Grandma, a film that focuses on an older woman (Lily Tomlin) and her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner), doesn't introduce Tomlin's daughter until the third act. As the grandma and granddaughter approach Mom's office, Tomlin tells the young woman, "I've been scared of your Ma since she was 5 years old." What makes this woman so terrifying? As the daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) comes into view, the terror she evokes becomes clear. She's on a treadmill desk talking on a wireless headset. She berates her assistant and demands espresso. After learning that her teenage daughter is pregnant, she immediately leaves to go to a meeting. As comic John Mulaney would say, she's a "busy business woman who only likes business." She's also an example of a stock film character that needs to die.
Possibly one of the most glaring examples of the trope from recent years is Sandra Bullock's scarily severe editor in The Proposal. She's not just successful, she makes her employees cower while she struts stiffly in her heels. Worse, she emasculates her male secretary. Her success isn't celebrated, because it's too clouded in the panic she inspires. There's no awe or respect mixed in with the aura of fear she lords over her employees.
An on-screen female character can be very good at her job and likable at the same time — if she's a hot mess while she does it. Much like the real-life phenomena identified by Salon of successful, beautiful actresses professing personal-life messiness to make them relatable, 30 Rock's Liz Lemon could never be a truly stereotypical "bitchy boss," because while she writes a show, deals with bureaucracy and wrangles her actors, she does it all in comfortable clothes without a single session at SoulCycle. She gets tired, and though she powers through, she also has moments of vulnerability. The bitchy boss character isn't vulnerable — then the audience might have to empathize with her. The bitchy boss is a business machine.
Perhaps one of the earliest examples of the bitchy boss is Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. The things that make her such a perfect example of the archetype are starkly contrasted against the qualities of pretend boss Tess (Melanie Griffith). The bitchy boss isn't allowed to be a sexual being. Even as Weaver reclines lingerie-clad in bed waiting for her boyfriend, she's going over her datebook. Weaver's slapped-on smiles aren't like the necessary charm that her male co-workers employ to win over clients, they are feigned warmth. She is the villain, and in the end she loses her job. But while you wouldn't want her as a friend, she is obviously ruthless in business, a quality that's highly regarded in her on-screen male counterparts (think Wall Street, and more recently, Wall Street 2's Gordon Gekko).
There's hope that the silver screen will soon be populated with successful business woman and female bosses who kick ass at work and are respected for it. Anne Hathaway's startup leader in The Intern looks like a character who's allowed to be good at her job and maintain a working relationship of respect, not fear, with her employees. Successful women don't have to be scary, and its time for Hollywood to catch up with the nuanced reality.