about cutting the opposition “off at the knees.” “You're the first woman I've seen at one of these damn things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman,” he says of her cocktail garb, and as a reward he buys her shots while refusing to talk business or even tell her his name.
It’s always had the thwack of an arrow to the chest, that line from the “nice guy” love interest, that casual dismissal of all the women trying hard to fit into office culture by being one of the guys, to not present themselves as sexual objects first and foremost. Even a movie about and for women can’t stop itself from approaching them from a decidedly empathy-free male point of view, which is why the arrival of Elle, Miss Sloane, and Toni Erdmann now feels so long in coming. They’re the proof that “careerist ice queen” is an epithet, not a type of person, because within their confines, she’s just a woman with grand plans for herself. Turns out the transformation was as easy as putting her at the center of her own story — and that shouldn’t be hard: She likes to be in charge.