Tag Archive: Women lawyers

Harry’s Law

Harry’s Law is a new series on NBC starring the Academy Award winning actress Kathy Bates as Harriet “Harry” Korn, a recently fired, high-powered, patent attorney who starts her own criminal defense firm in a vacant, Cincinnati, shoe store.  The show is produced by David E. Kelley, known for such legal comedies and dramas as Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public, and Boston Legal. Kelley is also known, and has been heavily criticized, for his portrayal of women. Most notably, the silly, neurotic, anorexic-looking attorney, Ally McBeal, sparked debates among feminists and television critics during the 1990s about issues such as stereotyping women in the workplace, the representation of women in media, and the appropriate gender role models for children. The character of Ally McBeal was so controversial Time Magazine placed her image on the cover under the heading, “Is Feminism Dead?”  Because much of what we learn about gender comes not from our families or school, but from the media, I will examine a few instances in the pilot episode in which the main character in Harry’s Law conforms to and challenges stereotypical representations of women in the workplace and on television.

Law is undoubtedly still a male dominated profession.  As is the case in many “male” fields, women must continually toe the line between being overly feminine or too masculine.  Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, social norms concerning women and their proper roles in the workplace die hard.   Harry strikes a balance by vacillating between gendered extremes.   First, Harry displays many characteristics commonly associated with masculinity and the legal profession.

She is invincible. In the first ten minutes of the pilot episode, a man attempting to commit suicide by jumping off a building lands on her and she is hit by a car. She survives both accidents without a scratch. While Harry may chalk this feat up to being a little “stuffy”, thereby calling our attention to her none stereotypical feminine physique, the audience gains a sense of her invulnerability. She is tough, she is a fighter.  Harry is fired from her job, but she picks herself up and dusts herself off and starts all over again.

Harry is also aggressive.  While aggressiveness is often a prized characteristic in the law and other professions, too much aggression or display of other “masculine” characteristics by a woman, like independence or competitiveness, may backfire in the workplace.  Women who assert themselves or take dominant positions in the workplace are frequently labeled as “manly women” or the “office bitch.”   In this first episode, Harry calls one lawyer “an arrogant, little snot” and another “an asshole.”  She interrupts opposing counsel during the trial.  She refuses to submit to the neighborhood bully offering “protection” for money and even pulls a gun on him.  She is assertive and decisive in her plea negotiation.  When performed by a man, these actions would likely be lauded or expected.   Maybe Harry receives the same accolades, but unfortunately for other women, they are seen as just “overcompensating for being women.”

Harry’s lack of femininity is further emphasized by her appearance. For example, Harry is not young, or beautiful, or skinny.  She is not the typical female lawyer as sex object—think Ally McBeal or every female attorney featured in the  Law and Order franchise.  She wears pant suits, has gray hair, knows nothing about shoes, and instead of swaying her hips from side to side, she waddles when she walks.   During a recent interview with NPR, Kathy Bates discusses her styling choices for Harry and states, “We finally got the permission to just let me look the way I wanted to look, which was my initial response when I read the screenplay.  It was originally written for a man, Harry…and he was a very rumpled sort of character, and he didn’t strike me as the type of guy who would dye his hair.”

One additional characteristic frequently associated with masculinity is risk taking.  While many women are viewed as  tentative, restrained, insecure or risk averse in the workplace, Harry is a gambler. She strikes out on her own by opening a practice in a broken-down neighborhood, in an area of law she is unfamiliar with. Harry takes the impossible case, one which cannot be won, going for broke with both judge and jury, and manages to come out on top.

Yet, despite all of these seemingly empowering, liberating characteristics, Harry still conforms to traditional feminine representations of women. For instance, despite the attempts to reign in her emotions, Harry is nearly brought to tears in her closing argument in which she defends a young, impoverished, college-bound, drug addict. She is deeply pained by the plight of this young man and almost loses her composure.   Harry also may also be viewed as a  mother figure to her staff and clients. In one scene, her new associate is sprayed by a gunshot victim’s blood. Harry responds, “Are you okay? …Are you sure you’re not hurt?…You need to get tested.” In another scene, Harry reminds the jury that “it takes a village.” Despite the hard exterior, Harry is a compassionate nurturer.   Finally, there is one scene in which Harry plays an innocent child-like woman. After bumbling over her cross-examination of a witness, Harry is called to the stand and asks the judge, “Did I do something wrong?” While Harry is clearly using this stereotype to gain an advantage in her case, and perhaps turning the stereotype on its head, this scene clearly speaks to the underlying assumption that women are less competent, less capable, and in need of male guidance in the workplace.

