WOMEN LAWYERS IN MOVIES
WOMEN'S RIGHTS LAW REPORTER
Copyright (c) 1999 Women's Rights Law Reporter, Rutgers--The State of New Jersey
Women's Rights Law Reporter
Spring / Summer, 1999
20 Women's Rights L. Rep. 55
LENGTH: 13930 words
ARTICLE: Still in the Dark: Disappointing Images of Women
Lawyers in the Movies
STACY CAPLOW *
* Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Legal Education, Brooklyn Law
School. With much appreciation, the author thanks Susan Herman, Nan Hunter,
Minna Kotkin, Liz Schneider, and Spencer Waller.
... During the more than thirty years that At ticus Finch reigned as a
leading-man legal role model, he had no female counterparts for the many women
who became lawyers in the period beginning in the early 1970s when women first
trickled into, then flooded, the legal profession. ... An examination of the
depiction of law and lawyers in popular media is most useful as a measurement
of the general public perception of the law and the legal profession. ... A
genre film is characterized by a particu lar style, form, or content. ... These
movies are all so obscure that they require a visit to a film library not a
video store, yet they all send the same basic message: wo men do not really
belong in the legal profession. ... Even so, it took Hollywood almost ten
years to catch up with the feminization of the legal profession. ... Moreover,
she clearly has not even tried to achieve the familiar indicia of success in
the legal profession. ...
For many of us, Atticus Finch, the princi pled hero of the movie To Kill a
n1 was our first positive legal role model. We may have heard of Clarence Darrow
or known that Abraham Lincoln was a country lawyer before becoming president,
and we may have even read Harper Lee's unforgettable book,
n2 but it was the dignified, sagacious, and unquestiona bly humane Gregory Peck
on the screen, who educated us about what a lawyer was supposed to be. Atticus
Finch braved the censure of his small southern town, represented a poor black
farmer against the accusation of sexual assault by a white woman in the racist
south of the 1930s, artfully used his advocate's skills in court, all the while
retaining the affection of his white neighbors, the respect of the black
community, and the unqualified love of his children. After seeing the movie, we
wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer just like him.
During the more than thirty years that At ticus Finch reigned as a leading-man
legal role model, he had no female counterparts for the many women who became
lawyers in the period beginning in the early 1970s when women first trickled
into, then flooded, the legal profession. There was no female cinematic
equivalent to Atticus Finch to emulate or admire, a deficiency that was all the
more aggravating in light of the lack of real-life role models for this
generation of aspiring lawyers. Although in the 1970s and early 1980s the
number of women graduating from law school increased dramatically,
n4 these lawyers, often one of only a few women in their practice settings, had
no reassuring or inspira tional film characters that reflected this growth. By
1990, when women represented between 20 and 24% of the profession,
n5 we still lacked au thentic cinematic role models who could be seen struggling
with the everyday issues of blending career and home responsibilities,
[*56] glass ceiling" strictures, sexual harassment, gender stereotyping, or unequal compensation.
n6 Even today, despite some depictions of women lawyers on the big screen, a
trend that flowered in the mid-1980s, then withered within a ten- year period,
Hollywood has been unkind and unsympathetic to and, in many cases exploitive
of, women lawyers.
n7 The movie industry caught up with this demographic shift in the late 1980s and
early 1990s when a spate of movies were released with women lawyer
protagonists. This flurry presumably signaled Hollywood's belated recognition
of the dramatic potential of the in flux of women into the legal workplace.
Begin ning in 1985 with Jagged Edge,
n8 the profusion of movies featuring women lawyers suggested that the resume of
every major actress required a lady lawyer entry in order to be competitive. In
short order, moviegoers were able to see with regularity movies in which women
lawyers prac ticed their profession, such as Debra Winger in Legal Eagles,
n9 Ellen Barkin in The Big Easy,
n10 Theresa Russell in Physical Evidence,
n11 Barbara Hershey in Defenseless,
n12 Penelope Ann Miller in Other People's Money,
n13 Sean Young in Love Crimes,
n14 Demi Moore in A Few Good Men,
n15 Rebecca deMornay in Guilty as Sin,
n16 and Bon nie Bedelia in Judicial Consent.
n17 Historians seeking to date the end of this trend need look no further than
1995, with the casting of Cindy Crawford in Fair Game,
n18 in which the super model demonstrated her meager legal prowess for about two
minutes at the beginning of a movie which then required her to be decorative
for its duration.
However hopeful woman lawyer movie goers may have been as a result of this
phenom enon, our expectations were invariably disap pointed. A glance at this
undistinguished roster of largely forgettable movies in which the fea tured
female compromised herself both person ally and professionally by either having
sex with an inappropriate character (adversary, boss, cli ent) or placing
herself in physical or psychologi cal danger, or both, suggests that film
makers have not allowed women lawyer characters to achieve even the degree of
professional success and esteem that they may have in real life. With few
exceptions, cinematic women lawyers have been depicted in patriarchal roles,
depen dent for their success, approval or self-protec tion on male colleagues,
mentors, or father
[*57] figures. Moreover, they have been portrayed as immoral by society's standards,
and unethical according to professional norms.
n19 Even those movies that initially seemed to showcase the skills and successes
of a woman attorney favora bly, were quickly stripped of this pretense of re
spect as the plot degenerated into a trite pot- boiler in which the woman's
downfall is due to either absurd professional miscalculations, seri ous
emotional problems, sexual transgressions, or all of the above.
In this batch of mediocre films there were a few of better quality that are
worth examining for their more serious portrayal of women law yers in their
n20 This essay will examine six of the best known of these films, each of which
pass, at least initially, a ba sic critical minimum standard. Four of them,
n22 The Music Box,
n23 and Class Action,
n24 follow a familiar formula in which a reasonably successful, somewhat frus
trated, or disappointed woman lawyer takes on a big case with either temporary
or long-term disastrous consequences. The fifth, The Ac cused,
n25 manages to avoid these melodramatic pitfalls, but still portrays its featured
attorney as a flawed heroine, and, because of its subject matter - a rape
prosecution - still suffers from some objectionable stereotyping. The Client,
n26 the last chronologically, offers a more sympa thetic, humane, and likeable
portrait of its law yer protagonist who, largely by supplementing her legal
judgment with maternal impulses, achieves both a legal advantage for her client
and a large measure of personal gratification.
As an avid cinephile, without much taste or discretion, and apparently a lot of
disposable time, I saw almost all of these movies and then realized, in about
1992, that a phenomenon was taking place. At that time, I gave a speech at a
law school function which argued that, despite a fair amount of on-screen
exposure, women were not faring well in popular culture. Since then, the screen
depiction of women lawyers has been the subject of several articles, catching
the imagination of feminist critics, all of whom express degrees of
disappointment and discour agement.
This essay updates my earlier conclusion. In the intervening years since my
original obser vations, and despite the almost universal criti cism of the
treatment of women lawyers in film, no apparent progress has occurred. Indeed,
the most noticeable change is the declining pres ence of women lawyers in
recent movies, partic ularly in a central role. Women have been rele gated to
supporting characters, such as the prosecutor in Primal Fear
n28 and the window- dressing advocate in Philadelphia.
n29 They are law students in A Time to Kill
n30 or Reversal of Fortune,
n31 cultural oddities like the Chinese de fense attorney in Red Corner,
n32 or anonymous judges and briefcase toting extras in courthouse hallways and
elevators. Hollywood seems to have lost interest in the travails of the woman
WOMEN LAWYERS IN POPULARCULTURE
An examination of the depiction of law and lawyers in popular media is most
useful as a measurement of the general public perception of the law and the
legal profession. Forms of popular culture can chart the impact of law on
society as its creator has understood, processed, and then communicated the
phenomena, as suming that the creator is observant and per ceptive. Looking at
images of law and lawyers in popular culture permits us to view a version of
the real social impact of legal ideas as seen through the eyes of a creative
interpreter and as processed by a lay audience. Popular legal cul ture bears
some responsibility for creating the public's understanding of the law since
many people derive all of their information about the meaning of legal events
through the lens of popular media.
Examining images of women lawyers thus permits us to question the status that
women seem to have attained in the legal profession, and the personal, moral,
or emotional adjust ments they have been required to make in or der to
participate in that world, as conceived on film. We can also ask how the public
is likely to perceive women lawyers as a result of these images.
