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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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Mad Men’s cultural value—which we believe ranks on a par with good literature—is evident not only in the amount of critique that the show has received, but the depth of commentary in the mainstream press, the blogosphere, and in scholarly work. Yes, like any good prime-time soap of the past (think, among others, Dallas) the revelations and plot twists became next-day “water cooler” talk as each episode unfolded, beginning with the show’s premiere in 2007 and continuing to its conclusion in 2015. But Mad Men has offered more—a real chance, unusual in commercial television, to engage thoughtfully with social history and have a good time doing it. No doubt, this quality is a result of creator Matthew Weiner’s vision. Although the episodes had multiple writers, Mad Men sprang from Weiner’s imagination, giving it the depth and cohesion of good film or a novel. We analyzed the show all along, and we know we were not alone. As each season progressed, the show offered additional material to reinforce our analyses, which unfolded in our minds, e-mails, and Facebook posts, and which we read as foreshadowing the future success, maintenance, or demise of the characters and their various and complicated relationships. We have been grateful to have a text of such caliber present itself. Whatever Mad Men has done otherwise, it heartens our outlook regarding the television landscape as a source for cultural and social commentary.

Mad Men, which is about women as much as...

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