Mad Men and Working Women

Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness

by Erika Engstrom (Author) Tracy Lucht (Author) Jane Marcellus (Author) Kimberly Wilmot Voss (Author)
©2014 Textbook VIII, 195 Pages


This book was featured as one of thirty-four Epic Feminist Books in Teen Vogue magazine.
This book offers interpretive and contextual tools to read the AMC television series Mad Men, providing a much-needed historical explanation and exposition regarding the status of women in an era that has been painted as pre- or non-feminist. In chapters aimed at helping readers understand women’s lives in the 1960s, Mad Men is used as a springboard to explore and discover alternative ways of seeing women. Offering more than a discussion of the show itself, the book offers historical insight for thinking about serious issues that «modern» working women continue to face today: balancing their work and personal lives, competing with other women, and controlling their own bodies and reproductive choices. Rather than critiquing the show for portraying women as victims, the book shows subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways that feminism functioned in an era when women were supposedly caught between the «waves» of the women’s movement but when, the authors argue, they functioned nonetheless as empowered individuals.
By doing so, it provides historical context and analysis that complicates traditional interpretations by (1) exploring historical constructions of women’s work; (2) unpacking feminist and non-feminist discourses surrounding that work; (3) identifying modes of resistance; and (4) revisiting forgotten work coded as feminine.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Authors
  • About the Book
  • Praise for Mad Men and Working Women
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Mad Men and Working Women
  • 1 The Women of Mad Men: Workplace Stereotypes Beyond Kanter
  • 2 “Oh, and Men Love Scarves”: Secretarial Culture From Bartleby the Scrivener to Joan Holloway
  • 3 Mad Men and Reasonable Women: Selling Lipstick, Exploring Workplace Power, and Raising Babies
  • 4 Sisterhood in the ’60s: Joan, Peggy, and a Feminist Awakening
  • 5 Mad Women and the Marriage Gradient: The Risks and Rewards of Highly Competent Women
  • 6 In Defense of Betty: The Role of Gender, Motherhood, and Social Class for Homemakers
  • 7 “Where the Truth Lies”: Gender, Labor, and “Other” Relationships
  • 8 Race, Religion, and Rights: Otherness Gone Mad
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: Cited Episodes
  • References
  • Index


On behalf of all of us, Erika Engstrom thanks Mary Savigar, our editor at Peter Lang, for her continued support of this project. Erika personally thanks Sheila Gibbons, editor of Media Report to Women, for her past and present encouragement and support. Thank you, Sheila, for helping this feminist to reach her career goals, and for your tireless efforts to call attention to gender inequity in mass media. Lastly, Erika looks forward to the next “wine meeting” with Tracy, Jane, and Kim.

Tracy Lucht wishes to thank her hardworking research assistant, Chenyan Shan, and her colleagues at Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication for their support of this project. On a personal level, this scholar is grateful for the encouragement and inspiration of smart, supportive women near and far, including Daniela Dimitrova, Raluca Cozma, and her three wonderfully collaborative co-authors.

Jane Marcellus thanks her co-authors, especially Erika, whose unyielding vision and faith made this happen. Tricia Farwell loaned out her coveted Zippo Lighter Case limited edition of season one during a cold winter break when Mad Men and endless bowls of Malt-O-Meal seemed like the only respite from the flu. Tom Bivins and Deb Merskin have often been helpful with feedback and article suggestions. Sam Jones, finally, is always nearby, just in case he’s needed.

Kimberly Wilmot Voss would like to acknowledge her husband, Lance Speere, who introduced her to Mad Men and made many helpful suggestions on her chapters. She would also like to acknowledge her sons Paul and Curtis, who went to bed without a fuss on so many nights so that their mother could write. Lastly, she appreciates the thoughtfulness and kindness of her co-authors. ← vii | viii → ← viii | 1 →


Mad Men and Working Women

Since its premiere in 2007, the AMC drama series Mad Men has consistently garnered numerous media industry awards, critical praise, and scholarly scrutiny. The program—which won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama for each of its first four seasons—has a beguilingly simple premise: It is the story of advertising executive Don Draper’s professional and personal life as “the biggest ad man in the business” (“About the Show,” 2012). In addition to Draper’s “plays in the boardroom and in the bedroom,” Mad Men “also depicts authentically the roles of men and women in this era while exploring the true human nature beneath the guise of 1960s traditional family values” (“About the Show,” 2012). Citing the show’s creators, Trbic (2009) asserted “these narratives are about an important period in American history and its irreversible repercussions for our present and future” (p. 82). Indeed, Coontz (2010), in The Washington Post, wrote that a historian acquaintance of hers called Mad Men “one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced” (p. B2). And therein lies its complexity.

