Beware the queen bee



The Devil Wears Prada is the buzz of the film world, but female bosses like the powerful magazine editor it portrays aren’t just celluloid creations.
“The details of your incompetence do not interest me. Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling; she sent me dirty, tired and paunchy. And RSVP yes to Michael Kors’ party, I want the driver to drop me off at 9.30 and pick me up at 9.45 sharp … Also, tell Richard I saw all the pictures that he sent for that feature on the female paratroopers and they’re all so deeply unattractive. Is it impossible to find a lovely, slender, female paratrooper? Am I reaching for the stars here?”
Meryl Streep as magazine editor and fashionista Miranda Priestly in the film The Devil Wears Prada.
REVENGE is meant to be a dish best served cold, but The Devil Wears Prada is hot. It is a chick-flick about a she-devil editor at a top fashion magazine. One day she decides to take a chance and hires “the smart fat girl” as her junior assistant.
The perfectly normally endowed new staffer finds herself in an office of ridiculously thin women (“I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight,” says one) who are forever erupting into cries of “Prada! Armani! Versace!”
Even more ridiculous are the demands of her imperious mistress: “Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning,” or, “I need 15 skirts from Calvin Klein.”
What kind of skirts?
“Please bore someone else with your … questions.”
According to Time reviewer Richard Schickel, “Streep is, predictably, a marvel as Miranda, flapping her wings, nipping at her perpetually frightened flock, hissing her contempt for their frightened ways.”
The film is based on a book of the same title by Lauren Weisberger, a former assistant to US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who is widely believed to be her model for Miranda Priestly.
In a show of stylish defiance, Wintour attended a preview screening dressed in – mais oui! – Prada. The film is due out in Australia next month and is already an American box-office hit.
The immaculately turned-out Wintour once had a cream pie hurled at her face by animal protesters who were angry that her magazine promoted fur.
The character of Miranda Priestly is a pie in the face for women in leadership positions who have had to battle the stereotype of the powerful woman as dragon lady, bitch and ballbreaker. The film also plays on the idea of the catfight, a phenomenon dear to the hearts of unreconstructed men who like to believe that, deep down, women dislike and back-stab each other.
Real female bosses don’t act like that, surely?
In fact, painful as this might be for the sisterhood to admit, some do. Female lingo has long had a name for it, too: such a woman is a queen bee.
It is true that both water-cooler wisdom – the views you get in a straw poll in an office – and social science research suggest that women managers tend to have a more caring and sharing approach to managing staff than men do.
In organisations where women made up at least 30 per cent of the top three ranks of management, according to a study by Professor Colleen Chesterman at Sydney’s University of Technology, staff said they found their working environments more congenial, collaborative, goal-focused and people-oriented as a result. They also believed women could manage in tough times and were prepared to make hard decisions such as cutting staff and rationalising budgets.
Professor Leonie Still, of the Centre for Women and Business at the University of Western Australia, says male managers tend to take charge (problem-solving, delegating, influencing upward). Female managers take care: supporting, rewarding, mentoring, networking, consulting and team-building.
“He would rather be taking a client or a boss out to lunch,” she says. “He builds relationships outwards, looking for the next promotion. She prefers to look at maintaining relationships within the team …”
But it is difficult in organisations where female leadership has not reached the “critical mass” of 30 per cent.
In stressed, competitive workplaces dominated by men, even the women managers adopt a hard-edged macho style, according to research on high-tech companies by Professor Judy Wajcman at the Australian National University. “Some of the women identified with women, but other women feared being ‘tainted’ by being seen to be interested in women. It’s fear of discrimination. It’s as if they were telling the men, ‘I’m not like them, you can trust me because I’m in a different category,’ ” she says.
Meredith Fuller is a counselling psychologist specialising in career development. In her practice, Fuller sees both the queen and the workers she has stung.
What drives her? “She often has a great sense of entitlement, which can come from having been daddy’s princess. The entitled princess’ strategy is flirtatious and seductive, with a high edge of manipulative anger. She will play the cutesy game. She’s charming and witty but when she’s not turning it on, she’s full of rage. Men want to help her and don’t understand why other women don’t like her. She has an enormous saccharine smile but she will hunt out anyone who’s any good, work them like a dog, hide them away, present their work as her own and get rid of them. It’s search and destroy.”
