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The Pantsuit Trap: What TV Teaches Us About Female Role Models

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TV shows House of Cards and Parks and Recreation both point important real-world dynamics. While young men have a wealth of male mentors to choose from—as well as so-called old boy networks—young women have few gender-specific examples of what success looks like.

On these shows, we see two examples of young women looking up to a singular older, female role model: House of Card's cub reporter Zoe (Kate Mara) admires rich nonprofit chief Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) and Parks and Rec's city hall staffer April (Aubrey Plaza) has Councilwoman Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to thank for much advice and career help.

The relationship between House of Cards' Zoe and Claire is complicated and colored by class. Young reporter Zoe covets Claire's power as the wife of Congressman Frank Underwood and head of a well-funded, influential charity—plus, Zoe has been having an affair with the Congressman. But Claire knows about the affair; she even visited Zoe's tiny, disheveled apartment to show that she doesn't feel threatened. When Claire leaves town, Frank invites Zoe over to his posh D.C. home. As Claire had done in Zoe's apartment, Zoe invades Claire's closet. She puts on Claire's expensive, silvery dress that she had worn recently at a gala. "It's like steel," Zoe says, musing that she should keep it to send a message to Claire that she's not threatened by her, either.

Whereas Zoe wants to take what belongs to Claire in order to symbolically gain her status, April, on the other hand, wants to copy Leslie in order to replicate her success. On the Parks and Recreation episode "Ann's Decision," April needs to hold a public forum on the soon-to-be-opened park Pawnee Commons. But as a fairly inexperienced city government employee, April is not used to public speaking and facing the criticism of the people of Pawnee. She figures she'll do what Leslie does in order to get through it. That is, she'll dress like Leslie, speak like Leslie, and act like Leslie. She tries on one outfit from Leslie's closet after another. One prompts her to say, "This outfit makes me want to scold a Catholic child." And another: "I don't know who Ann Taylor is, but I hate her and I want to kill her." She finally settles on a satisfactory Leslie pantsuit and leads the public forum. A brash man in the audience catches her off guard and taunts that Pawnee Commons should be a "topless park." Discouraged and out of her element, April feels like the public forum is a disaster.

Screen shot 2013-02-08 at 11.43.26 PMHere, we have two examples of young women symbolically trying on the clothes of an older woman whom they wish to emulate. For Zoe, the cocktail dress is too rigid; it's like steel. For April, too, the pantsuit is stiff and makes her want to "scold a Catholic child." These models for success are, so to speak, ill-fitting for these millennial women. But it's not the young women or the elder women who are to blame but the institutional sexism in the job market.

Bryce Covert said in The Atlantic that "many women are stalled in middle management and make up a pitiful percentage of America's C-suite." But the cause is not, as Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg asserts, a lack of female ambition. Sure, some women choose to prioritize their families over their careers, which takes them out of the running for executive status. Still others opt for less competitive career tracks. As Covert wrote, "Choices [to deprioritize one's career] aren't the only thing holding back women's earnings. Bias is happening, too, even if it's uncomfortable to call it out."

So the often job market allows for only a few female mentors, period. Which means that young women both onscreen and offscreen are made to feel as if success is an either/or proposition: either you emulate Claire or you remain in obscurity, either you imitate Leslie or you fail in city government. Society tells us we need to buck up and put on the pantsuit.

Rather, we should be inspired by the women who preceded us but also realize that, unlike men's paths to success, women's paths are often still unpaved. If we can support other women in the workplace—help recruit other women, ally ourselves with other women, and share our learnings with other women—then we can begin to form coalitions or even formal organizations that are safe spaces for women in male-dominated industries. We don't have to be like Claire—a complex but icily staunch woman who's "like steel"—or like Leslie, who wants to imitate the career and wardrobe of Hillary Clinton. But by building on the work of women before us and creating our own woman-centric networks, we can create a feminist infrastructure that we urgently need. We can reconstruct a multitude of models of success that work for us. And at that point, we can wear whatever we damn well please.

And that's exactly what April does at the end of the Parks and Rec episode. When she's hosting her second public forum, she winds up being without her Leslie-approved pantsuit. After a momentary freak-out, April hosts the forum in her own clothes, as herself, and has wild success. She's even able to shoot down the "topless park" idea. 

 

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