By Melinda Lorge
The suburban life, neighborhood gossip and 1960s family structure of the American Movie Classics’ television drama “Mad Men” were familiar to Jane Marcellus’ childhood. These familiarities led the journalism professor to feel a connection to the program that was later expressed in co-writing the nonfiction book“Mad Men and Working Women.”
“My frustration with ‘Mad Men,’ though, is that I cannot hold it,” Marcellus sighed. “[It] operates on a certain level of literature, which is not like the PBS high culture, pretentious literature. It’s like a really good novel on TV. The show is something between entertainment and entertainment with depth. It really is just like literature on television.”
Her fascination with the show and the intellectual quality of it led Marcellus to gain a deeper level of appreciation that led her to put together a panel.
“I searched for people through Facebook,” she smiled. “Our panel we called Mad Men, Working Women and History … I thought that we would just have a panel. Erika Engstrom, one of my co-authors came up with the idea that we should have a book. I said, ‘Yes.’”
Serendipity is a word that comes to Marcellus’ mind when she speaks of her new book, “Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance and Otherness” which released in January.
The panel then attended a 2011 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference and a National Communication Association conference, and Engstrom drafted the proposal for the book. The final draft of it included eight chapters with four female writers, each having two chapters representing their individual work.
The writers included Engstrom (Ph.D., University of Florida), Kimberly Wilmot Voss (Ph.D., University of Maryland), Tracy Lucht (Ph.D., University of Maryland) and Marcellus.
“We all brought different insights into the book,” she said comparing it to the first book that she had ever written titled “Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Employed Women.”
“I’ll always love my first book because it is my first, but writing this book taught me to write in community,” she said. The group collaborated as a unit to come up with both the beginning and the end.
Devoted to spending her time wisely, she used the spring and summer in 2013 to commit to writing her two chapters of “Mad Men and Working Women,” one of which was titled “Oh, and Men Love Scarves: Secretarial Culture from Bartleby the Scrivener to Joan Holloway.” Bartleby was a male clerk character in a Herman Melville story that examined the evolution of the office secretary and how typing became a feminized job.
“Women were much like machine operators, and gradually objectified,” Marcellus said.
Her second chapter, “Where the Truth Lies: Gender, Labor and ‘Other’ Relationships,” are a tag line to triadic relationships explores the roles of women in the work place, as worker bee and sexual object.
“I argue that some of the characters in ‘Mad Men’ are on a quest to find their true identity and non-primary relationships in the show are like mirrors in the way,” Marcellus said.
As much as she loves both of her chapters, she is drawn to her co-author Lucht’s chapters too.
“She has one on sisterhood in the ‘60s’, where Joan and Peggy embody different kinds of feminism; the kind of Cosmo girl feminism and second wave feminism,” she said. “I think it’s really brilliant, and I think her writing is brilliant, too.”
A time period never to be forgotten
“I remember being in that time period,” she started, as she brought to life a distant memory. “The attitudes were the same in many ways. I flew on an airplane once before I was an adult. Riding in a plane was like going to church on Sundays where people would dress up, but people were smoking on airplanes. We are coming to the end of a cycle like a ritual. Who we have become, who we are and what we are letting go of, in my opinion, is what is represented in ‘Mad Men.’”
Although cigarettes remains objectionable to her, a look of fascination came upon her and a faint smile stretched across her face when she recalled her first experience watching the show.
“You can get the first season on DVD in a Zippo lighter case made like a cigarette box from the ‘60s, which I thought was really cool,” she said recounting how fellow College of Mass Communication professor Tricia Farwell “I was sick with the flu, and ‘Mad Men’ really got me through that awful time period.”
The story, based in New York City throughout the 1960s, has a cast of elaborate characters living in an upper-class society during the prosperous age of advertising.
The historical presentation of issues that women faced throughout the time period is very near and dear to Marcellus, who lived during the era. So, it comes as no surprise that the show retains many familiar aspects.
“I related to Sally and the experience that she faced growing up and learning gender roles,” she said about the young child actor in the show. “I also related to Peggy on a work level when she starts to question the assumption that women should take on certain roles. She stands her ground on creating advertisements from a female perspective even when she gets shut down for it, and I relate to that. I don’t think you have to objectify people to sell things. Creative people will find ways to create advertising without exploitation.”
Marcellus explained how she worked in a newsroom, where sexual harassment was prevalent.
“At that time people’s consciousness wasn’t raised,” she said. “Anybody who is familiar with the show knows the scene where Joan Holloway is asked to sleep with a very big client who is able to bring in a lot of money. That’s his price and she does it and it’s very horrible.”
In this episode, “The Other Women,” Joan wins a crucial client for the firm after performing the deed.
“Go home take a paper bag and cut some eye holes out of it, put it over your head, get undressed and look at yourself in the mirror and really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Joan, the secretarial manager in the show.
Scenes like this are not far-fetched from the realities that Marcellus saw in previous times. The media history professor concluded that the complexity of the show was so intricately detailed that the fabrication of it operated on a level unlike many other shows. “Mad Men” allowed her to draw her own conclusions and theoretical perspectives. Each time she watched an episode, whether it was once or twice, she could think of a new a theme that she didn’t realize the first time.
More to come
Marcellus suggests potential readers of “Mad Men and Working Women” to watch a few episodes of the show before delving into the book. According to her, it offers thorough explanations and analysis on how women lived in the 1960s, as well as ways in which modern women can understand and explore the concept of a woman’s life and their relationships with others, personal livelihood and in the workplace through historical evidence.
“I hope that people will see [the book] as a companion to Mad Men and use it in classes,” Marcellus said. “What we try to do is think about gender and the women at that time. We want to gain a deeper understanding of where women have been, and what women have gone through throughout history. We have this post-feminist idea that what once was, is now gone, but it isn’t. Addressing that through a show like ‘Mad Men,’ that’s fun, yet serious, will help raise that.”
For Marcellus, writing books is a continuum; she already has plans for her next book. For her third, she plans to write about the 20th century playwright and journalist, Sophie Treadwell, on how she worked and found a voice in journalism when the industry was still very masculine. She also has hopes to one day write a book on non-academic essays.
Marcellus always found herself diverting her attention to writing even as a child.
“I wrote what I called a ‘novel’ in second grade,” she said, “I came home every day after school and worked on it. It was about a family of mice,” she smiled. “I always liked words and writing. The writer Joan Didion said, ‘I write to find out what I’m thinking.’ I would agree. Make writing and thinking one. I think it’s through the writing process that we understand things more deeply. Otherwise, I think it’s just the way I’m wired.”
To contact the features editor, email email@example.com. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @mtsusidelines.