The second kind of queen bee is desperate to prove that she is better than everyone else, “and that can come from a childhood that left her with poor self-esteem. Rather than feeling entitled, this woman is a bitter and twisted competitor. Her game is usually, ‘I’m going to be a better boy than the boys. I’m going to look fantastic and I don’t care who gets punished in the process.’ It’s all about her, in a very narcissistic way, and she can be very aggressive, intimidating and scary.”
The queen bee sees her problem as the tiresomeness of others in her hive: ” ‘I have got these idiots working for me! They’re all hopeless! They’re all envious of me, passive aggressive towards me, they are all out to get me, they are so resistant!’ She perceives herself as someone who’s a real star, who’s special, and isn’t it tragic that there are so many mediocre people in the world and they all happen to work for her?”
Fuller says that underneath her apparent arrogance, the queen bee is desperately insecure that she is not good enough and that she will be found out. “Some go to the extreme of fearing they will end up a bag lady on the street. They are so afraid they will collapse that they encase themselves in a suit of armour; you know, the ones who’ve got the $10,000 suitcases and the $3000 shoes? They talk about their accoutrements as being their secret weapons, so that they can walk into the awful meeting with bravado: ‘I’m sassy, I’m brilliant, no one’s going to mess with me.’ ”
As actor Lily Tomlin says – the trouble with the rat race is that even if the woman wins, she’s a rat.
But women who aren’t rats won’t stay with women who are. Katherine Milesi, a partner at accounting firm Deloittes, says she has a friend at another company who has just resigned because of a queen bee. “She was interfering with this person’s time outside work, constantly contacting her outside of work hours. She made it very difficult; she was demanding and controlling. This person had very strong feelings about having to take action; she doesn’t have another job to go to.”
Executive recruiter Kathleen Townsend, who helps in the hiring of chief executives, general managers and managing directors, says this sort of behaviour is rare. The importance of people skills is now much more recognised than it used to be: “The Gordon Geckos and other people who were standing on others to get to the top are increasingly less attractive to companies.”
She has occasionally struck “tolerance of appalling behaviour and massive egos”, which was associated either with creative enterprises such as movies or with some big-billing partners in law and accounting firms whose ability to attract revenue was highly valued. But they went through junior staff quickly, and tend to be found out now by the relatively recent practice of the exit interview.
It is only when women become leaders in large numbers that we will learn how much dysfunctional female behaviour is personal to the individual, and how much is a response to the power dynamic of the individual workplace.
In her research, Professor Leonie Still found that when the tables were turned, junior men could behave manipulatively with women bosses: “The man will flirt and flatter and play the submissive male to get what he wants, then he will go around and boast to everybody that he can get anything out of the boss – and there’s always a sexual connotation to it.”
For Professor Judy Wajcman, the question is not so much whether men and women manage differently, but the way in which women are judged more harshly for doing what men do.
“When men are decisive, they are seen as strong, directive managers. When women do exactly the same thing, they are seen as ambitious and hard.”
They are also less easily forgiven for blunders, according to Elizabeth Bryan, president of the NSW branch of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
They tend to be cautious managers because they know there is little margin for failure for them: “If a woman makes a mistake, you get very, very quick judgement – ‘She couldn’t hack it, she couldn’t handle it.’ You just don’t get the same thing with males, they’re just not criticised in the same way,”she says.
There will undoubtedly be chats around the water cooler about The Devil Wears Prada.
Women on the defensive can always quote Meryl Streep on where she found her inspiration for the role of uber-bitch Miranda: “I thought of all the most wilful studio honchos I know, mostly men.”
How to avoid the sting – If your manager is a destructive queen bee …
1: Never be alone with her for important exchanges. She will lie in the form of “not remembering” what you remember about what was decided.
2: Transparency is your weapon because secrecy is hers. If you find yourself shafted by her in a meeting, say sweetly in front of colleagues, “I am really confused that you said that, because I thought we had agreed that this and this was happening.
Can you help me understand what has happened here?”
3: Counter her attempts to undermine by dividing and conquering and working individuals very hard, by talking to colleagues and finding support. Don’t allow yourself to be isolated by self-doubt.
4: Be protective of your privacy. Make sure not to leave your work open, because she will look over your shoulder and her eyes will “vacuum” your desk.
5: Stay calm. Many staffers who must answer to queen bees tolerate illtreatment for months and then explode over something minor. She will turn this into evidence of your emotional instability.
6: Protect yourself with records. Write confirming emails after verbal exchanges and cc others; always print out and keep hard copies of communications.
Source: Meredith Fuller, counselling psychologist in career development.
