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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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Introduction: Mad Men and Working Women



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...

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