’Re-envisaging Leadership through the Feminine Imaginary in Film and Television
Emma Bell and Amanda Sinclair
’Re-envisaging Leadership through the Feminine Imaginary in Film and Television’ in Beyes, T.,
Parker, M. And Steyaert, C. (eds.) Routledge Companion to Reinventing Management Education. London:
Routledge, pp. 273-286.
Leadership is widely seen to be a central, if often inadequately taught, part of the management
education curriculum. While it has traditionally been taught by imparting theories, normative models
of what makes a good leader, and case studies of well-known corporate heroes (Doh 2003), there is
some doubt as to whether leadership can be effectively taught using such conventional pedagogic
methods (Parks 2005; Sinclair 2007a). Some suggest there is a need for alternative ways of conveying
the complex, contradictory and embodied pressures associated with the lived experience of trying
to ‘do’ leadership. This includes the use of experiential approaches which use the classroom as an
opportunity ‘in the here and now’ for participants to embody and experience leadership among their
peers, and do their own leadership ‘identity work’ (Sinclair 2007b; Carroll and Levy 2010; Nicholson
and Carroll 2013).
Experiential approaches to learning about leadership include the use of film and television in
management education, which can act as a vicarious substitute for personal experience (Bell 2008;
Billsberry et.al 2012), and is therefore suggested to represent ‘an untapped source of leadership
wisdom’ (Clemens and Wolff 1999). However, the vast majority of these recommended texts
feature male leaders exercising influence in a variety of political and organisational settings and the
leadership styles that are represented are heroic and hyper-masculinised. From The Sopranos to The
West Wing, such texts invite audiences to emotionally invest in the morally complex and wayward
behaviours of men with power (Martin 2013: 5). On the rare occasions where women are
represented doing leadership in film and television, they are often stereotypically and negatively
represented (McDowell 1998; Brewis 2004). It is therefore important to challenge the assumption
that such texts provide a direct or ‘reflectional’ correspondence to the ‘real’ world. Such treatment
ignores the ideological aspects of these texts in shaping individual subjectivities in ways which
constitute and reinforce power relations. We therefore propose a critical approach to reading film
and television texts which enables students to challenge stereotypes and embodied norms and
explore alternative understandings of leadership. Such critical readings can provide a means of
revealing important aspects of leadership that are often obscured by conventional academic
perspectives and methods, including the role of bodies, materiality and physicality (Pullen and
Vachhani 2013). This also enables critique of the ways in which women leaders’ bodies are
represented in positions of leadership.
Our chapter begins by reviewing the use of film and television in management education. We then
discuss the media representation of former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as an example
that illustrates of the gendered visibility and critical scrutiny that accompanies women in leadership.
Next we turn to representations in film and television, drawing on feminist film theory to explore
‘what’s going on’ when the camera is turned on women leaders, showing how the masculine ‘gaze’
transforms women’s power and sexualities into more benign forms through ‘fictionalised’
representation. We then turn to the Danish TV series Borgen, which we suggest is important in
enabling the representation of women leaders in dynamic and embodied ways. This involves female
characters enacting leadership in ways which contest dominant forms and convey agency and
possibility. Our analysis focuses on three categories of leadership: disrupting the patriarchal order;
erotic leadership and acting on a ‘feminine imaginary’. We conclude by suggesting that engagement
with diverse, innovative texts such as Borgen opens up opportunities for management educators and
students to re-envisage leadership.
Using Film and Television to Understand Leadership
The use of film and television in management education has increased in recent years as a
consequence of the influence of the narrative turn. This calls into question the objectivity of
scientific conventions that have traditionally guided management studies, and advocates the
development of new ways of understanding management as a creative, emotional and embodied
practice (Czarniawska-Joerges and de Monthoux 1994; Gagliardi and Czarniawska 2006). Our
experience as management educators suggests that managers and students may learn more about
how to talk and act like a leader via popular culture, than from scholarly articles or business school
cases (Czarniawska and Rhodes 2006). Film and television are useful in understanding the
importance of bodies in leadership because they create a ‘sense of active, exploratory touch which
involves all the senses simultaneously’ and ‘demands participation and involvement in depth of the
whole being’ (McLuhan and Fiore 1967). This enables educators and students to literally and
metaphorically ‘freeze-frame’ vivid moments of leadership-in-action, giving space and opportunity to
explore their meaning and impact.