LOUISE ADLER CEO, Melbourne University Publishing
LOUISE Adler often quotes American author Nancy Kline in speeches about women and business: ‘Invited into the seats of power, we agree largely to leave behind and devalue our women’s culture. We respond with ‘Thank you, I accept your invitation to enter the boardroom and agree to put all my energies into … lying (and call it diplomacy), into obsession (and call it loyalty), into exploitation (and call it resourcefulness), into conquest (and call it reward), and into control (and call it power). I will not cry or … expect tenderness …’ “I think that’s women’s experience. But I take the view that women can lead differently, that they don’t have to behave in the way men do.”
ELIZABETH BRYAN, NSW branch president of the Australian Institute of Company Directors
“YOU need a critical mass of women to create a woman-friendly environment. In a lot of professions, the graduates are over 50 per cent women. By the time you reach managerial and professional status, about 44 per cent are women. The next stage up is executive management and that drops to 10 per cent women. CEOs are only 2.3 per cent women. It’s fear of female power. Most of the senior women come up through support roles, where they are not seen as a threat. But you probably won’t get a woman running the core business of the company. As soon as you are a line manager, you have real power and are therefore a real threat. Before we get real change we will have to have lots of women, not just the occasional extraordinary one.”
KATHERINE MILESI, partner with accounting and consulting firm Deloitte
“THERE is still some degree of reticence in women about putting themselves up for promotion, particularly from senior manager to director, and from director to partner. Often it’s because they are starting on a family and don’t believe it’s possible to have a family and be a partner at the same time. About 12 months ago, a couple of people had a word in my ear, and they changed my mind about that. I have a part-time partnership; I have every Friday off because of my children. When you are first in management, it’s certainly a learning curve asking people to do things for you. Women will often be a little bit more apologetic – ‘Can you do this as a favour for me?’ rather than ‘This needs to be done and can you do it?’

At the smoke of midnight

FILM They started with a film deemed too heavy for a usual showing. But as Karen Kissane reports, midnight screenings took on a life of their own.

IT WAS, IS, AND EVER WILL BE a seriously weird film. El Topo is a mystical, spaghetti-western, coming-of-age movie with references to Taoism, Sufism, Tarot, Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism, a hero who is both a killer and a saint – and bucketloads of gore.
Its violence is grotesque in form and Biblical in volume: whole towns are massacred, a room swings with hanging men, animals are butchered and people are raped, tortured and castrated. Perhaps the most arresting of the film’s surreal images is that of a genuinely legless man riding on the back of a genuinely armless one.
Ben Barenholtz first saw El Topo (The Mole) screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Half the audience walked out, but he was fascinated. He was the owner of New York’s Elgin Theatre and he decided to screen previews of the film at midnight because “it was too heavy to be shown in any other way”. There was almost no advertising but the film soon took off among counter-culture cognoscenti (former Beatle John Lennon saw it three times). Part of its attraction, cinema historians later concluded, was due to management’s resigned tolerance of marijuana consumption in the balcony.
Barenholtz did not know it then but he had just played midwife to the birth of what would become an avant-garde ritual of the 1970s: the midnight movie.
Between 1970 and 1977, a handful of films – mostly low-budget and recent, some revivals of old movies, but all deviant or shocking in some way – shattered social and sexual taboos. They became the blockbusters of the witching hour, with queues stretching around city blocks and big theatres filling to capacity.
The Melbourne International Film Festival recently screened a 2005 documentary on the phenomenon by writer and director Stuart Samuels titled Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream. From this week, ACMI Cinemas will run late-night showings of several of the key works: El Topo, the gruesome horror Night of the Living Dead, the champion gross-out Pink Flamingos, David Lynch’s dream-like Eraserhead, the reggae outlaw movie The Harder They Come, and the madly camp, cannibalistic and sexually omnivorous Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its sweet transvestite Transylvania-a-a-a-an.
They are not for the faint-hearted. One of the investors in the low-budget Night of the Living Dead was a meatpacker. He arrived on set with sacks of animal intestines for the filming of human-flesh-eating scenes. In Pink Flamingos, the “heroine”, the flame-haired transvestite Divine, is the queen of filth until her title is challenged by the delivery of a gift-boxed turd from a pair of rivals. Divine reclaims her title in an epilogue to the movie that involves a fluffy poodle and coprophilia (head for your dictionary, dear reader, as the definition does not sit well in a family newspaper). Suffice to say the film was compared to an exploded septic tank.