In the coming weeks, Harry’s character will undoubtedly develop and become more complex.  Will Harry conform to stereotypes of women in the workplace or defy traditional gendered representations?  I expect, as with the first episode, Harry will continue to do both.

Harry’s Law airs on NBC,  Monday 10p.m./9c.  You may also access past episodes at http://www.nbc.com/harrys-law/.

Another Member of the FPCBA (Female Pop Culture Bar Association)

NBC is offering up a new legal series, Harry’s Law, starring Oscar winner Kathy Bates. It debuts January 17 at 10 p.m. (9 Central time). The show’s premise is that Bates, as Harriet (Harry) Korn, departs her job as a corporate lawyer at an upscale firm and starts over as a sole practitioner, seeking justice for the downtrodden and those who have no voice in the legal system. It’s a David E. Kelley show, so we can expect edgy issues and quirky characters. But will this female legal eagle be any different from any of the other women attorneys we’ve seen on the small screen?

For more about women lawyers on TV, see among other articles Women Lawyers On TV Moving Closer To Reality.

Mining For Legal Issues On Leverage: The Underground Job

August 15th’s episode of Leverage, “The Underground Job,” features a number of legal issues, including a mention of the Citizens United case, which gets the ball rolling in this episode of a series that features conmen and women who are on the “right side” of the law.

In “The Underground Job,” guest star Bruce Davison (Breach, Runaway Jury) plays the bad guy mine owner who cares so little about the welfare of his workers that he diverts money intended for repairs and safety upgrades to the campaign of his lover, a politician ambitious to be elected West Virginia’s Attorney General. The recurring characters comment that the Citizens United case allows corporations to donate money to political campaigns, suggesting that the opinion improperly allows them to donate unlimited amounts of cash that is supposed to be spent otherwise. That seems to be the show’s interpretation of the likely result of the ruling.

Interestingly, the Court actually cites to the influence of prior movies on legislators and lobbyists.

When word concerning the plot of the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reached the circles of Government, some officials sought, by persuasion, to discourage its distribution. See Smoodin, “Compulsory” Viewing for Every Citizen: Mr. Smith and the Rhetoric of Reception, 35 Cinema Journal 3, 19, and n. 52 (Winter 1996) (citing Mr. Smith Riles Washington, Time, Oct. 30, 1939, p. 49); Nugent, Capra’s Capitol Offense, N. Y. Times, Oct. 29, 1939, p. X5. Under Austin, though, officials could have done more than discourage its distribution — they could have banned the film. After all, it, like Hillary, was speech funded by a corporation that was critical of Members of Congress. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be fiction and caricature; but fiction and caricature can be a powerful force.
Modern day movies, television comedies, or skits on Youtube.com might portray public officials or public policies in unflattering ways. Yet if a covered transmission during the blackout period creates the background for candidate endorsement or opposition, a felony occurs solely because a corporation, other than an exempt media corporation, has made the “purchase, payment, distribution, loan, advance, deposit, or gift of money or anything of value” in order to engage in political speech. 2 U.S.C. § 431(9)(A)(i). Speech would be suppressed in the realm where its necessity is most evident: in the public dialogue preceding a real election. Governments are often hostile to speech, but under our law and our tradition it seems stranger than fiction for our Government to make this political speech a crime. Yet this is the statute’s purpose and design.
Some members of the public might consider Hillary to be insightful and instructive; some might find it to be neither high art nor a fair discussion on how to set the Nation’s course; still others simply might suspend judgment on these points but decide to think more about issues and candidates. Those choices and assessments, however, are not for the Government to make.”The First Amendment underwrites the freedom to experiment and to create in the realm of thought and speech. Citizens must be free to use new forms, and new forums, for the expression of ideas. The civic discourse belongs to the people, and the Government may not prescribe the means used to conduct it.” McConnell, supra, at 341, 124 S. Ct. 619, 157 L. Ed. 2d 491 (opinion of Kennedy, J.).

The lead characters in the show get the money back from baddie Bruce by “selling him his own mine,” conning him into thinking him there’s a valuable source of minerals underground ready for exploitation. Meanwhile, they also break up the partnership between him and his girlfriend, now the AG. At the end both are presumably headed off to face charges, seated in the back of a patrol car. 

More about this episode here, from The Oregonian.

Note the unappetizing image of the female lawyer (the state Attorney General) and compare it with other members of the Popular Culture Bar Association. Start with Stephanie B. Goldberg, Women Lawyers On TV Moving Closer To Reality.

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