Don’t Look Up: 5 lessons on women and leadership

Don’t Look Up: 5 lessons on women and leadership
An article from our expert

The latest hit from Netflix, Don’t Look Up, is a pretty obvious satire on climate change denial. It also has some clever things to say about women in power. Our expert Laetitia Vitaud unpacks this topical film to reveal five important lessons about female leadership (warning: this article contains spoilers).

Since its release on Netflix in December 2021, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up has generated a lot of buzz. The plot is as striking as its star-studded cast. As a comet threatens to wipe out life as we know it, two astronomers, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, struggle to alert the public and get politicians to take action. They come up against denial, indifference, fake news, absurd demands from mind-numbing media and political leaders only interested in the short term. One thing is for certain: it would appear the political-media system is inherently incompatible with defending the planet and its inhabitants from extinction.

Don’t Look Up is first and foremost a satire denouncing our inaction in the face of the climate crisis. It was filmed during the height of the pandemic when the old adage that reality is stranger than fiction was confirmed time and again by the political and media circus on our screens. The film feels almost prophetic, especially regarding the onslaught of fake news in times of imminent danger. It’s sparked a lot of debate, often heated, mainly around the choice of the comet as a metaphor for the threat of climate catastrophe. According to some critics, the film doesn’t even come close to touching on the complexities of climate change and the actions of a single country aren’t enough to save the whole planet. For others, it’s a sobering rendition of our collective madness.

I really liked the film for the richness of its characters and its critical — and apparently realistic — representation of the media and political circuses that have come to characterize the digital age, when life is a struggle to ignore multiple distractions. There are also several layers and secondary themes that I’d like to analyze. I’m interested in strong female characters such as the colorful, female version of Donald Trump as played by Meryl Streep. These characters all play a role in developing the theme of female leadership, which is close to my heart. Here are five lessons from Don’t Look Up.

Blaming women in power: the “glass cliff”

In the film

Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), a doctoral student in astronomy at Michigan State University, first discovers the comet. With the help of her PhD supervisor, Dr Randall Mindy (Di Caprio), she realizes that the comet is heading for earth. With him, she tries to warn her peers and sound the alarm through the media. Following scientific tradition, Dr Mindy names the comet Dibiasky, something which, given the circumstances, is totally pointless. As a result, Kate and the disaster are now one and the same. Unsurprisingly, she then becomes the online target of choice, and social networks turn her into a scapegoat, making everything her fault. While women are blamed when things go wrong, men get double the thanks when they turn out well. When President Orlean (Meryl Streep) decides to launch an impact avoidance mission, she suggests Dr Mindy send a message to the world because she just assumes he discovered the comet. Knowing well that it is not his to claim, he briefly looks towards Kate. But power is seductive, and he cannot resist the lure of the spotlight.

In real life

In business, as in politics, women leaders are rare. Yet they invariably end up becoming easy targets and accused of all kinds of evil. This is reminiscent of the biblical story of Eve and the garden of Eden, where a woman is responsible for humanity’s fall from grace. Women don’t fare much better in Greek mythology. Consider curious Pandora, who opens a box that unleashes the evils that then befall all of humanity. These stories and fables are echoed in the way women in power are scapegoated today. In 2004, two British researchers at the University of Exeter, Michelle K Ryan and Alexander Haslam looked at the relationship between the performance of listed companies and the appointment of women to their board of directors. Their findings revealed something astonishing: women are more likely to be appointed to the board of directors when a company is failing due to an economic crisis, bad results or even a disaster than when the same company is doing well. Echoing the “glass ceiling,” they named this phenomenon the “glass cliff.” This is how Theresa May came to be chosen to head the British Conservative Party, precisely at a time when the post-Brexit chaos seemed completely insurmountable. Similarly, when Yahoo’s downfall got underway, it was Marissa Mayer who was put in charge. In both cases, women were the scapegoats.

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The female hysteric: the Cassandra complex is alive and well

In the film

Kate Dibiasky makes all the observations and calculations, and concludes that there is a 99.78% chance that the comet will crash into earth and wipe out all human life. Clearly shocked and distraught, she tries to alert people about this threat. There is still time to save the planet. All that needs to be done is to send a rocket with bombs and blow it up into tiny pieces before it destroys all life on earth. Alas, no one pays her any attention. The more she speaks out about this impending catastrophe, the more she is mocked, vilified and criticized. She is quickly called hysterical, with different memes circulating on the Internet to discredit her. At the same time, her male partner, Dr Mindy, somehow manages to command more respect. This may also be because, as a university professor, he is in a position of authority, whereas she is just a PhD student.

In real life

Kate’s situation is reminiscent of a well-known figure in Greek mythology, Cassandra. She is granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo, who immediately regrets his gift and adds a curse to it: Cassandra will have the power to foresee the future, yet nothing that she says will ever be taken seriously. No one will ever believe her. Undoubtedly, many women often feel like Cassandra, their expertise is doubted, and their legitimacy questioned. On occasions, even when they clearly know what they are talking about, they are not listened to. In her 2021 book, entitled The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men, and What We Can Do About It, Mary Ann Sieghart has gathered data and examined many studies to analyze the different and many ways in which women’s skills are undervalued, and their authority denied. Sieghart told Forbes in October 2021: “The authority gap is a measure of how much more seriously we take men than we take women. We tend to assume that a man knows what he’s talking about until he proves otherwise. Whereas for women, it’s all too often the other way around and, as a result, women tend to be underestimated more. They tend to be interrupted more, talked over more. They have to prove their competence more, and we often feel uncomfortable when they’re in positions of authority.”