Portrayals of women in the movies presum ably attempt to mirror the authentic
ambiva lence of real-life women lawyers about whether and how their sex
influences the law and its practice, and reflects and reinforces the skepti
cism of lay people about the relative abilities and competence of women
attorneys. These fictional characterizations and their accompany ing conflicts,
dilemmas, and choices not surpris ingly suggest that media portraits of lawyers
perpetuate the stereotypes as well as the actual differences between women and
men in the legal culture, registering an outsider's perspec tive that those of
us on the inside may have overlooked, ignored, or even rejected. We, therefore,
should be able to gauge the perceived status of women in the legal profession
since the credibility of plot and character depend to some degree on the
authenticity of the depic tion of the woman lawyer in her professional role.
THE LEGAL GENRE FILM
A genre film is characterized by a particu lar style, form, or content. A
particular genre can be identified by familiar conventions and formulas that
are plot rather than character
n34 Films about the law and lawyers have always been a popular genre, although
arguably these movies really are trans-genre. They can be about gangsters,
prisons, the wild west, class distinctions, femmes fatales, social causes,
historical events, biography, law school, and even the military. They can be
dramas, melodramas, or even screwball comedies. Moreover, the typical legal
narrative contains the same basic ingredients as the classic Hollywood
narrative, a form based on cause and effect relationships between characters
that establish conflict, and then advance the conflict toward resolution and
Legal issues are inherently dramatic since they generally arise out of
opposition and con flict, and are often, at least in the mind of the public,
resolved in a courtroom, the modern gladiatorial forum. The courtroom generally
and, even more so, the inevitable climactic trial scene are excellent stages
for the resolution of such global questions as guilt or innocence, good or
evil, right or wrong.
n36 Summations pro vide an excellent soapbox for pontification, or an opportunity
for revelation; direct examina tion involves a moment of dramatic accusation;
cross-examination allows the witness to expiate or the lawyer to vilify. Some
of the complexi ties of difficult social issues such as abortion or the death
penalty can be exposed to the public through the medium of legal conflict, yet
the in dividual does not have to take sides while sit ting in the theater.
Viewers expect judges and juries to make decisions and these cinematic de
cision makers rarely disappoint. Perhaps mov ies even relieve the public of the
responsibility of taking a position. Finally, most movies re solve the
conflicts they create by solving the mystery, rendering a verdict, or
contriving a confession, thereby leaving the viewer satisfied with the kind of
tidy resolution that rarely oc curs in real life.
Since most movies about lawyers and the law pose questions in moral hyperboles
and have larger than life plots, celluloid advocates on behalf of these
positions tend to be por trayed at one extreme or the other of the vil
lainy-virtue continuum without much explora tion of intermediate subtleties.
When a good lawyer is corrupted or an evil lawyer redeemed, this transformation
is usually the metaphor for a larger moral message. No movie ever depicts the
work-a-day grind of the typical lawyer of average looks and normal abilities
who is too busy juggling the demands of clients, bosses, judges, adversaries,
errands, and family to allow for much dalliance and distraction.
Movies featuring lawyers have been popu lar for a long time.
n37 In many, particularly those in the 1930s and 1940s, the lawyer was corrupt,
depraved, or degenerate. In these so-called
"shysters and mouthpieces" movies, the lawyers are alcoholics, murderers, evidence or jury tam perers,
and perjurers, among other unattractive types.
n38 They are susceptible to seduction in the form of power, money, or sex. They
are almost exclusively men.
Even in more recent films, lawyers have not made much progress beyond the
shyster cliche. For example, Walter Matthau's ambu lance chaser in The Fortune
n39 persuades his friend to fake injuries for a negligence suit after a very minor
accident. In The Verdict,
n40 Paul Newman, a burnt-out alcoholic attorney,
[*60] resorts to questionable ethics while represent ing a particularly sympathetic
client against a powerful adversary. The real-world sport of lawyer bashing is
recreated on the screen by portraying celluloid lawyers in an unfavorable light.
Occasionally, a film does offer a counter point to this relentless negative
imagery. Such movies include Young Mister Lincoln,
n41 Anat omy of a Murder,
n42 To Kill a Mockingbird,
n43 Cape Fear,
n44 and Judgment at Nuremburg,
n45 starring respectively such jut-jawed defenders of justice as Henry Fonda,
James Stewart, Greg ory Peck (twice), and
Spencer Tracy. These positive images are few and far between and may only be credible because
of the charisma of the featured actor.
By most accounts, lawyers are flawed cine matic heroes, and now that women make
up a significant percentage of the legal population, it is not surprising that
movies treat women lawyers with equal disdain and distrust. This treatment is
consistent with the highly dubious approach of varying a convention by putting
a woman in a traditional male role or situation. Their sex supposedly is
irrelevant, but, of course, it always does matter. As much as Hollywood might
try to cause women to forfeit their sexual identities, these efforts usually
fail--or at least result in inauthentic, unsatisfy ing films.
Whether or not the media's villainous por trayal of lawyers is fair to the
profession, there is no particular reason to exempt women law yers from this
censure or to portray them as any less greedy, devious, amoral, or evil, let
alone more virtuous than male attorneys. Neverthe less, it is ironic that the
women attorneys de picted in recent films have not suffered from the moral and
ethical lapses usually ascribed to male lawyers, but rather have imperfections
that are more traditionally identified with their sex.
Any critique of women lawyer movies must acknowledge that usually the sex of
the protag onist does matter. The Hollywood technique of varying a genre film
by writing a male role as female simply does not work since it is usually
impossible to divorce a protagonist's sex from the plot. Thus, a movie about
legal conventions featuring a female attorney incorporates the woman's movie
conventions, and the latter genre actually may dominate. We are left with both
a more complex portrait of our lawyer her oines than the more monochromatic
picture which shyster films painted, adding elements of family, emotion, and
conscience that derive from gender rather than profession.
THE WOMAN'S FILM
In From Reverence to Rape,
n47 the film critic, Molly Haskell, identifies the
"woman's movie" as genre unto itself.
n48 Although the very idea of a separate category featuring exclu sively women may
seem denigrating, Haskell's description of this genre resonates and reminds us
of many dark movie theaters in which we never had enough kleenex. According to
Has kell, the main themes of the woman's movie are sacrifice, choice,
affliction, or competition.
n49 Prime examples, among the numerous possibili ties, are Joan Crawford in
n50 (sac rifice), Bette Davis in such films as Now Voy ager
n51 (choice), Dark Victory
n52 (affliction), and All About Eve
n53 (competition). Even when the featured woman was a professional, she would have
to sacrifice her career for her marriage, choose between her career or her
children, compete with another woman for a man's love, or die on the heels of a
Haskell discusses some of the hypocrisy perpetrated by popular films about
n54 She reminds us that the worst examples of a man's flaws, such as crime or
espionage, are viewed with less animosity than those of a striv ing woman with
executive power, or artistic, lit erary, or professional aspirations.
n55 She points
[*61] out the irony that often situations in movies are characterized as
"conflicts" simply because they are happening to a woman, when, if the sexes were
reversed, there would be no problem at all.
n56 For example, if an older woman is having a romance with a younger man, the
affair is viewed romantically as a com ing of age experience from the boy's
viewpoint. If the story is the woman's, however, the rela tionship between an
older woman and a younger man is an act of desperation or seduc tion. The same
affair would be charming for the man and corrupt for the woman. The double
standard applies to work as well as to sex. A man is expected to work without
jeopardizing his personal life, whereas a woman who has chosen a career takes a
detour from conven tional behavior and risks personal unhappiness.
Surprisingly, there were a notable number of movies made during the 1930s and
1940s that featured women lawyers.
n57 One film historian found that when women had careers in the films of that era,
they were more frequently lawyers than other professionals.
n58 These were largely woman's movies in a legal setting with sacrifice themes
that frequently highlighted their hero ines' flaws, moral lapses, or failures
as women, but not necessarily as lawyers. Indeed, more often than not, the
women were quite compe tent as lawyers, judging largely by their results rather
than any portrayal of competent profes sional skills. Their occupation seemed
inciden tal, relevant only to provide a context for the sacrifice and the
courtroom's dramatic setting. Typically, the women lawyers were forced to admit
their hubris for wanting it all at the ex pense of their more feminine duties
of wife or mother. Like other women's films of that time period, they were
Quick plot summaries easily convey the flavor of these movies. In the earliest
of them, Scarlet Pages,
n59 a woman attorney defends an other woman accused of murdering her father when
he tried to attack her. It turns out that her client is the lawyer's long-lost
daughter. In Ann Carver's Profession,
n60 the heroine-attorney earns more than her architect husband. Despite his
competitiveness, when he is tried for mur der, she successfully defends him
and, at the end of the trial, gives up her career to save her marriage. This
sacrifice movie was even remade into The Lady Objects,
n61 in which, dur ing her summation, the heroine argues for her husband's
acquittal by blaming his predicament on the marital turmoil caused by her ambi
Other movies echo these melodramatic themes of sacrifice and choice. The
n63 concerns a successful lawyer for organ ized crime and a young female law
school grad uate who attempts to expose him. The Law in Her Hands
n64 tells the story of a woman lawyer newly admitted to the bar who becomes
quickly disillusioned and eventually becomes the under world's leading
mouthpiece, thus combining the shyster and woman's genres. In Career Wo men,
n65 again the young woman lawyer defends a girl accused of murdering her father.