Flamingos director John Waters saw viewer repugnance as a professional triumph. “To me, bad taste is what it’s all about,” he said in one interview. “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” Critics analysed Waters, a lapsed Catholic, as a director who depicted humanity with a mixture of amused tolerance and metaphysical disgust.
Some cult movies of the ’70s were historical artefacts. Reefer Madness, a black-and-white “documentary” from 1936, with a melodramatic tale of murder, madness and suicide caused by the demon weed cannabis, was viewed for its unintended humour, usually through a sardonic haze of reefer smoke. Audiences could get high just breathing the air in the cinema, one theatre director told Stuart Samuels.
Freaks is an even earlier movie (1932), by director Tod Browning, who used real people with disabilities to play the sideshow freaks of the title. They included conjoined twins, a limbless man known as the Human Torso, and people with pathologically undersized brains who were referred to in the film as “pinheads”. Browning’s treatment of them was sympathetic – the moral of his tale is that beauty is only skin deep, and it is the “normal” characters in his film who are wicked. But his cast was so shocking to filmgoers of the time that Freaks was banned in Britain for 30 years.
According to Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman, who wrote the classic book Midnight Movies, transgressing taboos was only one of the two essential ingredients for a cult film. The other, they argued, was that the film should offer “immediately relevant social metaphors”. In real life, the maker of the bloody El Topo had been present for the aftermath of a mass shooting by Mexican police that killed dozens of university students. The director of Night of the Living Dead told Samuels he had tried to imitate the grainy horror of nightly TV news reports of the carnage in the Vietnam war. Rocky Horror played with the changing sexual politics of the ’70s. To the cultist, these films were deep and important.
In Melbourne, at least part of their attraction was prosaic, according to Cinema Nova director John Rouse. He was a media student when midnight movies were running in Melbourne, which was then a very tame town: “In the context of the late ’70s, there was nothing else to do. There was no late-night TV, pubs closed at 10, we didn’t have video stores. Melbourne came to a screeching halt at 11.30 pm.”
Later, Rouse went on to run the Valhalla Cinema. For years the Valhalla’s cult-program posters hung on the back of the dunny door in every self-respecting inner-city student house in Melbourne. He says the Valhalla can claim the credit for turning the droll musical The Blues Brothers – the Sound of Music of cult movies, one that parents can happily watch with their children – into an international midnight-movie phenomenon.
Like Rocky Horror, The Blues Brothers had initially failed on general release and was written off as “one of the all-time box-office flops”. Rouse and his colleagues thought it was fun and that it was bigger than the response to it suggested. They took a punt and programmed it every Friday night for six months.
It ran for years. Regulars started to arrive dressed as characters in the show and acting out scenes as they were played on screen, “including small, minor bureaucratic figures, just so they could have their own tiny moment in the sun when their character came on. People from the military and police loved it; they would rappel down from the balcony. It was a complete party.” Its Melbourne success led producers to rethink, and the film was re-released around the world. “We invented the Blues Brothers phenomenon,” Rouse says.
He says Melbourne was slower to catch on to the audience theatricality that became such an entrenched part of the Rocky Horror experience. It was not until the 1980s movie Fame, with a scene in which characters dressed up and acted out roles at a Rocky screening, that Melbourne cinema-goers “got it”.
For ACMI’s screening of Rocky, curator Lisa Pieroni has organised an original participant in the Melbourne parties to co-ordinate the live aspects of the performance. “I’ve asked the cleaners if they can cope with rice (for the wedding scene) and water pistols (for the rainstorm),” she laughs.
How influential were midnight movies? Geoff Mayer, associate professor of film studies at La Trobe University, believes they did not affect the making of mainstream movies but did help develop a greater sophistication in audiences: “People are more knowing now. People are more literate with regard to form. But we have still got only a small audience here who look forward to more innovative films that will be in your face and formally challenging.”
But Pieroni believes midnight movies have changed mainstream entertainment more generally. “Isn’t it something that is part of the Big Brother thing? When they televise turkey-slapping, people are up in arms about it but they also enjoy it to the nth degree. You can still see why these films appealed to people; we enjoy being shocked and intrigued and having the boundaries pushed.”
Freaky Fridays Spotlight: Midnight Movies, will start from 18 August at 10 pm at ACMI Cinemas, Federation Square,
The book Midnight Movies, by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is published by De Capo Press.

First published in The Age 12 August 2006.