Popular culture thus provides resources to investigate and challenge representations of leadership, in
a way that traditional cases and classroom materials do not. As Pullen and Rhodes suggest, popular
culture not only reveals gendered power regimes in organizations but also ‘contains within it the
resources for the critique and even subversion of those norms’ (2011: 52). They draw on Tyler and
Cohen’s (2008) deconstruction of The Office, where the self-proclaimed ‘transformational leadership’
of manager, David Brent, is parodied, inviting the audience to recognise and critique the effects of
ubiquitous leadership jargon. Similar dynamics can be found in other aspects of popular culture such
as novels; Phillips and Knowles in their study of fictional entrepreneurial women, suggest that novels
provide a form of ‘cultural fantasy’, sites where conventional, gendered ‘truths’ about entrepreneurs
can be upended (2012: 422). Research on the impact of media on young people confirms that
audiences are not passive recipients of idealized images, but rather select and reject according to
understandings of the norms of image presentation (Coleman 2008). The observer/reader is thus an
active interpreter of the text who is able to explore the processes whereby some characters
espouse dominant narratives, while others escape straightforward signification within dominant
gender discourses. By ‘widening the repertoire of representation modes…’ and exploring their
aesthetic force (Czarniawska 2011: 106), students are given space, not only to critique the gender
norms that are represented on screen, but also to disrupt them by envisaging ways of doing
To illustrate what is entailed in this, we focus on the Danish TV series Borgen (2010, 2011 and 2013),
a political drama set and made in Denmark. We suggest that the importance of TV series like
Borgen arises from their potential as a means of representing lived experience and offering mobilising
representations of leadership to audiences. Such narratives are meaning-making through offering
convincing interpretations (Czarnaiwska 1999, 2006). They provide spectators with role models of
embodied organizational behaviour which they may choose to emulate (Bell 2012; D’Enbeau and
Buzzanell 2013). This is particularly useful in understanding gendered power in organisations
because of the difficulty of using conventional research methods for studying gender (Martin 1992;
Czarniawska 2011). Our reading of Borgen focuses on the representation of women leaders as
influential, embodied protagonists. We suggest that the characters’ responses to patriarchal values
and practices constitute significant acts of resistance, subversion, reclaiming – and leadership. We
use our reading to explore the potential of these portrayals in enabling students to envisage
alternative conceptions of leadership and ushering in a fundamental shift towards more diverse and
inclusive understandings of what good leadership looks like.
Traditional ways of seeing women leaders
The rise of a minority of women to highly visible positions of leadership provides a rich resource in
understanding societal norms that surround the embodiment of leadership subject positions –
indeed women experience a disproportionate visibility because of their gender. Examples include
women who occupy positions of political leadership (Genovese and Steckenrider 2013), as well as
those who those who occupy senior roles in business, public sector and other organisations. For
the purposes of this chapter, we adopt a broad definition of leadership, encompassing societal as
well as organisational roles, and including informal as well as formal leadership positions. Our
discussion also deliberately blurs the boundaries between ‘cinematic’ and ‘everyday’ realities, drawing
on examples that illustrate how women leaders are represented in the news media, as well as
representations in film and television dramas which are largely fictive. This is because the cultural
myths about leadership that sustain these cultural texts are closely interrelated, to the extent that
the everyday is defined by the cinematic and vice versa (Denzin 1995).
Research highlights the importance of leaders embodying a leader-ly or leader-like, identity, which
typically conforms to a masculine stereotype (Eagly 2011; Ely et al. 2011). In contrast to white, male
leaders’ bodies, which usually enjoy the privilege of not being ‘seen’, ‘women’s identities, gender and
bodies are routinely tied together and attributed meanings antithetical to leadership’ (Sinclair 2013:
242). Research has also documented how women in senior positions are routinely scrutinised and
measured against sex stereotypes – which are applied to their bodies, clothes, demeanour and
sexuality in ways which conflict with conventional images of ‘good’ leadership and cause them to be
viewed as less leader-like and less successful. Even when senior women are judged as equally
competent as male colleagues they are typically penalised for their success and considered ‘less
likeable’ (Heilman et al. 2004; Ibarra et al. 2013). A fundamental and deeply embedded tension thus
exists between norms of acceptable female embodiment and notions of effective leadership. This
tension is particularly evident in on screen images (Hall and Donaghue 2013; Sinclair 2011), where
women’s bodies are often represented in ways which render them disreputable as leaders.
The question of what women leaders should do in response to high levels of visibility, scrutiny and
gendered criticism is far from resolved. Women are expected to actively camouflage their gender
and sexuality to manage their ‘difference’ (Sinclair 1995, 1998; Trethewey 1999). This has given rise
to a proliferation of analysis and advice about how women should act, or manage their image to
steer a path through this gendered minefield, often implying that it is the individual woman’s
responsibility to manage her body and her image to minimise these effects (Hochschild 1990).