Mad Men’s depiction of the advertising business in New York City during the 1960s has resulted in Mad Men-style marketing campaigns and commercials. The emulation of Mad Men “style,” evidenced via fashion, food, and entertaining, appears rooted in both nostalgia (for those who lived during the era portrayed) and hipness (for younger audience members enamored of everything “retro”). Popular books riding the wave of the show’s success include The Ultimate Guide to Mad Men (Dean, 2010), Mad Men: The Illustrated World (Moe, 2010), The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook (Gelman & Zheutlin, 2011), and The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration From the Costume Designer of Mad Men (Bryant, 2010). Histories of advertising and memoirs of those who experienced the Mad Men era include the artsy Midcentury Ads: Advertising From the Mad Men Era (Heller & Heirman, 2012), The Real Mad Men (Cracknell, 2011), and Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue by the “real-life” Peggy Olson, Jane Maas (2012). These books attest to the program’s popularity and cultural appeal. One also sees this trend reflected in marketing campaigns for clothing (Banana Republic) and cosmetics (Estée Lauder’s Mad Men Collection of blush and lipstick). ← 1 | 2 →

Beyond Mad Men’s fashion and habitus-centered appeals, film and television scholars have focused on the show’s aesthetics, production values, and similarity to film (Smith, 2011; Trbic, 2009). Along with writing and presentation, these characteristics clearly classify it as “quality television,” which Imre (2009) defined as a product of the post-network era. Spurred by the success of unconventional dramas developed for HBO (Home Box Office), such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, quality TV reflects the kind of creative vision that marks auteur cinema; such programming features ensemble casts, interwoven plotlines, and thematic material and provides social and cultural commentary. The level and nuance of the commentary offered by Mad Men in particular demarcate the series not only as quality television, but as high art—deserving of the type of critique and analysis associated with film studies. Indeed, creator Matthew Weiner has noted that one of the reasons television industry executives gave for their initial rejection of his “pitch” for the series, prior to its being picked up by AMC, was that it was “too smart” (Paley Center for Media, 2013).

Mad Men stands out as a unique literary work that requires it to be treated as such. Several edited scholarly and near-scholarly treatments of this singular television series—which similarly take the perspective of television as literature—offer myriad creative ways to reveal its nuanced messages and meanings. These include how Mad Men relates to, comments upon, explains, and illustrates philosophy, ethics, work, nostalgia, advertising, materialism, masculinity, and a host of topics related to the human condition. Titles include Mad Men: Dream Come True TV (Edgerton, 2011), Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing Is as It Seems (Carveth & South, 2010), Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series (Stoddart, 2011), and Lucky Strikes and a Three Martini Lunch: Thinking About Television’s Mad Men (Stern, Manning, & Dunn, 2012). These works share the premise that as quality television, Mad Men shows how literature reflects the culture in which it is produced.

We, the authors of this book, have chosen to focus on Mad Men’s treatment of gender—as marker in relations and relationships, as historical sign post, and even as motive. Upon closer reading, the story of Don Draper and the men and women within his orbit becomes more than just a tale of an ad man. As The New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley (2013) noted in her article “The Sane Women Behind the Unraveling Man” marking the start of the series’ sixth season, “the women of the show, more than the men, are the ones who defy expectations and break ground.” We have known this from the show’s inception. In the stories of Mad Men’s women, which are as equally compelling as the men’s, we find an ideal venue upon which to make connections between the threading of feminist and feminine ideologies in the verbal and visual text of a time termed “nostalgic,” perhaps even arcane, to issues and concerns still present in the everyday lives of women—and men—today. Our work here hinges on this televisual artifact’s nu ← 2 | 3 → anced and significant contribution to the understanding of feminist experience over the past half century.

We undertake our study in the context of past scholarship on feminism in contemporary media, notably television and film. This work has provided analysis of specific media products with the aim of uncovering, unpacking, and revealing to what extent feminist ideology exists within narratives or presentation of characters. Notably, Bonnie Dow’s Prime-Time Feminism (1996) provides a still-cogent model for feminist criticism of popular texts. Dow’s critical examination of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–1977), One Day at a Time (1975–1984), Designing Women (1986–1993), Murphy Brown (1988–1998), and the drama series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993–1998) led to several conclusions that remain relevant nearly two decades later. Dow reassured readers that such programming could appropriately be labeled feminist but cautioned that any feminist analysis must take into account the inherent structure of mass media, which relies on viewership and must avoid alienating its potential audience. Thus, whatever version of feminist ideology may present itself on commercial television “is one suited to television’s needs, not to the needs of a feminist politics committed to the future of all women regardless of race, class, sexuality, or life situation” (p. 214).

Dow’s (1992) analysis of the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown, for example, revealed that while journalists’ coverage of the program and its depiction of a strong female character may have placed the series within a decidedly feminist vein, the polarized image it presented of a feminist woman belied its progressivism. The portrayal of Murphy Brown as brusque, uncompromising, and ambitious, Dow wrote, refused to “permit integration of traditionally bifurcated masculine and feminine qualities attached to the public and private spheres” (p. 152) and illustrated the traditional belief that “a woman cannot be both professionally successful and retain traditional qualities of femininity” (p. 151). Further, Dow concluded, the framing of Murphy Brown as a “comic scapegoat” whose comeuppances resulted from her character flaws (strong, willful, and unfeminine) ultimately endorsed gender roles based on patriarchal rules of appropriate behavior by making such transgressions laughably undesirable (p. 152).