In Portia on Trial
n66 a female lawyer defends a woman charged with murder.
These movies are all so obscure that they require a visit to a film library not
a video store, yet they all send the same basic message: wo men do not really
belong in the legal profession. Even if she is spunky and good at her work, a
woman lawyer is riddled with either self-hatred or self-righteousness. She
induces jealousy, en gages in self-sacrifice, and simply cannot have both
professional and personal identities. Moreover, she is either suckered by some
shy ster or in love with the prosecutor, and in any event, cannot truly succeed
without the help of a man.
[*62] Real women lawyers were scarce at this time and their screen counterparts were
rele gated to playing melodramatic roles that em phasized their emotional
weaknesses, their in ability to combine career, love, and parenting and their
dependence on men. If they were suc cessful on the professional level, they had
to pay a personal price of guilt and self-abnega tion, but usually only after
they had achieved justice for their clients or had elevated them selves to the
moral high ground. Another re currence in four of these early women lawyer
films is the eventual marriage of the women at torneys to the prosecutors who
opposed them at trial. Even if she is a successful litigator, the celluloid
female attorney must be domesticated.
These movies also highlight their heroines' tendency to take on unpopular
causes, fre quently the defense of other women, often at considerable personal
cost. Most involve wo men either defending or coming to the rescue of their
husband or child, or other women charged with committing crimes. For example,
in Scarlet Pages, Portia on Trial, and Career Women, a wo man attorney takes
the case of a young girl who has retaliated against male abuse. In The Wo man
is the Judge,
n67 the judge's first case is the murder trial of her long-lost daughter. She re
signs her judgeship, and then argues a success ful defense theory that she is
to blame for her daughter's act because she neglected her.
Some very traditional messages are sent by these films. Women lawyers who try
to be in dependent or champion the cause of other wo men screw up their
personal lives, and when they realize this, sacrifice their careers for mar
riage or family. On the other hand, women law yers in this era of predominantly
shyster and mouthpiece films, scored much higher on the moral Richter Scale
than their male counter parts, including the often ruthless adversaries they
In the 1940s, the tone changed from turgid to light. The few women lawyers in
films were found in comedies rather than melodramas. Rosalind Russell, the
archetypal career woman, was cast as a judge twice, once in Design for Scandal
n68 and then in Tell it to the Judge
n69 about a would-be federal judge and her recently di vorced lawyer husband.
Myrna Loy's judge in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer
n70 falls for Cary Grant. In these comedies, the female law yer and the legal
setting are vehicles for ro mance and sparring instead of heartbreak and
Probably no comedy about the law will ever surpass the charm and genius of the
n71 Katherine Hepburn, a solo prac titioner, defends a woman accused of assault
and attempted murder after she shoots her hus band while he was in the arms of
his lover. Hepburn's husband,
Spencer Tracy, is prosecut ing. Despite a few disturbing unexplained de tails such as
Hepburn's client list (she seems to have only one client at a time), the source
of wealth that enables the couple to own a farm in the country and a duplex
Manhattan apartment (that any New Yorker familiar with the housing market would
envy), or the lack of concern about this incredible conflict of interest, this
film artfully and engagingly portrays the legal and marital skirmishes of this
professional couple. The charm of this movie owes a lot to the Hepburn-Tracy
chemistry while its portrayal of two complementary yet equally capable pro
fessionals and its explicit advocacy of women's equality are its real
Despite its comedic format, the movie sends a serious message about equality
for wo men eloquently delivered by Hepburn both in and out of court. Basically,
Hepburn argues against an antiquated version of justification that would deny
the defense to women. Hep burn is offended that a woman would be consid ered
culpable or even lunatic when a man would be considered justified under the
same circumstances. An egalitarian, she declaims,
"We don't want any advantages or prejudices."
While her domestic side is somewhat flut tery and flirtatious, in court,
Hepburn's affect is confident and independent. She strides to the jury box and
the bench with self-assurance. Others, however, are less convinced of her posi
tion. Her client, a working-class mother of three, so obviously dissimilar from
the Yale Law School graduate, does not really under
[*63] stand the feminist explanation of her conduct that her lawyer is proposing as
her defense. Nor does Tracy, the male prosecutor for whom the law is the law
whether it is good or bad, re spect her arguments, and he chides her for hav
"contempt for the law" because she is ad vancing a legal theory that essentially calls for jury
Once their battleground has been staked out, Tracy and Hepburn are worthy
adversaries whose out-of-court wrangling mirrors their in- court arguments.
Although Tracy, married to a lawyer, presumably believes the notions of
equality that Hepburn espouses, he opposes her legal theory at home and in
court. The viewer is infatuated with Hepburn's style, wit, verbal dexterity,
and ambition. She is the iconoclast, while Tracy is the plodding, stolid
gentlemanly lawyer. She breaks the mold of existing law us ing bold trial
techniques, while he defends the status quo and plays by the rules, which,
after all, are his rules until she undermines them.
By using the courtroom as her stage and the trial as an instrument to expose
her ideas and to accomplish change, she obtains an ac quittal for her client
and educates the public about the law's inequity to women. She is a cre ative
trial advocate, resorting to unconventional courtroom techniques as she summons
a series of successful women as testament to the equal ity of the sexes. She is
gutsy, risking the cen sure of the judge and the ire of her husband, as she has
a woman weightlifter preposterously hoist Tracy high into the air in open court
to prove her point about female competency. Her instrumental view of the law,
her non-conform ity, energy, dedication, and gumption resemble the tactics and
practices of early feminist law yers.
This movie is the only intelligent cinematic representation of a woman lawyer
to appear for more than thirty-five years and, to this day, re mains fresh and
contemporary. It is decidedly neither a woman's movie, a shyster film, or a
worshipful portrait of a legal hero. It is an as tute and original exploration
of the equality of the sexes under the law and in marriage, com bining humor
with legitimate legal argument.
Hepburn's client's acquittal is even more satisfying because she accomplishes
this result without sacrificing either her intelligence, her principles, her
femininity, or her marriage. Her client's sympathetic plight allows the viewer
to feel without reservation that justice has been done. She really was innocent
under the ver sion of law propounded by Hepburn, as op posed to simply not
guilty because of the ma nipulative skills of her lawyer or some legal
technicality that allows guilty people to be ac quitted.
Adam's Rib is so pleasing and enduring be cause of its winning portrait of a woman lawyer
and because it advances a substantive legal is sue of significance to women
independent of the personal life of the protagonist. Even though Hepburn's
intransigence angers and alienates Tracy and she comes close to the prec ipice
of sacrifice and choice when their relation ship is threatened by the case, she
never really has to choose between him, her client, or her beliefs. While these
tensions challenge their re lationship, when the trial is over they eventually
return to their former marital harmony. More over, the viewer never doubts for
a minute that the couple will survive this test. This generous denouement makes
Adam's Rib unusual and takes it out of the stereotypical woman's movie genre. Hepburn
makes her point and has her husband, too.
THE MODERN WOMAN LAWYER INFILM
As women graduated in record numbers from law school, film makers began to
recog nize the dramatic potential of the introduction of women into the
workplace, and the challenge to traditional patriarchy that women profession
als pose. Even so, it took Hollywood almost ten years to catch up with the
feminization of the legal profession. In about 1985, when women lawyer movies
began to proliferate, many ques tions surfaced.