Academic analyses have identified the double binds that women leaders face, for example, the need
to mute personal ambition and only focus on the common good (Hall and Donaghue 2013), and the
need to do the necessary extra ‘identity work’ involved in the transition to leadership (Ely et al.
2011; Ibarra et al. 2013). While some have argued that women’s visibility and consequent scrutiny
will eventually subside as more women come into leadership roles, and they cease to be remarkable
and speculated upon, there is little evidence to support this critical mass argument. Sheryl Sandberg,
COO of Facebook, has recommended that women ‘lean in’ in order to gain access to organizational
leadership opportunities (Sandberg 2013); yet she has more recently acknowledged that such efforts
by women have not substantively impacted the numbers or pay equity of women in leadership. Thus
such discourses of neoliberal individualism (Rottenburg 2014) provide women leaders with few
resources to navigate structural obstacles such as scrutiny of their embodied leadership.
The treatment of former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, provides a powerful illustration of
the role of news and social media in damaging the credibility of a female leader by focusing on her
gender and portraying her body as unsuitable for leadership. Gillard was ultimately forced into a
contest for leadership within her own Party, but many observers argue this was an inevitable
outcome of the orchestrated gendered attack that involved mainstream and social media and
included slogans like ‘ditch the witch’, repeated by the leader of the Oppositioni . As Gillard
explains in her recent autobiography (2014), throughout her leadership her body shape and clothing
were considered newsworthy in ways which did not apply to male counterparts. Cameras were
trained on her bottom; news reports focused on her choice of clothes; and a situation when she
tripped over in India was reported frame-by-frame in a front page spread of a leading Australian
newspaper. In the initial stages of her leadership she ignored negative coverage of her body image,
assuming that eventually it would eventually subside, but then later realised that it had ‘morphed into
a judgement of who she was as a person’ (Gillard 2014: 103). Towards the end of her prime
ministerial career, she made an impassioned speech to Parliament on just this issue - the concerted
campaign of misogynistic, sexist attacks from the opposition party and some of their associates, not
just towards herself but toward Australian women in general. While her speech attracted sour
commentary from the established Australian media, it went viral internationally, with now more than
2.5 million hits on YouTube. As Gillard now reflects:
For many people I meet around the world, it is really the only thing they know about me.
For many in Australia, even with everything else in my prime ministership, it is the only thing
they want to talk about. The speech has been raised with me by world leaders. By mothers
who said they watched with their daughters and cried and then watched it again... By
corporate leaders who have told me that it started a huge conversation about gender in
their workplace. By union leaders who have told me the same thing about discussions on
the shop floor. That speech brought me the reputation of being the one who was brave
enough to name sexism and misogyny. (Gillard 2014: 111-2)
One reason the speech struck a chord with so many, (and indeed Gillard’s Australian approval
ratings went up for some months), was that it named an underbelly of leadership rarely discussed in
either academic literature or mainstream media. It exhorted audiences to notice the ways sexism
continues in the media and other public platforms to suggest women’s ineligibility for leadership.
Gillard’s experience illustrates that women who exercise leadership are subject to gendered visibility
and critical scrutiny in many media forms, including online and social media. Other recent examples
include online abuse directed towards University of Cambridge academic Mary Beard, Caroline
Criado-Perez, who led a campaign to put more women on UK banknotes, and UK MP Stella Creasy,
all of whom have been berated not primarily for what they said or did, but for how they looked.
Gendered visibility and critical surveillance, including self-surveillance, of the body is thus a pervasive
aspect of the lived experience of women in positions of leadership.
Change and continuity in representing women leaders on screen
Although women leaders are sometimes represented in film and television, they are often
represented in negative, stereotypical ways. TV series such as Suits (2011-14) and Mad Men (2007-
14) portray senior women as obsessed by work, sexually frustrated or manipulative, lonely and
ruthless. For example, in Suits, the managing partner of New York law firm, Pearson Hardman, is a
woman who appears statuesque and commanding, wearing tight skirts and stilettos. The camera
lingers on her body and the series gives her lines that are full of innuendo, for example, she asserts
she likes ‘playing with tigers’ (i.e. men in the firm). For all her steely achievement, she is shown to be
a tragic figure, lonely and married to the job. She is thereby sexualised by the gaze while her own
sexuality is rendered impotent by the job. This reinforces the idea that to become a woman leader
one must be single-minded and sexually attractive, but without sexual agency. Such on screen images
guide in-use understandings of how to behave and dress as a leader in ways that are gendered and
highly normative (Kelan 2012).
