The Portrayal of Women in
Film After 1970
by Katherine M. Lasher
The portrayal of lawyers and
the legal system in film has changed considerably since the 1970's.
As discussed in Michael Asimow's Bad Lawyers in the Movies,
24 Nova L.R. 533 (2000), films since the 1970's have portrayed
lawyers in a negative light. And women attorneys are no exception
to this trend.
Prior to the 1970's, only a handful
of films actually portrayed women as attorneys. One of the most
famous films depicting a woman as an attorney is Adam's Rib
(Turner Entertainment Co., 1949) a comedy made in the 1940's.
In Adam's Rib, Katharine Hepburn portrays a spirited
female attorney, Amanda Bonner, who is married to a local prosecutor,
Adam (Spencer Tracy). Both spouses face each other in the courtroom
when Amanda defends a woman who has been charged with attempted
murder of her husband, and Adam prosecutes the case. Some critics
argue, that Amanda's courtroom antics, and not her intelligence,
allowed her to win the case. This is highlighted, in one courtroom
scene when Adam criticizes Amanda's arguments starting: "First
of all, I should like to say that I think the arguments advanced
by counsel were sound . . . MERE sound." But, in my opinion,
Amanda is portrayed as a creative trial advocate who is gutsy
and intelligent both inside and outside the courtroom. For a
film made in the 1940's, Amanda's character is extremely independent
and self-sufficient. Amanda has a driver's license (though Adam
is unnerved by her driving habits), Amanda shares household responsibilities
with Adam (and the maid), and Amanda has her own practice. More
importantly, Amanda is driven to free her client because she
observes that there is a sexual double-standard at play and the
case offers her an opportunity to showcase a woman's inherent
constitutional right to justice. However, like many contemporary
films portraying women in positions of power, Amanda's marriage
suffers as a result of her taking the case against her husband.
Despite this, Amanda's portrayal of a female attorney is probably
one of the best we have seen to date.
In the late 1970's, women's roles as attorneys in film became
more evident. This is due, in large part, to the growing number
of females entering the law profession. For example, polls show
that in the 1960's female attorneys comprised 3% of the associate
population, by the 1980's they comprised about 20% of the associates,
and by the 1990's they made up almost 40% of the associate population
(See Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, et al., Glass Ceiling and Open
Doors: Women's Advancement in the Legal Profession,
64 Fordham L.Rev. 291, 313-314 (1995)).
There have been several changes in the portrayal of female attorneys
since the 1970's. First, women attorneys are now portrayed as
main characters in film. Second, while there has been an increase
in the number of women attorneys both in film and in practice
since the 1970's, female attorneys in film, like their male counterparts,
have generally been portrayed in a negative light.
One film that incorporates
practically all of the images discussed above, and challenges
the protagonist to make many ethical decisions is Class Action
(20th Century Fox, 1991). In this film, Maggie Ward (Mary Mastrantonio)
works for a large firm doing primarily defense work. Throughout
the film, Maggie's actions as an attorney are contrasted with
her father's actions as a plaintiff's attorney. Jed Ward (Gene
Hackman) is a reputable, liberal lawyer whose most celebrated
case is representing a whistleblower. The importance of gender
roles appears in opening scenes, which switches between two courtroom
scenes. In one courtroom, Maggie argues a motion to dismiss.
She focuses on the "black letter law," and even informs
the judge that "appeals to emotion have no place in a court
of law." Jed, in contrast, appeals to the jurors' emotions
when arguing his case in the adjoining courtroom. In the courtroom,
and throughout most of the film, Maggie is surrounded by male
associates, which is accentuated by the fact that there is no
other woman who has the same occupational status in her firm.
The image portrayed by this is that Maggie is isolated from
her female peers. The climax of the film occurs when Maggie
aligns herself with her father after she discovers that her supervising
partner, with whom she has been having an affair, has used his
status with her to cover-up material evidence pertinent in the
lawsuit. In the end, Maggie changes her personal life by trusting
her emotions, but not without sacrificing her legal career.