[*64] Now that women lawyers were to have fea tured roles, what image would be
projected? Would they be able to break out of the woman's movie genre? If they
were permitted to be more than soap opera heroines, would they be
"shysters and mouthpieces" or female Finches? Would this breakthrough also permit them to resemble their
real-life counterparts who have work-home conflicts, experience gender bias,
sexual politics and harassment, do not have time to exercise or get a haircut,
and who some times feel alienated by the professional stan dards and norms of
an adversarial legal system? Since the reality of most women lawyers - fraught
with tensions about clients and cases, family responsibilities, and personal
time - is more than a little boring, Hollywood cannot af ford to be true to
life. Moreover, there is no reason to expect that the film industry would be
less ambivalent about the presence of powerful accomplished women, in a
traditionally male profession, than the rest of the population. It is
inevitable, therefore, that most movies about women lawyers are exaggerated and
unrealistic, indeed even insulting, to the accomplishments of women lawyers.
As it turns out, the modern cinematic wo man lawyer has much in common with her
predecessors from the handkerchief age. Al though our times permit dramas to
unfold with a level of sex and violence unknown in earlier years, these
heroines are plagued by many fa miliar personal conflicts. In keeping with the
increased complexity of the times in an era free from the constraints of the
n73 their professional lives generally feature ambig uous ethical and moral
dilemmas, as well as, sexual, psychological, and physical perils that could
never have been developed in the more one-dimensional woman's movies of the
The six better-than-average films that merit more serious scrutiny
n74 have much in common in their narrative development, and in the profiles of
their heroine's lives. Although not every narrative element is the same, typi
cally the viewer's first glimpse of each heroine is in her professional role,
either arguing in court, interacting with a client or colleague, or in the
context of a complimentary reference to her abilities by another lawyer. To one
extent or another, the professional skills of these wo men are showcased as we
are treated to their destructive depositions, cutting cross-examina tions,
thorough preparation, and aggressive ne gotiation style. We are meant to be
convinced through these cliches of masculine lawyer be havior that they are
successful and accepted.
None of the women lawyers is married, al lowing them to dedicate long hours to
work and leaving them open to sexual temptation. Three are divorced (Glenn
Close in Jagged Edge,
n75 Jessica Lange in Music Box,
n76 and Susan Sarandon in The Client
n77). While the two wo men with children (Close and Lange) superfi cially appear to be good mothers with support ive ex-husbands,
they spend little time with their children and often put their personal and
professional interests ahead of the needs of their kids. Three of them are
having sexual re lations with inappropriate men (Close with her client, Mary
Elizabeth Mastroantonio in Class Action
n78 with a partner in her firm, and Cher in Suspect
n79 with a juror). Two are excessively emotionally intertwined with their fathers
with disastrous professional consequences (Lange's father is her client and
Mastroantonio's is her adversary). Two are burnt out and frustrated by sexism
at their jobs (Cher's public defender in Suspect and Kelly McGillis's
prosecutor in The Accused), while two (Close and Mastroantonio) are climbing
the partnership ladder. All (ex cept Sarandon) have either male mentors or
professional father figures and protectors. Sev eral have a male protege such
as the junior as sociate in Class Action and the paralegal in The Client. All
have male adversaries in court, and, with the exception of Lange, who has an
Afri can-American female assistant, all appear to be the only women lawyers,
and only professional women at their respective jobs.
Jagged Edge, the first of our modern mov ies, is undecided about whether it is
a woman's movie morality tale, or a murder mystery. A
[*65] talented, respected woman attorney, played by Glenn Close, is a successful
litigator who left the DA's office for a lucrative private practice. Although
we never see Close working on any other case, we accept at face value her compe
tence, perhaps because of her fancy office and stylish clothes, even when she
is persuaded, with the inducement of a promise of a partner ship, to take on
the seamy case of a rich and handsome client accused of brutally murdering his
wife. Throughout the movie Close is the only woman lawyer we see, and she
always ap pears in a room of deferential male colleagues who appear to adore
her, but who, everyone with the exception of Close herself understands, are
really trying to manipulate her into ac cepting a client who they think would
be best represented by a woman.
In the initial courtroom scenes, Close dem onstrates clever and polished trial
skills. Her el egantly shod feet soon prove to be made of clay, however, when
she sleeps with her client on the eve of his trial.
n80 Her sexual transgres sion is simply the final step in her psychological
seduction by her client, a process the viewer has been witnessing from the
outset of their rela tionship. Once she has crossed this line of im propriety,
her legal prowess is tainted by her emotionality and the viewer is discomforted
by her conflation of the personal and the profes sional.
Since her misconduct would be a problem whether committed by a female or male
attor ney, at first we are tempted to believe that the movie escapes some of
the stereotypical sexism of the woman's genre. But the movie has no patience
with Close's foolish choice to become involved with her client, who most of the
audi ence can tell is a killer. Thus, Close pays for her mistake when she
discovers her client's treach ery and guilt, and faces her complicity in his de
ception. Not only does she feel manipulated and used, but also she places
herself in grave personal danger, finally killing her client-lover, literally
destroying the evidence of her stupidity and supposedly recapturing some of her
previ ous power. Despite having saved herself from the assassin, we doubt that
she will ever be the same. Her personal lapse has doomed her. We never find out
what happens to her professional life as a consequence of this, so we can only
guess that she was denied her partnership, forced out of her classy firm, or
ceased practic ing law altogether.
Despite her sexual misadventure, Close is not a cardboard cliche of either a
lawyer or a woman. Rather, the movie offers an equivocal picture of this career
woman. She is a very ef fective, focused, and proficient trial lawyer, who,
with the aid of a salty male investigator, seems to find a smoking gun during
her cross- examination of every prosecution witness. At the same time, she
wears conspicuously tight, constricting clothing that unavoidably distracts
from her professional image. She can barely walk back to her seat after a
stinging cross-ex amination because her skirt is too tight and her heels too
high as she walks back and forth to the witness box. The message of her
clothing visually undermines any image of competence and gender-neutral skill.
She is also personally soft and vulnerable, clearly meant to appear as a decent
person, even though she ends up looking foolish. When it appears that her
client is not only guilty but also has lied to her, she is stung with sexual
jeal ousy and outrage by his betrayal rather than be ing concerned for his
legal fate. Whatever cred ibility as an independent professional Close may have
had up to this point, is undercut and trivialized by her indiscretion. When she
goes to the judge's house in tears, asking to be re lieved from the case
because of her suspicions about her client, he straightens her out in an
avuncular manner that suggests that she really is not the effective trial
lawyer she pretends to be, but is, after all, only another emotional wo man.
Jagged Edge was a breakthrough movie be cause it was the first to take
seriously the possi bility that a woman could function as a compe tent
professional, respected and admired by her peers, and often brilliant in the
courtroom. This portrayal sadly turns out to be illusory as Close succumbs to
sexual temptation, compromises her professional integrity, and ultimately be
[*66] comes a killer (as if there were no other solu tions to her problems). It is
unfortunate that any subtleties in Close's portrayal are so eclipsed by the
enormity of her mistake and the extremity of her resolution that we are
unlikely to understand or excuse her. Close's downfall, like those of her
predecessors in the movies of the 1930s, is attributable to her conceit in
think ing that she could compete in a man's world. Indeed, this film owes more
to those melodra mas than to the women's movement.