Similar conventions apply in films where a woman is a leading character in the narrative. Typically
shown as torn between passive femininity (the good mother, wife, girlfriend), and active masculinity
(the ruthless, aggressive career bitch), women are portrayed as oscillating between the two and
unable to achieve a stable sexual identity. Women leaders are also represented disciplining their
bodies, through fitness, diet and dress, into forms that conform to masculine or gendered norms
(Trethewey 1999; Kenny and Bell 2011), although this is often portrayed as a doomed project that
ends in failure and a return to more traditional gender role identities (e.g. Working Girl, 1998). Even
in films where the narrative revolves around a strong female character who exercises leadership,
such as Erin Brockovich (2000), the story of a single-mother’s legal fight to expose a corporate cover-
up involving contaminated water in a local community, the heroine only succeeds by conforming to
masculine values and standards. Moreover, the female protagonist’s oscillation between passive
femininity and active masculinity often runs throughout the film, and is only ultimately resolved by
her rejection of the latter in favour of the former (The Devil Wears Prada, 2006).
However, more recently women have been placed at the centre of the action in recent TV series
such as Madam Secretary (2014) and films such as The Hunger Games (2012, 2013, 2014). These
representations and others like them (e.g. Game of Thrones, 2011-14) often feature fantastical worlds,
populated by leaders who are only partially identifiable as human. While we may be inspired by their
bravery, there is limited opportunity to identify with or learn from their leadership. Moreover,
despite representing an ostensibly enlightened world where women can be leaders, characters such
as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, lead through highly conventional masculine performances,
such as winning battles, while also being represented as beautiful, selfless, and caring for the weak.
Various initiatives have reviewed the treatment of women in the media, such as the Geena Davis
Institute on Gender in Media,ii which analyses gender prevalence in on screen representations. A
recent study shows that the percentage of female speaking characters in top grossing movies has not
changed in over half a century, ‘only 23% of the films had a girl or woman as a lead or co-lead driving
the plot’ (Smith et al. 2014: 2), with few female characters holding occupations of power and
importance on screen. It further shows that female characters were twice as likely to be ‘shown in
sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, and five times as likely to be referenced as
attractive’ (ibid.). The documentary film Miss Representation (2011) traces the role of the media in
shaping the body image of girls and women in ways which severely constrain their participation in
political and social life. It is argued that objectification of women in the media encourages women to
see themselves as object, such self-objectification making them less likely to engage in leadership
practice. Featuring interviews with some of the most powerful women in US society, such as former
US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and analysing media portrayals of Hilary Clinton and Sarah
Palin, the film exposes processes of ‘symbolic annihilation’, as these powerful women are
systematically attacked by the media, either by being fetishized and ‘pornified’ in the case of Palin, or
in the case of Clinton, labelled as an emotionless ‘bitch’. The film portrays this as a backlash, as
women have gained greater power in the concrete realm, attacks on them in the symbolic realm
The relationship between on screen images and women’s bodies is an enduring preoccupation of
feminist theorists in the field of film studies. Feminist psychoanalytic theory suggests that on screen
images operate through a notion of male desire, which position women as passive objects of the
male subject’s gaze. We belong to a visual culture within which fetishized images of female body
parts such as legs, breasts or lips are used to distract us from something that has the potential to
threaten masculine power. In her classic article, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey argued from a
psychoanalytic perspective that mainstream Hollywood cinema is based on a language of symbolic
representation that constitutes the woman as narrative-freezing spectacle in order to visualise and
secure sexual difference (Mulvey 1975). This style of representation codes the erotic into the
language of the dominant partriarchal order (Mulvey 2009). The male character is the main
controlling figure with whom the audience identifies, whereas the woman is the passive, erotic
object of male character’s and the film spectator’s gaze. Men are central to narrative flow, advancing
the story and making things happen whereas women are ‘acted upon rather than active, desired
rather than desiring’ (Bell 2008: 140). Mulvey distinguishes between two forms of pleasure that
audiences derive from their engagement with these representations. The first, scopophilia, is the
pleasure of looking, ‘taking other people as objects and subjecting them to a controlling and curious
gaze’ (Mulvey 2009: 17). Mulvey argues that these conventions arise from anxiety that is provoked
in the male unconscious by the female image as castration threat. The response to this involves
turning the represented figure into a fetish, building up the physical beauty of the object and
transforming it into something satisfying, yet impotent, for example in the form of a sexualised
female movie star. This is a form of sadistic voyeurism which constitutes the woman as the bearer of
guilt, ‘asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey
2009: 22). Through her failure to conform to representational norms that constitute her as the
passive object of the gaze, and her desire to be seen as the active subject, the woman leader
produces a particular form of anxiety in the collective masculine unconscious. This gives rise to
sadistic voyeurism, directed towards achieving control and subjugation over the female leader.
