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Mad Men and Working Women

Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness

Erika Engstrom, Tracy Lucht, Jane Marcellus and Kimberly Wilmot Voss

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.
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1 The Women of Mad Men: Workplace Stereotypes Beyond Kanter



The Women of Mad Men

Workplace Stereotypes Beyond Kanter

Erika Engstrom

Television as a storytelling device offers viewers and their wider culture a “consensus narrative,” a chief feature of which points to “the ambition or desire to speak for and to the whole of its culture,” noted Thorburn (1987, p. 167). Hence, the fictional narratives presented on TV may present characters imagined by a program’s creative team that embody “an inheritance of shared stories, plots, characters, types, cultural symbols and narrative conventions” (p. 168). No matter what the plotline and its players, in order for the creators of such stories to communicate a common understanding, these also must meet the requirement of being “legible to the common understanding of a majority of the culture” (p. 168).

The “matrix” of values and assumptions that television conveys, to viewers or simply as an existent unwatched cultural product, reflects the “wisdom of the community” regarding any range of ideological components held by members of a culture (Thorburn, 1987, p. 170). This idea of a narrative enjoys a consensus of acceptance undergirds the notion that we can study the narrative of an offering like Mad Men and discover just what it (or rather its writers) is trying to say about social issues, the state of affairs during a historical period, or, in the case of this book in particular, the status of women both during the time setting of the series or even...

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