In Suspect, Cher plays an exhausted, yet dedicated, public defender assigned to
repre sent a deaf homeless man accused of murder. Her disillusionment is quite
authentic. Equally believable is her initial resignation over her as signment
to this thankless, draining case with a pitiable and friendless client. Her
frustration with the difficulties of defending such an in defensible person is
realistic, yet her reaction to her client's plight is caring and concerned. Put
ting aside the ludicrous development that the real killer is the presiding
judge who has com mitted the crime in order to cover up an ancient impropriety
that would prevent him from being elevated to the appeals court, Cher's
portrayal of a hardworking, somewhat defeated, and brow-beaten criminal defense
attorney, whose biological clock is ticking, is quite bona fide, down to her
frequently inept trial skills and her obvious awareness of being outflanked in
Her case is hopeless and her resources non- existent when she is offered the
opportunity to accept help from one of the jurors in investigat ing some
heretofore uncovered leads. At first, Cher's professional ethics hold fast when
she re buffs his illegal effort to help her. She says,
"I want to win, but I draw the line." As the evi dence against her client mounts, she is per suaded to let the juror
help her. Having taken the plunge into this misconduct, she almost im mediately
compounds her guilt when she lies about the situation to the judge without
blink ing an eye, assuring her descent into legal ethics hell. She discards the
rules that circumscribe her ability to represent her client effectively in a
totally unbalanced case. This situation does not necessarily require a female
attorney for the ethical conflict to exist. Yet, Cher's capitulation has a
distinctly female side, growing out of a willingness to see her role as defense
attorney as less rule-determined than a male counterpart might. She knows how
to accept help when it is offered because she is not delusional or con ceited
enough to believe that she alone can ob tain the acquittal. We witness her
ambivalence over the clear professional mandates she is vio lating, but can
appreciate how her client bene fits from her lapse. She struggles emotionally
for the fate of her client in a situation in which she feels powerless to help
him unless she makes some personal compromises. Her choice is made easier not
only because of the strength of the prosecution's case, but also by the pa
tronizing attitudes of the district attorney and the judge. At one point, the
prosecutor even frames an objection by asking whether she thinks the trial is a
cooking class. She shoulders the full weight of the judge's condescension,
hostility, and impatience as the case against her client strengthens in court
while she simulta neously discovers increasing evidence convinc ing her that he
may actually be innocent. With out abjuring the rules, she is powerless to help
Cher does two remarkable things: she breaks the law to help her client and she
puts his interests above her own. Although she is never caught or prosecuted,
she endangers her professional standing and her freedom for him. Rather than
play by the rules, however, she places herself at risk, both professionally and
physically, to do the best for her client. Given her disillusionment, it is not
surprising that her frustration with the system propels her into re bellion for
the sake of her client. Since the true culprit is exposed before Cher's
misconduct is discovered, she never has to face any conse quences for her law
breaking. The movie, thus, never addresses the hard issue of whether the ends
justify the means. Perhaps they do, since in the end she gets one really good
looking guy acquitted and gets to date another.
The next two films, The Music Box and Class Action, depict very different
dependency relationships that drive their plots in completely unrealistic
directions. In both, the male author ity figure is the woman lawyer's father
with whom she has an infantilizing relationship con sidering both women are
highly competitive lawyers in the corporate world. Lange is de voted to her
father and has complete faith in his innocence when he is accused of being a
[*67] criminal. Mastroantonio is a rebellious child, who repudiates her father for
his philandering and his idealism to such an extent that her en tire existence
is based on childish opposition.
In The Music Box, Jessica Lange plays a criminal lawyer amicably divorced from
her rich, well-connected husband, who retains a mentor relationship with her
former father-in- law, a patrician lawyer. At her father's request, she defends
him against an accusation that he was a member of a fascist police force in his
na tive country of Hungary, and that he personally killed Jews during World War
II. Her relation ship with her father is so close that even if she can see the
folly in handling his case, she cannot refuse when he insists.
Throughout the pretrial and trial proceed ings her devotion to her father and
her belief in his innocence never wavers, yet she also is hor rified by the
testimony of his victims. The emo tional burden of her father's defense is
light ened by her professional camouflage. She is very competitive with the
government attorney, gloating when she scores a procedural point. She zealously
represents her father, even if it means asking unpleasant questions of highly
sympathetic witnesses. She allows herself to be fully identified with him,
despite the damage to her professional reputation, even as the viewer is
increasingly skeptical of his innocence. Fi nally, when Lange herself begins to
have doubts, she becomes even more aggressive and intense as his advocate.
Being a strong, effective advocate is not enough to win the case, however. In
despera tion, she secretly turns to her former father-in- law to use his CIA
connections. Asking for help is a sign of professional weakness she is re
luctant to display to anyone since women attor neys who try to play by the
rules of the man's game feel they have to prove themselves in male ways. In
that world, asking for help is an admission of failure, or at least weakness,
as anyone who has ever experienced the classic gender divide over asking for
directions on a car trip can attest. Yet, she is willing to ask for this
assistance because helping her father and winning the case is more important
than per sonal or professional pride.
After the charges have been dismissed, she discovers her father's true
culpability. Her re sulting quandary reflects her dual loyalty, a situ ation a
wiser, more objective (i.e., male) lawyer would have avoided. Since the
discovery oc curred outside of the attorney-client relation ship, no
professional norms bar her disclosure of the inculpatory photographs she now
pos sesses. On the personal level, of course, her loyalty and love for her
father are destroyed. On the professional level, her satisfaction at having won
the case is ruined when her sense of justice refuses to let well enough alone.
Ultimately, she sends the photos to news papers and they are published in the
morning headlines. In so doing, she denounces her fa ther, sacrificing him and
their relationship, not for her career, but for her own peace of mind. Based on
what the audience knows about her values, her decision to reveal the photos
seems a foregone conclusion, even though the cost is enormous. We never see
whether she suffers any professional consequences for her actions or any
personal ostracism by her friends and colleagues. At the end of the film, she
is shot from a distance, alone with her son, a lingering image that prophesies
her likely solitary future. Again, the woman lawyer has made a profound,
life-altering decision that sacrifices her personal identity and possibly her
career to her sense of justice. The movie clearly suggests that this is a
gendered choice. None of the men in the film--her father, her brother, her
father-in- law--understand her decision, and clearly none of them would have
made the same choice.
In Class Action, we are treated to an up dated shysters and mouthpieces movie
leavened with a little self-sacrifice and revelation. The film not only pits
the little guy against the evil, impersonal corporation, it duplicates this
theme in the relationship between the heroine and her father. The twist here is
that it is the father who is the compassionate champion of lost causes, while
his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Mastroan tonio, is a quintessential yuppie
corporate law yer on the partnership track. Again, the incom prehensible occurs
for the sake of drama: the father and daughter are adversaries on the case.
Mastroantonio has committed just about every foolish error of judgment a young
lawyer could. She has swallowed whole the myth of big law firm success. She has
an intimate rela tionship with the partner supervising her work even when she
knows women in her position are judged by different standards. She capitu
[*68] lates easily when asked to conduct a ruthless destructive deposition of the
main plaintiff whose family perished in a flaming car and who is himself
Her constant and immature clashes with her father over their conflicting vision
of law yering sabotage her professional credibility. Ironically, it is his
version that could be labeled
"feminine" because of his devotion to lost causes and people. She is the tool of the
corpo rate machine, her gender exploited in order to serve the client, when,
for example, the senior partner admits that juries accept antagonistic and
destructive witness examinations more readily from a woman lawyer. Although she
can be ironic about herself, her introspection rarely seems sincere and she is
portrayed as weak and unprincipled, particularly in contrast to her father and
his African-American surro gate-son associate.
After discovering that her client is respon sible for the accidents in the
first place, and also that her firm is now covering up both for the auto
company and for themselves by withhold ing documents extremely helpful to the
plain tiffs, she finally faces the devil. She acknowl edges that her blind
acceptance of certain legal norms and her ambitions have caused her to ig nore
the side of herself, as represented by her creative, mediative mother, that
indeed cares about the plaintiffs' horrible tragedies and de plores the
deception in which she is complicit. She ultimately cannot turn into the
bloodless, ruthless lawyer that the male world, with the ex ception of her
father and his associate, was modeling for her. Together, in an ethically
questionable collaboration of adversaries, they figure out a way for her to
remedy the misdeed without jeopardizing her career. Even though a less generous
observer might criticize her inter pretation of ethical mandates, she manages
to reclaim herself without any harmful profes sional repercussions.
Mastroantonio finally renounces the values and practices of her law firm where,
again, she seems to be the only female attorney, in favor of the racial,
sexual, and class diversity of her father's very different legal world. Instead
of fighting against the caring side of herself, a struggle drawn in simplistic
parent-child terms, she accepts it. The sacrifice of her partnership is really
none at all. Ironically, however, in re pudiating the male law firm world, she
is re turning to her father's embrace, a regression that may, in the end, be
costly to her indepen dence and self-esteem. Again, the audience can only
speculate that her denouement dance with Daddy means not only reconciliation,
but also loss of independence.
These four movie heroines have much in common. In each, the female characters
rely on male authority figures for either professional, psychological, or
physical support. In each, the star is the only woman lawyer visible, as if no
law firm, public defender, or prosecutor's office could have more than one
female attorney. They appear to be both the mascot and the to ken, petted and
trotted out for display and con stantly compared to the guys. If and when they
fall short of their expectations, they are co erced, blackmailed, criticized,
embarrassed, or scolded. None of them is simply permitted to be a practicing
attorney who works with the dignity and balance of Atticus Finch. Even though
all four initially seem to have broken free from the stereotypes that define
images of professional women, they are not permitted to behave like real women.