Theorists such as Mulvey therefore call for the destruction of such oppressive portrayals and the
construction of alternative aesthetics that are more favourable to women.
In the next section we draw on the example of Borgen, focusing on the representation of embodied
women leaders as influential protagonists. We suggest the responses of the women leaders to
patriarchal values and practices constitute significant acts of resistance, subversion, reclaiming – and
leadership. We suggest that, in addition to providing an alternative way of seeing women in
leadership, this text provides audiences with a means of interrogating and thereby disrupting the
notion of leadership, especially its implicit normative masculinity.
Looking into leadership in Borgen
Borgen is a political drama that tells the story of Birgitte Nyborg, leader of the Moderate Party, who
unexpectedly becomes the first female prime minister of Denmark. Aimed at Scandinavian
audiences, the popularity of the series with international audiences was unanticipated by
screenwriter, Adam Price, who set out to create a ‘strong but feminine central character’iii in a
situation of power. The series was also intended to initiate discussion among viewers about the
personal and political aspects of the narrative, and the moral actions of characters. The narrative
revolves around the central character’s transformation as she encounters the demands of a
developing political career. At the beginning of the first series the mood is triumphant as Birgitte
assumes the position of prime minister. But by the end of Series One and throughout Series Two,
Birgitte’s private life is in disarray, as she works around the clock (including in bed) and makes trade-
offs which leave her family a low priority. She is judged by the media and the public – for putting her
family second, and then later, for putting them first. The richness of the Borgen text as a resource
for exploring women in leadership is enhanced by other strong female characters: Katrine, the TV
journalist and presenter who by the third series, becomes Birgitte’s political ‘spin doctor’ while
single-parenting a young child, as well as journalist Hanne, TV producer Pia, and other female
politicians with whom Birgitte collaborates and competes. These influential women confront their
flaws and demons, adapt and learn, but they are shown doing this in embodied ways, ways which do
not show simple resolutions or ways forward. The narrative thus powerfully depicts the demands
and tensions associated with leadership, including how this impacts on leaders at a personal and
relationship level. The viewer is encouraged to vividly experience the material and mundane
consequences of leadership choices, revealing the complexity and the trade-offs that are part of
navigating leadership, for women and, perhaps to a lesser extent, for men.
After filming the second series, Denmark elected female prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in a
case perhaps of life imitating artiv. Further blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction
occurred when recently appointed Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, commented of the series
that is was ‘one of the most credible fictional accounts of life in politics that I’ve seen on television,
and it’s from a woman’s perspective too, which is rare’v. Our view is that this blurring and
interweaving of on screen characters and experience with ‘real’ life, is important in helping to explain
how the experiences of notionally fictional characters can be influential in challenging normative
models of leadership.
In the following section we identify three categories of embodied response by the women
protagonists in Borgen: disrupting the patriarchal order; erotic leadership and creating an alternative,
feminine imaginary. We describe and analyse representations drawing on one or a series of scenes.
Disrupting the patriarchal order
In the run up to the Danish general election, Birgitte is at home with her family preparing for
a final pre-election televised leader debate. She puts on a red frilled front blouse and black
skirt suit. Her daughter says: ‘Give it up mom - dad, talk to her. She’s too fat for that skirt’.
Birgitte says to her husband, Phillip, ‘If I push it here, it doesn’t show, does it?’ squeezing her
bulging waistline and trying to close the zip. ‘Do I look OK?’ she asks. ‘The honest or loving
response?’ Phillip asks. Birgitte demands ‘the truth’. Philip: ‘Your arse is too big for that
skirt. You’d need to lose five kilos at best.’ He follows up with the loving response, joking
that the dry cleaner must have shrunk the skirt and telling her how proud he and the
children are of her. Birgitte concludes she will have to wear a purple dress as this is the
only item of clothing that fits her; Phillip observes that she always puts on weight in
opposition. Later, Birgitte gives a brilliant closing speech in the televised debate, going off
her prepared speech, and joking that she will be in trouble with her spin doctor for wearing
the wrong clothes: ‘the trouble is I’ve got too fat for them’, she explains. She goes on to
turn this into a political point: ‘I believe we should own up to our mistakes... I became a
politician because I once held strong views on how this world should be – I still do.’
