Corporate America needs a 21st century Dragon Lady

While successful female business leaders have made headlines in recent years — a Mary T. Berra, Virginia M. Romelty, and Indra K. Nooyi all come to mind — just 5.2 percent of CEOs of companies in the S&P 500 are women.

To reduce this imbalance we need a modern incarnation of the Dragon Lady, a protagonist who is surely among the great characters in American literature. Unfortunately, her real significance has become obscured by the passage of time since she starred in Milton Caniff’s comic strip “Terry and The Pirates,” which he set in turbulent China during the 1930s and 1940s and is now regarded as something of a masterpiece.

It began as a standard newspaper comic strip that followed the adventure story traditions of its time. Terry Lee was a plucky adolescent who ran around China under the watchful eyes of his adult mentor, Pat Ryan. Pat was a two-fisted Black Irish soldier of fortune who was assumed to be an appropriate guardian for Terry because he smoked a pipe, talked in terse ambiguities, played football in college and never displayed any discernable sense of humor.

But all these conventions went out the window when the Dragon Lady appeared.

These days, people think of her as the quintessential Asian temptress, luring men to perdition with her irresistible female wiles. Embodying in full-blooded glory all the primal male fears of women, which they have woven into elaborate horror stories to tell each other in locker rooms, sports bars or their equivalent ever since Old Testament times.

Many contemporary women find this stereotype offensive, and rightly so. But it has nothing to do with the remarkable character Caniff created. Unfortunately, newsprint is highly perishable, so few people today can see for themselves what the Dragon Lady was really all about.

Yes, she was awesomely beautiful. But she never let this genetic accident define her character. She paid no attention to the standard male view that a woman’s physical appearance is the most important thing about her.

Yes, she spent most of her life engaged in various illegal activities. But this was more an expression of her clear-eyed pragmatism than evidence of any moral depravity inherent in her female nature. From her perspective, living outside the law gave her more freedom to be herself than she could ever have enjoyed in any of the conventional roles assigned to women. The Dragon Lady had no patience with this.

It is worth mentioning that Terry and Pat were not above reproach either, since they were seeking a lost gold mine that was obviously not their lost gold mine.

She was a brilliant and sophisticated woman, whose Chinese-English ancestry had made her an outcast to both societies. Highly educated in Eastern and Western cultures, she was wise in the ways of the world and the frailties of its people. Most of all, she choose to live entirely by her own existential set of moral principles that gave no quarter to anyone. All of which made her more than a match for Caniff’s irredeemably wicked multiethnic villains.

He introduced her in 1934 as the strong-willed leader of a pirate gang preying up and down the South China coast. This kind of dominating role in command of an all-male crew was scarcely common among female characters in the American literature of the time. But Caniff made it seem like the most natural thing in the world by emphasizing her cool intelligence, emotional toughness, and Wall Street trader’s ability to balance risks and rewards.

The behavior of many members of the masters of the universe club would suggest that they have limited talent. Many organizations are directed by the can-do-no-wrong man of the extended moment who leaves no indelible trace and will be forgotten long before he will be remembered.

You will know women have finally arrived when there are as many incompetent women in the C-Suite as incompetent men. Ain’t it de troot?

Originally Published: December 23, 2018


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