Their sexuality, vul nerability, and dependency are emphasized, dominating
their images even when they are su perficially displayed as competent
professionals. They make foolish, emotional choices at great expense. Close and
Cher are almost killed. Cher and Mastroantonio commit ethical, and possibly
criminal errors. Lange and Mastro antonio are dutiful daughters whose paternal
relationships interfere disastrously with their professional lives. In the
final analysis, these four movies may indeed be nothing more than slicker
versions of the woman's movie, different only superficially from their 1930s
analogues because the freer moral climate of the 1980s and 1990s allows for the
introduction of more explicit sex and violence.
The Accused and The Client do not rely on sex, betrayal, violence, or
professional miscon duct for their drama. Furthermore, they each tell a story
of professional transformation that results from a relationship with an
individual who forces them to see the law differently. While their sex is
critical to the narrative, in each of these films the heroine's gender permits
a special relationship to form without sacrificing her professional identity.
They even acquire
[*69] new and improved skills. For that reason, these movies have moved beyond the
woman's movie genre.
Although The Accused focuses more on the difficulties experienced by Jodie
Foster, a rape victim, in her effort to achieve vindication through the legal
system, the prosecutor who helps her, played by Kelly McGillis, is instru
mental. Played as a cool, impersonal, competi tive professional, McGillis
changes profoundly as a result of her relationship with Foster, the lower class
victim. Foster's Oscar winning per formance is so powerful that she overshadows
the more passive, less emotional portrait of the professional who learns a
lesson in empathy and compassion from her
Despite Foster's brutal injuries, McGillis's reaction to Foster when they first
meet in the hospital is dispassionate and detached. In order to insulate
herself from the more emotional connection the situation may have required, she
informs Foster that
"I'm not a rape counselor. I'm a prosecutor." She retains this role-bound aloofness throughout the early phase of the
prosecution, evaluating the case and the credi bility of the victim just as
insensitively as her male colleagues. She relates to this rape victim from an
almost adversarial posture, interrogat ing her about her sex life in the guise
of educat ing her about her vulnerability under cross-ex amination. When she
discusses the case with her male boss at an ice hockey game, she sees the case
in terms of winning, and thus is a rec ognizable and unthreatening figure to
her male colleagues.
When McGillis arranges a plea bargain that convicts Foster's assailants of
assault rather than a sex offense, she does not consult with Foster. Although
the defendants go to jail, they never have to admit their guilt for the rape.
Foster is furious at being ignored. McGillis does not see the self-empowerment
goals mani fested in Foster's need to tell her story publicly so that she might
have the satisfaction of per sonally accusing and testifying against her as
sailants. She also wants them to be convicted of the crime they committed:
rape. McGillis never even considers that Foster might have an opin ion about
Crossing an obvious boundary, Foster, en raged and unrestrained by social
conventions, invades McGillis's home while she is preparing a civilized dinner
party, to volubly criticize her handling of the case. McGillis's awakening is
transparent as she realizes that Foster's accusa tion of lack of empathy is
correct, and that her unquestioning acceptance of her prosecutorial role had
prevented her from seeing and serving Foster's perfectly legitimate interests.
More over, she discovers that she had been so con strained by the rigid
definitions of their respec tive roles, as well as, their different classes,
styles, and education, that she did not even think Foster really had any
independent goals worth considering.
To compensate for her blindness, McGillis stakes out new legal territory in
fashioning a novel theory for prosecuting the spectators of the rape,
permitting Foster to tell her story with dignity. To do this, she pays a large
cost in her relationship with her boss. To him her insis tence on pursuing the
second prosecution is ir rational, and he threatens to fire her. Yet, with the
second conviction, she emerges as a valiant, if belated, seeker of justice
while the male pros ecutors are troglodytes. Although this film is not perfect
in its depiction of the rape victim and her struggle for justice,
n81 its female lawyer's professionalism is not undermined by her sex; on the
contrary, because she is a woman she is ultimately more empathic. This change
re moves her from the traditional maleness of the prosecutor's office, yet it
is not depicted as a weakness, but rather an epiphany. Her more gendered
instincts fuels the strength that allow her to fulfill a professional mission.
Her transformation through her increasing connection and sensitivity to Foster
is visual. Her appearance loosens up, she dresses more informally, she warms in
speech and manner to Foster. She fights with her boss to bring the novel
charges against the spectators to the rape and threatens him in order to get
her way. She has become more aggressive, but on her own terms, not as a
conformist to the norms of her
[*70] office. Her style of lawyering, particularly of prosecution, a classically
old-boys' specialty, has become more compassionate and empathic. Although even
after the eventual convictions, Foster and McGillis never become friends or re
late as equals, from this relationship, McGillis learns to rely more on her
instincts about justice and succeeds in breaking down the barriers that prevent
personal and emotional connections to Foster. After the trial, she is not just
happy to have won for herself and her ambitions, but also to have obtained for
Foster the vindication she craved.
Unlike Jagged Edge and Suspect, which are basically murder mysteries, or The
Music Box and Class Action, which are suspense films, The Accused is a movie
about the relationship of lawyers to the law, and as such is a direct de
Adam's Rib. A woman lawyer em braces issues that concern the treatment of wo men by the
legal system. Both Hepburn and McGillis relate the stories of betrayed or
victim ized women whose voices had been discounted or silenced by the system.
In the process of this representation, both lawyers are transformed by the very
legal theories they advance. Hep burn and Tracy's relationship is tested and
sur vive in altered form; McGillis will never be the same rigid, unfeeling
Of all the woman lawyer movies of this pe riod, The Client seems to be the best
n82 Aptly named Reggie Love, Susan Sarandon, plays an older and less glamorous
woman who takes the case of a young boy who has knowl edge deemed essential to
federal prosecutors. When they disingenuously try to interrogate the child,
Sarandon stops them in their tracks, con fronting them with their own duplicity
in her mellifluous voice. Sarandon is the least exper ienced of her celluloid
sisters (only two years out of law school which she attended after a long-term
failed marriage, motherhood, and a bout of alcohol dependency). She quickly es
tablishes her ability to
"play with the big boys," although her adversary tries continually to un dermine her confidence. From
the beginning, Sarandon, who usually wears jeans, and who works in a run-down
office with no luxuries, is less threatening than the careerists in the other
films. Moreover, she clearly has not even tried to achieve the familiar indicia
of success in the legal profession. She is still struggling to find her
professional identity, remembering her own victimization at the hands of her
husband's di vorce lawyers, and she visibly wears the insecu rities of her
past. She may be a lawyer but her maternal side is so apparent that she does
not intimidate the masculine majority. While she holds her own in each
encounter with the prose cutors, they nevertheless patronize her. In ad dition,
both she and the audience are aware of how fragile her confidence is.
Sarandon is a mother who turned into a lawyer later in life, so that her
ambition and professional life followed an earlier existence in which other
values were ascendant. Her young client's own mother is so ill-equipped to
protect him that Sarandon, having lost custody of her own children, is
immediately motherly and shel tering. In order to gain his trust, she confides
her background and her weaknesses, crossing boundaries that few lawyers would
find com fortable, and most would describe as unprofes sional.
As the narrative continues, Sarandon em boldens, racing around in her sports
car, discov ering the dead body, running from the murder ers, and finally
rescuing her client by making a clever deal with the prosecutors. She earns
some admiration from her adversary but not so much that he refrains from
offering her a job, a supposed compliment but which, in context, seems more
like condescension to a good girl who has done something very clever. Despite
this equivocal triumph, Sarandon succeeds on her own terms as a lawyer and as a
woman, a combination that distinguishes her from the other women we have
Movie buffs will have to keep searching for a woman lawyer role model that
equals Atticus Finch. After a decade of mostly negative im ages, the fad of
woman lawyer films seems to have died down so the quest will be even more
difficult. Every so often a strong, competent woman attorney like Sarandon
appears, tempt ing us to believe that finally the stereotypes, the
[*71] flirtations, and the seductions are in the past. But those hopes die easily
with the more nu merous portraits of women attorneys whose de ficiencies deny
them audience respect.
modern women lawyers have made some mod est progress beyond both their
shyster-mouth piece and woman's movie ancestors. They pro ject a somewhat more
positive image largely because they have conceded professional skills that they
know how to use in the male domi nated legal world. Moreover, they value, or
learn to value, a personal morality that invades the terrain of professional
conduct. At the con clusion of each film, the personal self has eroded rigid
professional role definitions. To some, these transgressions are unforgivable
re gardless of any benefits that might result. Others might view these changes
as a positive development, allowing strong women to make mistakes and learn.