The description above is from the first episode of the first series, and the interconnections between
embodied selfhood and enacted leadership that shape the overall narrative are immediately
established. Rather than being undermined by her out-of-control body, which, according to traditon
must be disciplined and subjugated to masculine norms during the televised speech, Birgitte makes
her too–plump-for-the-skirt body the focus of attention. In so doing, she disrupts the patriarchal
order, deliberately drawing attention to her own body and its otherness, and acknowledging the
effect that wearing the ‘wrong clothes’ is likely to have on her political career. She then uses this to
highlight the triviality of such concerns, as articulated by her spin doctor, contrasting them with
political ideals of honesty and idealism that form the focus for her leadership.
Scholars of leadership have argued the need to recognise - rather than deny or suppress - the body,
pleasure and physicality into the influencing and change work of leadership (see also Ladkin 2008;
Ropo and Sauer 2008). For example, Buzzanell and D’Enbeau (2013) explore erotic mentoring and
‘erotic heroines’ in Mad Men showing how women navigate eroticism in their leadership, rather than
being defined by binaries such as erotic/chaste or feminine/masculine. The female characters are
portrayed as ‘doing’ leadership while also allowing audiences to explore aspects of leadership which
tend to be obscured.
Erotic leadership in Borgen involves women putting a value on their sexual lives, identities and
opportunities for erotic pleasure. While the erotic in organizational life has come to be defined as
sexual, its fuller meaning emphasises the importance of pleasure and love as human feelings (Bell and
Sinclair, 2014), and we suggest that leadership life involves, and should be portrayed as including,
these elements. In Borgen an interest in sex, love and pleasure are depicted through, for example,
political debates about prostitution and the possibility of women having sex without love; and when
Birgitte, in a lonely, unguarded moment, gives into sexual desire and sleeps with a driver assigned to
her. We are encouraged to see and explore how sex, attraction and the pleasures of physical
connection on the one hand, and sexual abuse and exploitation on the other, are played out for
people working in intense, and often lonely, leadership jobs. This theme also draws attention to the
materiality of leadership, both in public and private spaces, including how physicality works and
doesn’t work in leadership and how the body interacts with the cerebral, and may force change,
such as when Birgitte receives treatment for precancerous cells in her breasts. What is distinctive in
Borgen’s treatment of these issues is that the portrayal is not voyeuristic; rather it is both identifiable,
and not easily resolved, as illustrated in scenes from the first series, described below:
Birgitte has been prime minister for a hundred days. The demands of the job are causing her
to spend less time at home, dropping by at home around dinnertime briefly to see the
children before going back to work again in the evening. When she is at home, she is
continually taking and making phone calls or working on her laptop, even when in bed,
prompting Philip to ask her, if she must work, to at least ‘go and do it in the other room’.
One evening, she arrives home late in the evening, again. Philip has been waiting up. They
are in the bedroom, both apparently interested in sex, despite the hour and their son being
in an adjacent room, not yet asleep. Philip starts to pull off her tights. It is a crumpled,
urgent, yet mundane sex scene. The following morning, Birgitte is in the kitchen with Phillip,
who is unloading the dishwasher. She is in her work clothes, he is wearing a vest. Birgitte
says, ‘it’s been three weeks since we last had sex because I’ve been so busy. What if we had
a few regular days, Tuesdays and Saturdays?’ Phillip: ‘I’m having scheduled sex sessions with
the prime minister?’ Later, Birgitte tells Philip, ‘your wife loves you’. Philip replies ‘I love her
too. But I’m not sure about that Prime Minister lady.’
Birgitte and Phillip’s demeanour convey the complexity of these changes: her trying to make their
sexual arrangements work through problem-solving and rational management, his goodwill being
eroded as they come to realise what the leadership role means for their relationship. The sex scene
is rushed and awkward, afterwards it is tender yet fertile in the suggestion that everything they have
taken for granted about their private lives is changing. The scene invites our identification with the
dilemma: do we side with Birgitte, in her regrettable yet pragmatic response to circumstance, or do
we align ourselves with Philip in his regret and resignation? Through both major and minor
characters, Borgen thus offers diverse ways of envisaging how the sexual and erotic, how pleasure
and love, are experienced and negotiated in and around positions of leadership.
Creating an alternative, feminine imaginary
As we have argued, current discourses of leadership tend to valourize the masculine subject and
define leadership according to embodied codes that women literally and figuratively ‘cannot master’
(Irigaray 1993: 118). The male leader is the subject against which the woman leader’s body is
compared; by constructing her as different from men but without granting her any positive content,
she is defined as the aberrant sex; her sex must therefore be controlled or suppressed. Women’s
participation in leadership therefore comes at a high physical and psychological price. To change
this, Irigaray suggests, involves altering the identity formation of the subject through the construction
of a feminine imaginary, ‘a self-defined woman who would not be satisfied with sameness, but whose
otherness and difference would be given social and symbolic representation’ (Whitford 1991: 24-5).