Probably one of the best films
portraying an attorney who makes a bad judgment in character
is Jagged Edge (Columbia Pictures, 1985). In this film
Teddy Barnes (Glen Close), a former prosecutor turned civil defense
attorney, represents her firm's biggest and wealthiest client
who has been charged with murdering his wife. Barnes, like many
other female attorneys portrayed in film, is divorced. During
the course of trial preparation, Barnes leaps into bed with her
client. Instead of withdrawing as counsel, Barnes continues
to represent her client and becomes conflicted when she learns
that her client, now lover, may have in fact been the murderer.
Barnes is able to get her client acquitted, but after the trial,
Barnes accidentally discovers the identity of the murderer.
Instead of reporting this information to the police or prosecutor,
Barnes takes matters into her own hands. In the end, justice
is served, but not without Barnes potentially sacrificing her
Barnes' colleagues fare no better when confronted with ethical
dilemmas, particularly when it comes to sexual relationships.
In And Justice For All (Malton Films, 1979), attorney
Gail Packer (Christine Lahti) has an affair with fellow attorney
Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) even though she is a member of the
state bar ethics committee that is investigating Kirkland. And,
in Suspect (Tri-Star Pictures, 1987), Kathleen Riley (Cher)
is a burnt-out public defender who has a lonely personal life
until she teams up with a juror on her case to solve the murder.
And to push our professional code of ethics completely over
the line, Riley sleeps with the juror in the process.
Music Box (Carolco Pictures, 1990) is a good
example of a female attorney who becomes so driven by her emotions
that she loses power over her case. In this movie, Ann Talbot
(Jessica Lange) is a successful criminal attorney who is divorced
but has an amicable relationship with her father-in-law. In
the beginning of the film, Talbot is portrayed as a tough and
skilled litigator. The opening scenes of the movie demonstrate
Talbot's ability to win cases for her defendants, while maintaining
a safe separation from her clients. However, when Talbot's father
receives a notice of deportation, which is based on the government's
allegations that Talbot's father had lied on his citizenship
application, Talbot agrees to represent her father. Talbot's
father is accused of being a notorious Nazi SS officer responsible
for hideous war crimes during World War II. Talbot's father
plays heavily on her emotions and Talbot is ultimately unable
to remain emotionally detached from the case, and seeks the assistance
of her former father-in-law. Ultimately her father-in-law's
tip, along with another anonymous tip, allows the case against
her father to be dropped. Though this film plays heavily on
the loss of power women in film feel when they rely on their
emotions, the film offers some redemption when Talbot finally
faces the truth about her father and turns evidence implicating
her father over to the special prosecutor.
The film that best depicts a woman attorney as striving to obtain
justice without confronting serious ethical dilemmas is The
Client (Warner Bros., 1994). In this movie Reggie Love (Susan
Sarandon) is a successful female attorney, who agrees to represent
a young boy who inadvertently knows too much about a Mafia killing.
While there has been some criticism that the young boy Love
represents saves her from stereotypical female emotional reactions,
Love actually exemplifies a contemporary female attorney who
is competent, passionate, and ethical. Although Love is a recovering
alcoholic, the film focuses more on her defending the young boy
and keeping him from harm. And, unlike most female protagonists,
Love is portrayed as almost a hero by the end of the film when
she helps her client obtain justice.
Since the mid-1990's, there
have been few films portraying female attorneys as the main character.
Nevertheless, through the use of female attorneys in minor roles,
several other films have demonstrated that a new trend in the
portrayal of women attorneys is emerging. I suggest that this
trend, which portrays women as more independent and less reliant
on their male colleagues, is a more accurate depiction of a female
attorney today. For example, in Legally Blonde (MGM,
2001), Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), an LA valley girl who
resembles a Barbie-doll, loses her boyfriend to Harvard Law School.
Woods is determined to win him back by getting a law degree
herself. Her first year of law school is supposed to resemble
the modern day version of The Paper Chase. And, while
certain aspects of the film are unrealistic, this departs from
the older films by showing a female protagonist who is able to
overcome her personal life and succeed professionally. Also,
the film departs from earlier films by using a female law professor
as Woods's role model.
Whether future films will continue
the trend away from the traditional model of a female attorney
established in the 1970's and 1980's, it appears that, no matter
how they are portrayed, female attorneys will continue to play
an important role in film. While the jury is still out about
whether law is a reflection of our society or simply impacts
our perceptions, there is no doubt that law, with all its strengths
and weaknesses, is reflected most boldly and largely on the silver
Posted May 13, 2002