These women lawyers rein terpret the obligations and regulations of attor neys
and the restrictions on their behavior in order to avoid interference with the
develop ment of their independent personal and profes sional credos. Almost in
spite of themselves, and certainly in spite of some of their very stu pid
choices, these women emerge as lawyers of conscience and courage. Some of the
plots may be annoying, frustrating, or even silly, but un derneath a few
hopeful signs can be seen. The ice is broken. Next stage: a woman lawyer prac
tices her profession without falling prey to the trite traps laid by men (both
on the screen and behind the scenes) that sabotage her accom plishments and our
pride in them.
After more than a decade of cinematic wo men lawyers, we are still waiting in
the darkness of the movie theatre. All of the women lawyers seeking a celluloid
role model with whom they can identify will have to keep paying their money in
hopes of finding their Atticus Finch. If we wait long enough, perhaps someday
we will hear a character saying,
"Stand up, Scout, your mother is passing by."
n1. To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal Pictures 1962).
n2. See Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (J.P. Lip pencott 1960).
n3. The book, the movie, and the character of Atticus Finch have been the subject
of many articles, see, e.g., Michael Asimov, When Lawyers Were Heroes,
30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1131 (1996); John Jay Osborne, Jr., Atticus Finch - The End of Honor: A Discussion of To
Kill a Mockingbird,
30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 1139 (1996); and even a law review symposium, see Symposium, To Kill a Mockingbird,
45 Ala. L. Rev. 389 (1994).
n4. In 1980, 8.1% of the lawyer population was female. See Barbara A. Curran et
al., The Lawyer Statistical report: A Statistical Profile of the U.S. Legal Pr
ofession in the 1980s 10 (1985). In 1983, 33.6% of all newly admitted attorneys
were women, see id. at 58, so that by 1985, the overall number of women lawyers
had risen to 13.1%. See Barbara A. Curran et al., Supplement to the La wyer
Statistical Report: The U.S. Legal Profession in 1985 3 (1986).
n5. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, women accounted for 24% of the total of
799,471 lawyers and judges. See American Bar Association Commission on Women in
the Profession, Women in the Law: A Look at the Numbers 3 (1995). The Bureau of
Labor Statistics reported that 21% of employed lawyers and judges, a slightly
lower total amount, were women. See id. The American Bar Foun dation reported
that of the 805,872 licensed lawyers, whether or not employed, 20% were women.
See id. In each of these surveys, the total number of women attorneys as of
1990 was between 157,000 and 190,145. See id. at 4.
n6. The progress and pitfalls of women in the legal profes sion have been
chronicled and charted in many sources, and from many perspectives. Some recent
books and articles that have focused on this era include: The Woman Advocate
(Jean Maclean Snyder
& Andra Barmash Greene eds., 1996); Cynthia Fuchs Epstein et al., Glass Ceilings
and Open Doors: Women's Advancement in the Legal Profession, 64 For dham. L.
Rev. 291 (1995); Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Women in Law (2d ed. 1993); Mona
Harrington, Women La wyers: Rewriting the Rules (1994); Stacy Caplow
& Shira A. Scheindlin,
"Portrait of a Lady": The Woman Lawyer in the 1980s,
35 N.Y.L. Sch. L. Rev. 391 (1990). The topic has been studied in other countries also. See, e.g., Women in Law
(Shimon Shetreet ed., 1998) (commenting on the exper iences of women lawyers in
U.S. and Israel); Margaret Thornton, Dissonance And Distrust: Women in the
Legal Profession (1996) (discussing women lawyers in Australia); John Hagan
& Fiona Kay, Gender in Pra ctice (1995) (discussing women lawyers in Canada).
There are also some interesting works that provide a historical per spective on
the progress of women attorneys. See, e.g., Vi rginia G. Drachman, Sisters in
Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History (1998); Women in Law: A
Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook (Rebecca Mae Salokar
& Mary L. Volcansek eds., 1996).
n7. Interestingly, television shows have created much more nuanced and diverse
female lawyer characters. From L.A. Law to Ally McBeal, television has taken
more risks, permit ted characters to develop and change over several seasons,
introduced new characters, and allowed women lawyers a greater diversity of
personality, style (both professional and personal), legal specialty, and even
appearance. Although this essay is limited to films, several other commentators
of fer thoughtful and comprehensive insights about women law yers in television
series. See, e.g., Diane Klein, Ally McBeal and Her Sisters: A Quantitative and
Qualitative Analysis of Representations of Women Lawyers on Prime-Time Televi
18 Loy. L.A. Ent. L.J. 259 (1998); Christine Alice Corcos, Women Lawyers, in Prime Time Law: Fictional Television
as Legal Narrative 219 (Robert M. Jarvis
& Paul R. Joseph eds., 1998); Ric Sheffield, On Film: A Social History of Women
Lawyers in Popular Culture 1930-1990,
14 Loy. L.A. Ent. L.J. 73, 96-106 (1993); Diane M. Glass, Portia in Primetime: Women Lawyers, Television and L.A. Law,
2 Yale J.L. & Feminism 371 (1990).
n8. Jagged Edge (Columbia Pictures 1985).
n9. Legal Eagles (Universal Pictures 1986).
n10. The Big Easy (Kings Road Entertainment 1987).
n11. Physical Evidence (Columbia Pictures 1988).
n12. Defenseless (New Visions Cinema 1990).
n13. Other People's Money (Warner Brothers 1991).
n14. Love Crimes (Miramax Films 1991).
n15. A Few Good Men (Columbia Pictures 1992).
n16. Guilty As Sin (Hollywood Pictures 1993).
n17. Judicial Consent (Rysher Entertainment 1994).
n18. Fair Game (Warner Brothers 1995).
n19. See Paul Bergman
& Michael Asimov, Reel Ju stice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies 90-93 (1996).
n20. There is, of course, room to differ with my estimation of these movies!
Several other authors also have identified these movies as worthy of analysis.
See, e.g., Louise Everett Graham
& Geraldine Maschio, A False Public Sentiment: Narrative and Visual Images of
Women Lawyers in Film,
84 Ky. L.J. 1027, 1040-61 (1995-96); Carolyn Lisa Miller,
"What a Waste: Beautiful, Sexy Gal, Hell of a Lawyer": Film and the Female Lawyer,
4 Colum. J. Gender & L. 203, 207-27 (1994).
n21. Jagged Edge, supra note 8.
n22. Suspect (TriStar Pictures 1987).
n23. The Music Box (Carolco Pictures 1990).
n24. Class Action (Twentieth Century Fox 1991).
n25. The Accused (Paramount Pictures 1988).
n26. The Client (Warner Brothers 1994).
n27. See, e.g., Frankie Y. Bailey et al., The Best Defense: Images of Female
Attorneys in Popular Films, in Popular Culture, Crime, and Justice 180, 181-82
(Frankie Y. Bai ley
& Donna C. Hale eds., 1998); Miller, supra note 20; Graham
& Maschio, supra note 20; Carole Shapiro, Women Lawyers in Celluloid: Why
Hollywood Skirts the Truth,
25 U. Tol. L. Rev. 955 (1995); Sheffield, supra note 7; Cynthia Lucia, Women on Trial: The Female Lawyer in
the Court room, 29 Cineaste 32 (1992); Terry Kay Diggs, No Way to Treat a
Lawyer, Cal. Lawyer 48 (1992). See also, Christine Corcos, Portia and Her
Partners in Popular Culture: A Bibli ography, 22 Legal Stud. F. 269 (1998);
Christine Corcos, Bad Girls: Women Lawyers on Film and Television: A Se lected
Bibliography (Apr. 8, 1999)
<http://aall.wuacc.edu/ wlegedu/bargirls.htm>. A recent addition to this list is Car ole Shapiro, Women Lawyers in
23 Vt. L. Rev. 303 (1999) (identifying a third generation of women lawyer movies).
n28. Primal Fear (Paramount 1996).
n29. Philadelphia (TriStar Pictures 1993).
n30. A Time to Kill (Warner Brothers 1996).
n31. Reversal of Fortune (Warner Brothers 1990)
n32. Red Corner (MGM 1997).
n33. Examining images of lawyers in popular culture is an enterprise that is just
beginning to achieve scholarly legiti macy. Recently, articles about the
representation of law in popular culture have appeared in legal periodicals.