Irigaray further argues that in Western traditions, men are the ‘guarantors of texts and laws’, a
regime in which we are told to conquer our bodies (2002: 60). For her, the alternative feminine
imaginary involves ‘the cultivation of sensible perceptions’, the recognition and co-existence of ‘the
other’ based not on patriarchal-generated ‘equality’ but on love, respect of the body, the natural
world and the senses (2002: 55). Construction of a feminine imaginary requires recognition of ‘a self-
defined woman who would not be satisfied with sameness, but whose otherness and difference
would be given social and symbolic representation’ (Whitford 1991: 24-5).
Drawing on the work of Irigaray, recent film theorists have suggested a different way of envisaging
women, one which escapes the parameters of patriarchal discourse through focusing on genuine
sexual difference, rather than traditional male/female binarism, and indicating a ‘possible way for
women to think about themselves other than phallocratically’ (Bolton 2011: 2-3). ‘For Irigaray, the
female sex is not a “lack” or an “Other” that immanently and negatively defines the subject in its
masculinity. On the contrary, the female sex eludes the very requirements of representation, for she
is neither “Other” nor the “lack”’ (Butler 1990: 16). Through constituting sexual difference as a
duality, rather than a dualism, these representations provide a basis for altering the status of women
in the symbolic realm. Based on analysis of recent films where female characters are central to the
narrative, Bolton suggests that in focusing on the process of transition or transformation, these texts
invite consideration of female subjectivity.
These films are doing something different with female subjectivity: they create space for the
female characters to explore themselves and others, using language, the body, and
consciousness, offering a vision of a possible alternative way of being for women in cinema.
They invite the spectator into dialogue with the female characters and provide open,
optimistic endings that enable the future explorations of the characters to be the abiding
focus of the films. (Bolton 2011: 3)
Film and television that shows women acting and conceiving of their actions not according to
patriarchal rules, but in a world governed by alternative values, is therefore a potentially important
resource in enabling management students to explore what such alternatives might look like. The
following example comes from the first series of Borgen, when Birgitte’s teenage daughter is
struggling with depression:
Following a period in which her teenage daughter, Laura, experiences mental health
problems associated with her high-profile life as the daughter of the Prime Minister, Birgitte
addresses journalists at a press conference: ‘I am astonished to see how brutal the press
coverage of me and my private life has become. It is vital for my family to overcome these
hardships – and for the government to get peace to work. And so I implore you, the media,
to respect my daughter’s need to be left in peace. However, a PM can’t avoid the attention
of the press. This story has become one of public interest. This has led me to make the
difficult, but necessary decision to obtain leave as PM in order to focus on my family and
daughter. Vice PM H.C. Thorsen will be taking over my official duties.’ Katrine: ‘How long
will you be on leave for?’ Birgitte: ‘That depends on my daughter’. Hanne: ‘Will you call an
election?’ Birgitte: ‘No. This is only about me, the PM, not Parliament’. Later, in the clinic
where Laura is being treated, Birgitte meets with the clinic director, who adds: ‘Birgitte, I’m
also a mother and I have a career. I’ve made millions of mistakes. They’ve made me all the
wiser. You can’t work 24 hours a day and be a good mother at the same time. But you can’t
stop working. What kind of role model would that make you?’ Birgitte: ‘I don’t feel like a
role model. Sometimes I’m happier working and not having to deal with my family.’ Director:
‘Join the club. I think all workaholics feel like that.’ Moving closer and looking her in the
face, the clinic director then says, ‘Let me make this clear: Laura did not get ill because you
became PM. Do you understand?’ Birgitte gives a slight nod, says ‘thank you’, and leaves.
Birgitte is portrayed in this scene making a different kind of ‘deal’ with herself, her family and political
stakeholders. The binary values associated with patriarchal culture still exist: home versus work,
politician versus mother, as do the dominant norms: ‘keep private matters private’, ‘commit to the
job 100% or resign’. But rather than take a position within this culture, or be defined by press
scrutiny and condemnation, she finds an alternative way to be in the space of her daughter’s illness,
with power, agency and compassion (including for herself and other women).
