Hollywood swoons for the male entrepren-asshole. The epic of the coarse young man chomping at the venture capital bit is our generation's bildungsroman of choice. We love our Zuckerbergs and Jobses and Musks, and our films mythologize these men into characters even more irreverent, ruthless, and cruel than their real-life counterparts.
What is it that we love about the entrepren-asshole, this paragon of egomania and excessive bro-courage? Maybe we're drawn to the idea that in order to be truly successful, we'd have to give up on kindness and put generosity on hold, shave off all our human concerns and cut out our close relationships, to focus single-mindedly on the target of wild success. Maybe we like the idea that the people who "make it" in business are the ones who tell the rest of the world to fuck right off, the masochistic 20-somethings who sleep at the office, who heartlessly swindle their best friends out of money, who – like Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs or David Fincher's Mark Zuckerberg – believe in nothing but their own status as world-changing messiahs.
We like a touch of evil to our self-proclaimed geniuses. For many of us, these stories affirm our own decisions to opt out of a competition we'd never win. And for a small number of us, the image of the entrepren-asshole provides a handy, all-encompassing justification for heartless behaviour: It is easy to write off our own flaws when selfishness and callousness are portrayed as the unifying features of our era's great men. This is the special power that Hollywood frequently aligns with success: an unfounded, unshakeable belief in one's own Greatness. It's a trait that society bestows upon many men – particularly those belonging to the Zuckerberg-Musk-Jobs demographic – from early in childhood. This is a luxury most women – especially women of colour and women from working-class backgrounds – are denied. Women have to find another way. In a word, women have to innovate.
Enter Joy. David O. Russell's latest film is a radical reminder that working women have long been the original "disruptors," forging their way and upending stale systems to get ahead. The most successful women in business have been, out of necessity, entrepreneurs and innovators: Ruth Handler took a gamble on her hunch that children might enjoy playing with dolls that look adult, and Barbie was born. Florence Nightingale Graham dropped out of nursing school and moved to New York, where she worked a secretarial job at a pharmaceutical company and snuck in time at their labs; her experiments turned into a skincare line, which turned into the billion-dollar beauty empire known as Elizabeth Arden. As a working single mother, Joy Mangano, Russell's inspiration, took an item as ubiquitous as the wheel and reinvented it: the Miracle Mop launched Mangano's home innovation empire, now worth hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
In the iconic working-woman film of the 80s, Working Girl, Melanie Griffith's character Tess McGill defends herself with the classic line, "You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you're trying to get there. And if you're someone like me, you can't get there without bending the rules." Like Griffith's Tess, Jennifer Lawrence's Joy Mangano comes from a working-class background, and is faced with the expectation that she will ultimately give up her career to care for her family. Unlike Working Girl, Joy doesn't weave a love story into its success story. Early on, a young Joy declares she has a "special power" that means she doesn't need "a prince." The prophecy holds true. Watching Joy, you begin to forget the appeal of romantic plot lines altogether.
Joy is loosely based on the story of Miracle Mop inventor and OG entrepreneur Joy Mangano, and the opening epigraph reads "inspired by the true story of daring women..."To be a woman, and to imagine greatness for yourself, is to dare. Daring men, of course, abound. The men in Joy's life – her ex-husband, her father, and the men she does business with – are big dreamers with china-fragile egos. Joy's ex Tony insists he's going to be the "next Tom Jones," a claim met with the simultaneously generous and disbelieving rise of Lawrence's eyebrows. Joy's father believes he's always on the verge of finding "The One," an earth-shattering true love. As the head of QVC and Joy's ticket to televised sales, Bradley Cooper's Neil Walker carries himself with the cockiness of his convictions, as though he's cured cancer by inventing a home-shopping television network.
Joy, on the other hand, is seen on her feet and on her knees, getting her hands dirty, chaffed, and bloody. The men in Joy's life are, ultimately, good men, but their untempered dreams and loud confidence serve to set her own ambitions and quiet assuredness in relief. In The Social Network, the only blood Mark has on his hands is that of his friends; in Steve Jobs, the most physical labor Jobs is seen putting into his product is carrying a handful of calla lilies to place onstage before a presentation. Meanwhile, Joy toils, and the camera focuses in on her hands as she carries her children, fixes her mother's plumbing, and wrings out a sopping mop, getting shards of broken glass in her palms in the process (a visual shattering of the possibility that Joy will be offered a pair of glass slippers, whether from a love interest or a venture capitalist). This painful wringing is what gives Joy the idea for her Miracle Mop: the self-wringing, lightweight mop that would make her first million.
Where Fincher's Zuckerberg and Jobs follow a fairly upward climb to success, Russell's Mangano falls down the ladder every time she steps up a rung. Each triumph brings an even bigger failure, and Joy is treated with a skepticism and condescension that few male entrepreneurs of her time (or ours) must confront. In one scene, a potential investor tells Joy, "Look, you were broke and bored. You had an idea. A lot of people have ideas. Go home and take care of your family." Joy refuses to back down, and continues to push for her product. Her fights take a kind of grit and tenacity that is often sugarcoated in our modern-day stories of entrepreneurial success. Where Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg "goes to California," he rents a summer house with a swimming pool in Palo Alto; when Joy "goes to California," she busts into a Central Valley manufacturing plant. Joy cannot afford to show up at her investors' offices in jeans and a hoodie; she does not find herself courted by a slew of VCs, with free-flowing cocktails and lap dances. When she is given an initial investment, she doesn't splurge on ping-pong tables and beanbag chairs for her office. Instead, she's left with no option but to match her investor with an equal investment of her own, taking out a second mortgage on her home and parting with all of her life savings. These are not risks Joy can afford to take. She takes them anyway.
Narrating Russell's film is Joy's grandmother, Mimi, who assures Joy of her destiny. Mimi tells Joy that she was born to the "successful matriarch" of the family, and the "unanxious presence in the room." Her prophecy holds true, too. Where Fincher and Boyle infuse their male protagonists with a hyper-neurotic energy, Russell's Joy approaches her negotiations – in business and in her personal life – with a studied calm. And in her fight for success, Joy does not stop caring for her young children, her bedridden mother, or her infantile father. For once, Hollywood has given us an image of success that doesn't involve destroying all of one's relationships.
When I asked my friend Kelly Peeler, founder of the money-managing start-up NextGenVest, about her experience as a woman entrepreneur, she pointed me to a recent Kauffman Foundation study, "Women Entrepreneurs Are Key to Accelerating Growth." The study found that while entrepreneurship is seen as a "masculine activity," women are, overall, more nuanced risk-takers, with greater ambitions and tenacity in the face of an often uneven playing field. The study also made a few suggestions as to how we can "pave the way" for more women innovators, chief among them was the idea that we should celebrate successful women entrepreneurs. Joy is an excellent start.
The current image of entrepreneurship in America is simultaneously idealistic and ugly. At the altar of his or her potential, the entrepreneur is expected to sacrifice all: healthy relationships, sleep, solid food, general social skills. Almost always, the entrepreneur is a man—the quintessential stereotype is a white guy Stanford dropout with a distaste for authority, a passion for Ayn Rand, and a love of "disruption." Like women entrepreneurs themselves, Joy offers us an alternative to this image. Russell's film points us away from the entrepren-asshole, and towards the long history of innovative working women.
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Joy is now playing in theaters nationwide.