See, e.g., Anthony Chase, Lawyers and Popular Culture: A Review of Mass Media
Portrayals of American Attorneys,
1986 Am. B. Found. Res. J. 281 (1986); Anthony Chase, Toward a Legal Theory of Popular Culture,
1986 Wis. L. Rev. 527 (1986); Lawrence M. Friedman, Law, Lawyers, and Popular Culture,
98 Yale L.J. 1578 (1989); Stephen Gillers, Taking L.A. Law More Seriously,
98 Yale L.J. 1607 (1989); David A. Harris, The Appearance of Justice: Court TV, Conventional Televi
sion, and Public Understanding of the Criminal Justice Sys tem,
35 Ariz. L. Rev. 785 (1993); Stewart Macaulay, Images of Law in Everyday Life: The Lessons of School,
Entertain ment and Spectator Sports,
21 Law & Soc'y Rev. 185 (1987); Robert C. Post, On the Popular Image of the Lawyer: Reflec tions in a Dark
75 Cal. L. Rev. 379 (1987). Popular legal culture has also been the topic of symposia. See, e.g., The
Lawyer and Popular Culture: Proceedings of a Conference, January 7-8, 1992
(David Gunn ed., 1993).
Thanks to the law and literature movement, now even the lower brows among us
who admit to curling up with John Grisham or Scott Turow, instead of Billy
Budd, The Merchant of Venice, Bleak House, or Antigone, have texts and a
growing claim for the legitimacy of referring to popular culture to address the
relationship of the law to public atti tudes and images of lawyers. Even Judge
Richard Posner, has suggested that
"An immensely popular contemporary novel about the law may... afford a better
glimpse of how lay people regard law than any public opinion poll would do." Richard A. Posner, The Depiction of Law in The Bon fire of the Vanities,
98 Yale L.J. 1652, 1655 (1989). His re marks apply to the movies as well. There are growing num bers of
examples of serious attempts to look at film as a text that enhances our
understanding of law. See, e.g., Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Text (John
Denvir ed., 1996); Symposium, Picturing Justice: Images of Law and Lawyers in
the Visual Media,
30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 891 (1996); Symposium, Legal Reelism: The Hollywood Film as Legal Text, 25 Legal Stud. F.
199 (1993); Rennard Strickland, The Cinematic Lawyer: The Magic Mirror and the
22 Okla. City U. L. Rev. 13 (1997).
The study of the relationship of law and popular culture has even seeped into
the law school curriculum. See, e.g., Anthony Chase, On Teaching Law and
Popular Culture, 3 Focus on L. Stud. 1 (1988); Philip N. Meyer, Visual Literacy
and the Legal Culture: Reading Film as Text in the Law School Setting, 17 Legal
Stud. F. 73 (1993); Steven Green field
& Guy Osborn, The Empowerment of Students: The Case for Popular Film in Legal
Studies, 10 Focus on L. Stud. 6 (1995); Philip N. Meyer, Law Students Go to the
24 Conn. L. Rev. 893 (1992); Norman Rosenberg, A Word is Just a Word: Bringing Classical Hollywood Films
into Legal Studies Classes, 7 Focus on L. Stud. 2 (1992).
ed., 1986). See also Chase, Toward a Legal Theory of Popu lar Culture, supra
note 33, at 563-67.
n35. See David Bordwell
& Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction 108-10 (5th ed. 1996).
n36. The courtroom trial has been called an
"American cul tural convention." David Ray Papke, The Courtroom Trial as American Cultural Convention, in The
Lawyer and Po pular Culture: Proceedings of a Conference, supra note 33, 103,
106-107. The august, wood-paneled setting rep resents solidity and dignity. The
stock characters (venerable judge, dignified and formal lawyer, anxious lay
person, atten tive juror) each telegraph meaning derived from their respec tive
roles. The courtroom dialogue is engaging, full of clever cross-examination,
resounding objections, and theatrical mo ments. The denouement is dramatic as
the verdict is read and the characters respond. The trial is a ceremony whose
meaning most Americans understand.
n37. For an anthology of movies about law and lawyers, see Paul J. Mastrangelo,
Lawyers and the Law: A Filmography, 3 Legal Reference Service Q. 31 (Winter
1983); Paul J. Mastrangelo, Lawyers and the Law: A Filmography II, 5 Legal
Reference Service Q. 5 (Winter 1985-86).
n38. See, e.g., Roger Dooley, Around the Law in Eighty
Ways:Shysters,MouthpiecesandAmbulanceChasers,inFrom Scarface to Scarlett:
American Films in the 1930s 310-27 (1981). These movies are too numerous to
list individ ually. For a very thorough listing of movies involving law and
lawyers through the mid-1980s, see Mastrangelo, Law yers and the Law: A
Filmography, supra note 37; see also Mastrangelo, Lawyers and the Law: A
Filmography II, supra note 37.
n39. The Fortune Cookie (United Artists 1966).
n40. The Verdict (Twentieth Century Fox 1982).
n41. Young Mr. Lincoln (Twentieth Century Fox 1939).
n42. Anatomy of a Murder (Columbia Pictures 1958).
n43. To Kill a Mockingbird, supra note 1.
n44. Cape Fear (Universal Pictures 1962).
n45. Judgment at Nuremberg (United Artists 1961).
n46. See Jeanine Basinger, A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960,
n47. Molly Haskell, From Reverence To Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies
n48. See id. at 153.
n49. See id. at 163-64.
n50. Mildred Pierce (Warner Brothers 1945).
n51. Now Voyager (Warner Brothers 1942).
n52. Dark Victory (Warner Brothers 1939).
n53. All About Eve (Twentieth Century Fox 1950).
n54. See Haskell, supra note 47, at 15.
n55. See id.
n56. See id.
"There were probably more women lawyers on the screen in the thirties than there
were in the courtroom. And yet, the portrayal was tragically stereotypical." Rennard Strickland, Bringing Bogie Out of the Courtroom Closet: Law and
Lawyers in Film, 20 Wisc. L. Sch. F. 43 (1990). See also Sheffield, supra note
7, at 74-89.
n58. There were twelve movies about women lawyers in contrast to eight about women
doctors. See Dooley, supra note 38, at 317.
n59. Scarlet Pages (First National Pictures 1930).
n60. Ann Carver's Profession (Columbia Pictures 1933).
n61. The Lady Objects (Columbia Pictures 1938).
n62. Apparently on the promotional lobby card the lawyer/wife is exclaiming,
"Gentlemen of the Jury, if my husband murdered this other woman, I am to blame.
I have been a successful lawyer but a failure as a wife." Strickland, supra note 57, at 49.
n63. The Defense Rests (Columbia Pictures 1934).
n64. The Law in Her Hands (Warner Brothers 1936).
n65. Career Woman (Twentieth Century Fox 1936).
n66. Portia on Trial (Republic Pictures 1937).
n67. The Woman is the Judge (Columbia Pictures 1939).
n68. Design for Scandal (MGM 1941).
n69. Tell it to the Judge (Columbia Pictures 1941).
n70. The bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (RKO Pic tures 1947).
Adam's Rib (MGM 1949).
n72. There were a few films before that date in which a wo man attorney was the
protagonist, see, e.g., First Monday in October (Paramount Pictures 1981)
(adapted from a stage play about the first woman Supreme Court Justice), or a
secondary character, see The Verdict (Twentieth Century Fox 1982), but the
infusion of these films began at the height of the
"backlash" era when women had been in the legal work force in significant numbers for
more than ten years. See Shapiro, supra note 27, at 962-68.
n73. See Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchro nized and Silent Motion
Pictures, in Movies and Mass Cu lture 135-45 (John Belton ed., 1996).
n74. See earlier discussion at page 57.
n75. Jagged Edge, supra note 8.
n76. The Music Box, supra note 23.
n77. The Client, supra note 26.
n78. Class Action, supra note 24.
n79. Suspect, supra note 22.
n80. This development is hardly gender specific. Close fol lows in the footsteps of
a pre-Atticus Finch Gregory Peck in the Hitchcock film, see The Paradine Case
(Selznick Inter national Pictures 1947), and William Hurt in Body Heat (Ladd
n81. One commentator argues that because the witness whose testimony was essential
for the conviction was a man,
"...The guilty verdict in the end seems to be token gift to liberal feminism....
Female victims still have no real credi bility within the law." Patrice Fleck, The Silencing of Women in the Hollywood
"Feminist" Film: The Accused, 9 Post Script 49, 55 (1990).
n82. See, Bailey et al., supra note 27, at 192-93; Graham
& Maschio, supra note 20, at 1061-66.
Prepared: June 16, 2003 - 5:02:29 PM
Edited and Updated, June 17, 2003
Philosophy of Law