Discussion and conclusion
‘You can’t be what you can’t see’
Marian Wright Edelmanvi
We have argued that academic and some popular discourses about women in leadership fail to
engage with the lived and embodied experiences of women, including the everyday pressures and
contradictions that women specifically experience in positions of leadership. These discourses also
fail to convey the ways in which leadership continues to be gendered - that is, the ways norms and
conventions make men seem more ‘natural’ leaders, while making women visible and their
embodiment as leaders flawed (Sinclair 2013). Despite promoting attention to diversity and gender
in leadership, management education has not generally provided ways of teaching and helping
students understand these issues. It has, rather, sometimes colluded in keeping leadership masculine
by, for example, keeping gender a problem that is about women, and that women must fix by
‘leaning in’ (Sandberg 2013).
In order to re-embody leadership generally and address the distorted ways in which women leaders
have been represented and evaluated, we have suggested a focus on film and television can provide
opportunities for a different kind of encounter with being in leadership. As other researchers
increasingly argue, men and women’s experiences of leadership and influence may be more readily
revealed, critiqued and subverted by engaging with representations in media such as film and
television. Women’s struggles to gain and hold leadership positions, and be seen as credible leaders,
we suggest, cannot be separated from issues of image and representation.
In most traditional representations of management and leadership in film and television, women
occupy a ‘spectacular’ role, serving only to interrupt a narrative that is defined and driven by male
characters. In this chapter we have focused on a TV series where women are central to the
narrative, showing how it makes visible dominant cultural rules regarding gender, and offering
examples of women doing leadership differently. Borgen introduces the possibility of a feminine
imaginary that disrupts the patriarchal order and highlights the erotic nature of leadership, in the full
sense of that term. This involves explicit recognition of sexual differences between men and women,
and honouring the connection women potentially have to their bodies, their senses and nature as an
alternative basis for living and being, and, we suggest, enacting leadership. Although the central
female characters are portrayed as subject to gendered power discourses, and required to perform
certain gendered dispositions, they do so in ways that often contest, disrupt or transcend traditional
gender distinctions, and thereby challenge notions of what good leadership looks like. Borgen also
starkly represents the trade-offs faced by leaders, their friends and families as they fulfil their roles,
including the sacrifices they make in hyper-masculine, ‘win or die’ organizational environments where
erotic pleasure and passion is achieved through achieving domination over others in the corporate
hierarchy (Acker 2004).
The text also brings to the foreground gendered organisational practices and the gendered nature of
power, alongside the multiple, sometimes contradictory ways characters respond to these pressures.
It thus shows, vividly and viscerally, the multiple and diverse ways of being in leadership that women
adopt. Through this, it gives permission to explore embodied aspects of leadership often neglected
in scholarly accounts. However, Borgen does not tell women or men what to do, nor does it offer a
single role model of a woman leader; instead it implies that it is sometimes possible to exercise
agency and to resist gendered role expectations. It thereby enables exploration of alternatives to
performing gender according to values of hegemonic masculinity, or acting ‘like a man’. As
Panayiotou notes, such representations provide a ‘critical testing ground’ for exploring alternative
gender forms, ‘so that popular culture is not merely entertainment but away of exploring and
challenging the dominant ethos of contemporary patriarchy’(2010: 20-21). While we have focused in
this chapter on Borgen, there are other examples – sometimes made by women writers and
directors - of TV series which offer non-stereotyped yet embodied and complex representations of
women and men leading. These images have the potential to shape understandings of what it means
to be a leader, perhaps more powerfully than academic research, through the potential pleasures
that audiences may gain from these alternative representations, and by encouraging viewers to enact
leadership in ways not defined by conventional patriarchal norms or gender binaries.
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We would like to thank Monica Wirz for her insightful comments on an earlier version of this
chapter, participants at the Essex Workshop on Management Education in the Humanities, May
2014, and delegates at the Gender Work and Organization Conference, Keele 2014, for their
feedback. This chapter draws on a forthcoming article in Gender in Management.
i See for example Moira Rayner ‘Gillard, Bligh and Leadership in a Crisis’ Eureka Street January 7, 2011 see also more
recent commentary in the November 2012 issue of The Monthly by Amanda Lohrey ‘A matter of context: Gillard and the
press gallery’ and by Judith Brett ‘They had it coming: Gillard and the misogynists’.
iii Interview with Borgen Screenwriter Adam Price in Nordic Noir Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2013, p. 10
iv Crace, J. (2012) Sidse Babett Knudsen: 'We had no idea Borgen would have any appeal outside Denmark', Guardian,
v Brooks, L.‘Nicola Sturgeon: Salmond’s deputy is on the brink of unpredecented power’, Gurardian, Sept. 5th 2014
vi Quoted in MissRepresentation (2011)