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Mad Men, Madder Women: Have Roles Really Changed in the Workplace?

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Vivian DillerLike many baby boomers who regularly watch AMC’s “Mad Men,” I marvel at how accurately they get it: the smoky ambiance, the retro style and the subtleties of how people lived, worked and played in those good/bad ole days. Each Sunday we watch history unfold through the characters who work at the Sterling, Draper, Cooper and Pryce Ad Agency. A recent episode (aired on 9/12/10) particularly intrigued me, as a psychologist and author who writes about women’s issues in contemporary society. The episode brilliantly illustrated a cultural phenomenon that I have called “the beauty paradox.” (see my recent Huffington Post piece by that name), highlighting its origins and continued influence in today’s world.

The beauty paradox is the ambivalence women feel about the role beauty plays in their personal and professional lives. Should or shouldn’t looks matter? Are smart women taken less seriously if they place importance on their appearance? Are sensuality and femininity at odds with ambition and success at work? In “Mad Men” — where women are growing increasingly madder about this burgeoning issue — we get to watch a dramatization of this cultural phenomenon.

This particular episode revolved largely around the two females leads: Joan, the voluptuous secretary and Peggy, the brainy creative director. They engage in a series of interchanges with their male office mates, who range from the crude and chauvinistic to the slowly emotionally evolving partner in charge, Don Draper. The boys view Joan both as an object of desire and derision, openly poking fun at the role she plays in the office. “Joan’s on the desk with boobs on the blotter,” they laugh, underestimating her innate, instinctive intelligence, even if we viewers know better. Peggy is portrayed as smarter and more ambitious, the worker-bee who can hardly relate to Joan. The men devalue her too, as the gal trying to be one of the boys, although they hardly view her, or any woman, as a serious professional threat. When Peggy asks advice of Draper — the only male who seems unfazed by either of these women — he encourages her to take the matter into her own hands. A cultural revolution is beginning.

Here is where it gets complicated. As we see roles start to change and power begin to shift, we also witness an internal battle growing within women themselves. And it is there that “Mad Men” gets it right again. Peggy is shown trying to deal with these bad boys in the professional manner suggested by her boss. Being new to this role, she tries first to give them fair warning about Joan’s true influence in the office, but she gets nowhere. They continue the banter, mocking Joan, “What do you do around here besides walking around like you’re trying to get raped?” Peggy is then faced with an internal debate, one that I believe continues in the minds of many women today: does she side with her own sex against the men’s demeaning attitude toward a fellow female worker? Or does she look the other way in order to side with the men, who clearly dominate the coveted roles at the agency? Mustering up courage, she decides to fire Joey, Joan’s most flagrant abuser and as he leaves, he tells Peggy, “Well, I was wrong about you.” To his fellow ad men, Joey warns “Watch out fellas, the fun is over.” These may be the episode’s most revealing and interesting moments. Clearly, Peggy is hurt by the men’s disappointment in her, but she also feels triumphant as she exercises, for the first time, the authority granted by her boss. She feels, in fact, more like one of the boys than she ever has, excited by the power she senses will grow.

That is, until she shares her courageous act with Joan, who is not at all pleased by Peggy’s defense of her womanhood. From Joan’s perspective, she has only been further devalued, this time by her female cohort whose actions have painfully highlighted Joan’s position — the beautiful secretary who needs to be saved by someone with more male-like power. We, as viewers, also shift from applauding Peggy’s new found consciousness to lamenting any diminution of Joan, a woman we know is capable of defending herself. The beauty paradox is played out between these two women for us all to see. It is a drama surprisingly similar to the one played all too often (albeit, behind closed doors) in women’s lives today.

While the reality of sexual harassment has changed somewhat since the “Mad Men” days, women continue to struggle with how to mesh beauty and sensuality with their professional lives. They struggle with one another — like Joan and Peggy did — and within themselves. They worry if their looks will interfere with their climb up the ladder. They are not sure if overt femininity displays power or weakness. The dilemma still remains; which side to take? Should the Joans of today minimize their beauty in the service of establishing themselves as smart, clever women? Should today’s Peggys let themselves enjoy being a girl and embellish their femininity or will that put them at risk of losing out in their race to the top?

Joan was on to something in that elevator when she told Peggy she would not be seen as a heroine so much as just “another humorless bitch.” The Women’s Movement was supposed to resolve this dilemma as the glass ceilings were being broken at Sterling, Draper, Cooper, Pryce and elsewhere. But the truth is, women continue to struggle with this issue in spite of all the crashing and breaking they’ve done over the past 50 years. We may have a female Secretary of State. Women sit as judges on the Supreme Court. There are Peggy Olsens all over the media world. Yet still, being female, attractive and powerful at the same time remains a complicated equation. The title of AMC’s hit series may be “Mad Men,” but in many ways the show is about its women and the evolution of their revolution.

Oh, and let’s not forget Betty Draper, suffering out there in stagnant suburbia. Her unhappy, stay-at-home mother role is about to undergo its own revolution. Fast forward (which means an episode sure to be coming soon) to another Betty, with the last name Friedan. She will give an identity to the “no name illness,” being increasingly experienced by the women of “Mad Men’s” era. And from what women tell me today, I’m not sure we have yet found a full cure for this cultural malady. Your thoughts?

This article was originally posted on The Huffington Post

About The Author: Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. After completing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she went on to do postdoctoral training in psychoanalysis at NYU. She has written articles on beauty, aging, eating disorders, models, and dancers, and served as a consultant to a major cosmetic company interested in promoting age-related beauty products. Her book, “FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change” (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. “Today” co-host Hoda Kotb called it “a smart book for smart women.” For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com.

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