Humor provides an “out” for comedic representations of women, giving television sitcoms more freedom than dramatic series to explore feminist themes and characters. As demonstrated by the lasting popularity of I Love Lucy (1951–1957), mainstream writers and producers can strike comic gold by playing a subversive female character for laughs, which serves to minimize an empowered woman’s threat to the status quo. Spangler (2003), who examined the history of female characters in sitcoms in Television Women From Lucy to ‘Friends’: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism, found a gamut of feminist storylines and leanings in a variety of programs, from the upper-middle-class Maude (1972–1978) and the blue-collar Roseanne (1988–1997) to the single mothers featured on Julia (1968–1971), ← 3 | 4 → Alice (1976–1985), and Grace Under Fire (1993–1998). These sitcoms from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s used dramatic storylines to explore evergreen issues important to feminists, such as abortion on Maude and domestic violence on Roseanne. It proved acceptable for otherwise-funny programs to devote an individual episode to a serious issue for the very reason that such topics were unusual; even disapproving viewers knew the next week’s episode would likely return to lighter fare.

In contrast, Designing Women, a friends-as-family precursor to Living Single (1993–1998) and Sex and the City (1998–2004), presented a sustained discussion of women’s issues and perspectives and thus could be considered especially empowering for women. However, analyzing the “unruly woman” persona surrounding three of the female leads, Jeremy Butler (1993) concluded that despite the characters’ feminist-leaning positions, the program ultimately “transgresses some of patriarchy’s taboos, but most of the time it does so without deconstructing [Butler’s emphasis] its discursive code” (p. 18). Similarly, the HBO series Sex and the City, which gained a wide audience by centralizing women’s subjectivity and presenting multiple female viewpoints, remained rooted in patriarchal discourse. While three of the female leads on Sex and the City are shown to be career-minded and successful, their work experiences are rarely explored in depth; indeed, most of their conversations revolve around men. In this sense, NBC’s 30 Rock (2006–2013) and Parks and Recreation (2009– ) have broken ground by featuring explicitly feminist characters and illustrating some of the dilemmas faced by professional women in predominantly male occupations. The programs are backed by the creative vision of Saturday Night Live alumnae Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, both of whom publicly espouse feminist values and make sexism the butt of many jokes.

Regarding the subversive power offered by humor, Dow (1996) wrote that “comedy offers space for representing social controversy and social change that might be too threatening when encoded as realist drama. This is no doubt one of the reasons why the programming form representing feminism that has been the most long-lived on television historically has been situation comedy” (p. 103). Indeed, many primetime dramatic portrayals of women’s empowerment have been compromised by a perspective Susan Douglas (2010) called “enlightened sexism.” For example, the Fox series Ally McBeal (1997–2002) revisited the duality of feminism/femininity from the postfeminist position that women’s battle for equality had largely been “won” and thus an educated woman’s biggest concern was finding a marriage to go with her high-powered job. The series appealed to young women, Moseley and Read (2002) argued, because it articulated the “tensions of living in the world where most of us do in fact reside, where they [our personal and professional lives] are mutually pervasive and impossible to separate” (p. 247). ← 4 | 5 →

Contemporary dramas such as The Good Wife (2009– ), Scandal (2012– ), and Nashville (2012– ) depict women at work in a variety of capacities: the first through the perspective of a political wife who resurrects her law career after her husband’s dalliances with a prostitute are publicly revealed; the second through the lens of a Washington, D.C. crisis management strategist who is having an affair with the president; and the third through the conflicted lives of two country singers—one mature, one new on the scene—who find stardom in the ruthless music business. Each of these series presents determined, complicated, fallible female characters, which achieves a feminist objective of representing women in ways that avoid gendered stereotypes. However, none of these series takes on the feminist project of denaturalizing the sociocultural environment or examining the role of gender in women’s choices, strategies, experiences, and opportunities. In these dramas, the personal supersedes the political. That is, women’s careers are taken for granted rather than problematized and investigated.


VIII, 195
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
historical explanation women's movement television series
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 195 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Erika Engstrom (Author) Tracy Lucht (Author) Jane Marcellus (Author) Kimberly Wilmot Voss (Author)

Erika Engstrom (PhD, University of Florida) is Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of The Bride Factory: Mass Media Portrayals of Women and Weddings. Tracy Lucht (PhD, University of Maryland) is Assistant Professor at Iowa State University. She is the author of Sylvia Porter: America’s Original Personal Finance Columnist. Jane Marcellus (PhD, University of Oregon) is Professor at Middle Tennessee State University. She is the author of Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Employed Women. Kimberly Wilmot Voss (PhD, University of Maryland) is Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida. She is the author of The Food Section: Newspaper Women and the Culinary Community.


Title: Mad Men and Working Women
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