The clumsy successful woman trope is a favorite of romantic comedies and sitcoms alike. It pops up quite often. Every time some lovely successful woman knocks over an entire library’s worth of bookshelves or sends a message to the whole office instead of just one person or generally makes a mess of things, it gets me thinking. Why did the writers feel the need to send this poor girl flying ass over teakettle through a conference room? Is there a special reason that we need to feel secondhand embarrassment for this character in the context of this story? Why is the clumsy successful woman a trope that shows up so often in modern entertainment?
The Clumsy Successful Woman Trope
We’ve all seen this trope at one time or another. These are successful career women who flourish in almost every way that life has to offer. That is, except that they are prone to clumsy messes. These women are always beautiful, smart, and most importantly, very good at their jobs. In order to make these women more palatable to audiences, writers and writers rooms have to give them some kind of flaw. These flaws tend to go one of two ways. Either these smart and successful women are written to be total bitches (think Miranda Priestly) or, in this case, they are written to be kind of a walking disaster. While these ladies excel in their careers, they also drop things, and fall over, and generally blunder through their personal lives both physically and emotionally. Although they always manage to get the job done.
Just A Few Examples
Liz Lemon (30 Rock) is the go-to example for this trope, although she is far from the only one. Lemon is a high ranking television writer. She is smart, funny, and the boss of her team in the writer’s room. She is, however, kind of a mess. Lemon is constantly doing cringe-inducing things, like every single minute of that disastrous Valentine’s Day date. She is always more than a bit of a mess in her personal life, and it’s an open joke throughout the series.
Her male superior, Jack Donaghy, is her foil. He is always impeccably dressed, perfectly put together, and never says or does anything out of place in a business setting. The differences between the two throw into stark relief the over-the-top clumsiness of Liz Lemon. As a successful career woman, and the boss of her own team of writers, Lemon’s disastrous encounters seem quirky and charming. These little loveable moments are Lemon’s most obvious failing in an otherwise successful life.
MacKenzie McHale (The Newsroom) is a fantastic character in a fantastic show, although the creator of the show disagrees. She is absolutely brilliant and incredibly accomplished. McHale went to Cambridge and did well there. Afterward, she won two Peabodys for her work covering the war in the Middle East. She is at the top of her field and knows exactly what she’s doing when she does the news. McHale is also, however, a bit of ditz sometimes.
One of her most memorable moments involves a colorful text message regarding her past with a coworker that she accidentally sends to the entire staff. She’s terrible with technology, which is hard to believe in a journalist of her caliber in this day and age. This is not necessarily clumsiness in the traditional, physical sense, as she mostly manages to stay upright. However, it nonetheless follows the same general pattern. It shows a remarkable flaw in an otherwise deeply enviable woman.
A Few More Examples
Becky Fuller (Morning Glory) is a young up and coming morning show producer who is consistently disheveled, clumsy and kind of a goofball. She is also deeply determined and a total go-getter. In the film, she finds herself laid off and picks up the broken pieces of her career to really make something of herself and of the show that hires her. Fuller follows the pathway of a successful woman, often in the media world, who is fantastic at her job but can’t seem to keep herself from fumbling her words and dropping her file folders in the elevator. She is charming, utterly likable, and far clumsier than an adult woman has any business being.
Andy Sachs (The Devil Wears Prada) is arguably the most put together on this list, at least by the film’s end. In the beginning, though, she is clumsy, awkward, and badly dressed. She’s got big dreams, she’s dedicated to her career, she’s gorgeous, and she’s clearly competent, but the writers just had to make her a little quirky and odd to make the whole thing work. The successful bitch trope was already taken by the boss, Miranda Priestly. So instead the writers made Andy hopelessly awkward and in desperate need of a makeover.
Seriously, This Trope Is Everywhere
Elliot Reid (Scrubs) is a doctor, which is automatically a marker of success in our society. Again, quite physically attractive. Dr. Reid suffers from an incredibly severe case of foot-in-mouth disease. Almost everything she says is deeply awkward and uncomfortable. She is also sometimes physically clumsy. Her main representation of this trope, however, is through her verbal awkwardness and her tone-deaf nature. She’s often in hot water with patients and coworkers alike for her conversational stumbles and cringeworthy statements. If it weren’t for this little quirk, she would be a formidable woman. Traditionally attractive, intelligent, and super successful.
Evelyn Carnahan (The Mummy) is clearly the brains of the motley little group. They’re on a mission to find a piece of history and defeat an ancient evil curse, and she’s the one with the knowledge to get it done. Since she is traveling with two male companions, she almost has to be clumsy, to give the men a purpose. They rescue her from her calamitous stumbles throughout the plot of the film. Carnahan could probably solve this mystery all on her own since she is the Egyptologist that can translate hieroglyphics. That is if it weren’t for her stumbles.
Like her clumsy sisters in all these various universes and stories, she must be loveably clumsy and accident-prone to make up for the combined intelligence and beauty. Hers is among the most literal takes on the clumsy successful woman trope. In the first several moments of the movie she loses her balance on a ladder and manages to knock over an entire library full of books. She trips and stumbles into trap doors in a fashion reminiscent of Daphne Blake from Scooby-Doo, who could also arguably fit the clumsy successful woman trope. For the record, this is far from the only problem with this movie. The critiques here are numerous, but I digress.
It Comes Through in Real Life Too
We even occasionally do this in real life with successful women, the perfect example being Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence fell down that one time at the Oscars in that gorgeous Dior dress. That one fall forever cemented her as clumsy, loveable, relatable, and quirky. Lawrence’s clumsiness has sparked an entire online dialogue. Is her clumsiness cute? Is it a desperate ploy to get attention? Or is it a way of humanizing and relating to a gorgeous, well-dress, wealthy, and successful woman?
Why This Trope Kind of Sucks
In 2020, are we really so threatened by an intelligent career woman that we have to, sometimes quite literally, put her down to make ourselves feel better? It is possible that as a society we do not need to make successful women fall all over themselves and make messes of their lives to make them loveable characters. That’s the thing, though, is it works. These women are all deeply loveable characters. Even those who exist in terrible works of the screen have an endearing quality to them.
There is something charming about this whole clumsy trope. The constant stumbling and fumbling and awkward quirkiness endear us to these characters because it makes them less inherently intimidating. In our society, successful women, especially those who conform to our traditional ideas of attractiveness, are often seen as threatening and undesirable.
The clumsy successful woman trope reflects certain ideas we have about women. They can be successful, but not too successful. They have to stumble and fall down and slip up in a way that a man never would, so we find them relatable instead of enviable and desirable instead of emasculating. There has to be a little bit of that damsel in distress in there somewhere, so the male characters can save the day or, at the very least, serve a purpose.
Successful women do not have to fall down or make a mess of things in order to be likable. A woman can, all at once, be kind, beautiful, good at her job, and mostly steady on her feet. Interesting characters, of course, do not need to be perfect. Nor should they be. However, this clumsiness is merely a lazy way of bringing a female character down a peg, without giving her anything real to work through. There is nothing this cringe-inducing awkwardness adds to the story, besides making the audience more comfortable with a successful woman. Something we’re obviously still getting used to in our society.