Sisterhood has not replaced rivalry

In the film

Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) is the female co-host of a TV show called The Daily Rip. A beautiful and powerful woman, we quickly gather that this intelligent, ambitious and cynical journalist has indeed sold her soul to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune. She doesn’t care about anything other than audience ratings. To stay on top of the social media frenzy, she invites pop stars to her show and gets them to dish the dirt about their love lives. Women of her generation—think journalist Katie Couric—on whom the character is loosely based, were made to feel like the only way to succeed on TV was to get rid of their competition.This is clearly the case with Brie—“sorority” with other women is definitely not part of her agenda. She is a woman who enjoys seducing men, both at work and in her private life. When she invites Kate and Dr. Mindy onto her show, she immediately dislikes her female guest. Unsurprisingly, she finds the professor utterly charming.

In real life

In recent years, the idea of “sisterhood” among women has become quite fashionable when talking about female leadership. Many women claim that they want to help other women achieve positions of power. Feminism today has dismantled the idea that female relationships are rife with competition and rivalry. This is why, already back in the 1980s, the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel developed the famous “Bechdel test”, a critique of the heterocentric framework for relations between women and men in film. Sadly, rivalry still exists in particular sexist environments where women are rare, such as in finance and tech. There is no sisterhood in places where a position of power is hard to come by, and traditional gender norms are dominant. In reality, both models—rivalry and sisterhood— coexist, and they indicate a world that is often still hostile to women. Christine Lagarde, the current president of the European Central Bank, has said that she keeps a notebook with a list of names of women to recommend to her male colleagues. After all, as women ourselves, we have to be especially supportive of other women, precisely because the work environment clearly hinders their success. And if they have to stab each other in the back to get promoted, that’s because female success is practically impossible to achieve.

Trailblazers are often conservative

In the film

Meryl Streep plays the pugnacious US president Janie Orlean, clearly a female version of Donald Trump. Populist, narcissistic, dishonest, manipulative and delightfully obnoxious, she is always in cahoots with the bigwigs who finance her election campaigns. Well versed in the art of seduction, with a hairdo reminiscent of the American starlets of the 1980s, she may be a woman in power, but she is absolutely not a feminist. She much prefers to surround herself solely with influential men and her Chief of Staff is actually her son. It is not difficult to imagine that she has risen through the ranks of the Republican Party and won the hearts and minds of conservative voters by playing to her strengths while at the same time openly defending the most sexist traditions.

In real life

In countries where a majority of the population still remains in the grips of normative gender roles, it is not unusual for female trailblazers in positions of power to be politically conservative. It is no coincidence that the first female prime minister in the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, was a member of the Conservative Party. Interestingly, so was the second, Theresa May. The same goes for the one and only female chancellor in German history, Angela Merkel. In France, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the only women who have the faintest chance of ever winning the presidential election are from the right and the far-right. Likewise, in Japan, Sanae Takaichi, the woman who recently came close to becoming the head of government, is an ultra-conservative. On the other hand, in countries where there is a better chance of women from all walks of life reaching top positions of power, the culture is already more egalitarian to begin with. Such is the case in Scandinavia, for example. Pioneers, women who have broken through glass ceilings, have often succeeded with the support of the traditional establishment. To make it, they have accepted the dominant gender norms and courted the rich and powerful, in other words men who are themselves rarely progressive or revolutionary. The same can be said of the business world. A progressive or iconoclastic female leader would present a double revolution. Conservatism is not only political and financial; it is also cultural. These power pioneers have accepted the traditional normative definition of femininity without ever running the risk of appearing too “masculine.” To build alliances with the powerful, they can either embody a maternal archetype or emphasize their “feminine” assets. It is no surprise that many feminists worldwide have mixed feelings about the success of these conservative female figures.

In the end, a woman at the top gets eaten alive

In the film

When Peter Isherwell, the billionaire chief executive of a tech company, modeled after Elon Musk with the messianic undertones of a Steve Jobs, asks the US president to stop trying to destroy the comet because of its valuable resources, she quickly gives in to his demands. Later, when the tech company fails to save humanity, Isherwell’s seat on the ship packed with billionaires fleeing earth before the catastrophe is, of course, safe. In a hilarious mid-credits scene, we learn that, 22,740 years later, the ship has arrived on a planet that appears to be inhabitable. The ship’s passengers leave their cryogenic capsules, completely naked, and take a walk on the virgin ground of the new planet. At one point, former President Orlean approaches a giant bird with a large beak and tries to pet it. The beast opens its huge beak and devours her. Isherwell remarks that she has been eaten by a “Bronteroc,” exactly what the secret algorithm developed by his company had predicted.

In real life

Down here on earth, chimerical animals with large beaks do not usually threaten powerful women. And yet, these women do, here too, end up being eaten alive. Because of the “glass cliff,” many women are only given power in situations of crisis. And when they fail, the world has no mercy. When mistakes and blunders occur, women are often subjected to the harshest criticism. It is not long since Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first woman vice president in the US. Yet from the very beginning of her campaign, she was attacked, vilified and criticized as a token candidate for woke liberalism. The legitimacy of her position was also repeatedly questioned because she was the child of immigrants. As for her immediate predecessor at the front line of US politics, Hilary Clinton, it is now clear that her intelligence, political expertise and experience both in the Senate and as Foreign Secretary played against her in the 2016 election. She was “eaten alive” by the right-wing media.

In conclusion, the take on female leadership in Don’t Look Up is frankly very bleak. I am convinced that this is precisely one of the main critiques contained in the film. Because the truth is that only by challenging the gendered nature of power and leadership can we save the planet—and ourselves.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo © Netflix

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