Exploring American History and Women’s Rights through TV

From Mad Men to Veep, how far have women really come — at least with regards to fictional televised representations of women in positions of power? In this article, we’ll take a look at two popular television shows set in very different eras of American society, demonstrating the ever-increasing representation of women in the workplace and, in turn, the media. Mad Men shows the progression of women working their way up the ladder of corporate success in the 1960s, whereas Veep shows a woman as the Vice President (as the name suggests) in modern day America. Mad Men focuses more on office politics; Veep keeps that focus while adding the element actual politics. Both depict women in positions of power, albeit in very different environments. My question is, are they really that different? How much has really changed for women in the workplace? How far have we really come?

Throughout the seasons of AMC’s hit show Mad Men, we begin to see women working their way up the management chain. At the start of the show, it is made clear that the women in the office do not view themselves as equal to the men, nor do the men view them as equals. Joan Holloway, the office manager, makes it explicitly clear to Peggy on her first day that they are there to look pretty and answer phones. Her role can possibly extend beyond that towards marriage territory, but not if she doesn’t start dressing better.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) - Mad Men

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) – Mad Men

Luckily, this mentality doesn’t last long for some (but not all) of the women at fictitious ad agency Sterling Cooper. Peggy starts as secretary, but she soon becomes a copywriter, gains her own accounts, buys a building, and becomes a landlord. She is excellent at her job — both jobs, really. However, in terms of the show, she is viewed as uptight and harsh, as well as strange for having “forfeit” becoming a mother. Joan progresses from being the office manager to being a partner, although she has to sleep with a Jaguar executive to get the position. She is divorced and has a son. She shares a home with her mother, who cares for her son while Joan works. We begin to see more and more women taking control of their lives, working and loving it. They begin to depend less on men to provide for them and choose to work, not just to provide extra income for their families, but also to provide themselves with mental stimulation. It is still the 1960’s however, so the obvious setbacks that the women face due to overt misogyny are to be expected.

In shows like HBO’s Veep and NBC’s Parks and Recreation, we see women in government roles, struggling to get things done in a patriarchal society. Both are comedies, and political comedies to boot, centering on women who hold powerful roles without much power to actually get things done. People as a whole are generally more receptive to comedy as entertainment, and when it is politicized by showing women who are pretty good at their jobs, it reflects problems in our society in a way that is more accessible — or at least less aggressive — than direct social commentary. Both shows required a few episodes to gain their footing, but once they got a hold of their viewer base, they were recognized as being both hilarious and poignant at once.

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) - Parks and Recreation

Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) – Parks and Recreation

Veep’s Selina Meyer is foul-mouthed and smart, constantly fluctuating in the polls and struggling to achieve anything of her own accord. Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope is an endless bundle of energy and goodwill for her town Pawnee, Indiana, yet she almost never gets the recognition she deserves from the community, and is often thwarted at every turn by ill-meaning city councilmen. Here we have two extremely capable women fighting against the politics of life while in political positions.

The fact that we are seeing women in powerful positions on TV, despite the fact that they can’t seem to get anything done (though not for lack of trying), is important in and of itself, but what does that mean for women? Is there a significant change between the America presented in Mad Men and that of Veep or Parks and Recreation?

In this brief analysis of American history using modern television as a lens, we see that while things have improved in some ways, many things really haven’t at all. It has been ingrained into our social psyche that we are in the minority, but women are 51% of the global population. Slowly, the tide is turning and women are gaining more powerful positions in the wonderful world of TV, as well as in real life. However, even in the idealized world of television, women face problems directly tied to their gender. Having representation on TV is crucial to gaining representation in reality, though it would be very nice to see women in powerful positions actually achieving the great things they set out to accomplish instead of being constantly set back by gender-based discrimination.

In America, we delude ourselves into thinking that we live in a society in which all genders are already treated equally. We have the opportunity, in theory, to make a difference — and it is crucial to show more women in positions of power on TV who aren’t defined by their family life. It is even more crucial to expand that beyond white women to include women of color. Our representation is growing, but we could stand to pick up the pace. We have a lot of work to do, women of America, so let’s all start writing the television that we, and future generations, desperately need to see.

Natalie Heath

Natalie Heath

Natalie Heath is an explorer, writer, and reigning champion of the Netflix marathon.

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