Falsifying the Existence of Women: Exploring Marxian and Gender Theories in Mad Men to Examine Roles of Consciousness in the Gender Dynamics of the Workplace

By Oluwatosin Shenbanjo
2013, Vol. 9 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |


Throughout its first season, Mad Men displays the extent to which the male employees of Sterling Cooper, who reside atop the hierarchical division of labor, project and support a false consciousness of gender that subverts their female coworkers. Essentially, the gender stereotypes that are supported by present society serve as the base from which Sterling Cooper’s male employees maintain the false notions of reality that promote gender inequality. As Heilman (2001, p. 658) argues, gender stereotypes fundamentally dichotomize the “achievement-oriented” and “social- and service-oriented” tendencies of males and females. Specifically, males are thought to be more forceful, self-sufficient, and direct in their ability to make decisions; contrarily, women are considered softer, more submissive beings (Heilman, 2001, p. 658). For instance, in the series’ pilot episode, Don condemns a female client, Rachel Menken, for attempting to assert justifications for her business decisions as she explains her professional opinions. Though Sterling Cooper, as an advertising agency, must aim to please the client, Don freely and forcefully disagrees with Rachel’s opinions, abruptly ending the meeting by informing Rachel that her idea is “silly,” her speech is “way out of line,” and, as such, that he “will not let a woman talk to [him] like this” (Weiner, 2007). Accordingly, even in work settings, women are framed as less aggressive and valuable as their male colleagues (or, in Rachel’s case, subordinates). As a consequence, the positions that dwell toward the top of the hierarchy of authority and labor in the bureaucracy are, more frequently, occupied by men, for such positions allegedly necessitate “an achievement-oriented aggressiveness and an emotional toughness” that is more characteristic of male employees (Heilman, 2001, p. 659). But, one must note that for a woman who does reside at the peak, masculine attributes are necessarily bestowed upon her. For, in order to excel at “man’s work,” the woman must inherently lack those female attributes that gender stereotypes establish (Heilman, 2001, p. 661). That is, if she succeeds in tasks that are befitting for men, then she lacks what may theoretically be her true feminine essence.

In Mad Men, Peggy Olson’s movement within Sterling Cooper’s hierarchy primarily illustrates the process by which a woman’s femininity is nullified as a result of her success in the workplace. Such success is internalized as an adoption of a masculine essence. Through this, Peggy’s success additionally illuminates the systematized false consciousness of the bureaucracy. At the beginning of the series, Peggy, like all other women in Sterling Cooper, is merely a secretary; however, after Peggy displays cleverness during a brainstorming session for a lipstick account (episode six), her intelligence and talent are appraised and rewarded as she becomes a copywriter for Belle Jolie Lipsticks (Weiner, 2007). Toward the end of the season, Peggy is granted leadership over another account, as Don and his colleagues were impressed by her lipstick work. To be sure, Peggy’s gradual ascension atop the ladder of labor is to be commended and valued; however, it is important to note, as Heilman explains, that Peggy concurrently endures de- feminization during this movement. Specifically, as a result of severe weight gain, Peggy is no longer sexually desired by any of her male colleagues and becomes a subject of ridicule (Weiner, 2007). Because the series portrays women’s sexuality as the foundation of their feminine essence (Joan, with her red hair and hour-glass figure, is the show’s epitome of a “woman”), Peggy’s increasing productivity correlates with her diminishing sexuality and femininity. Consequently, this synchronized success and subjugation by Sterling Cooper’s power elite promotes a misunderstanding of her roles as worker and woman. With this, the men’s perceptions of women’s true identities in society become muddled (Eyerman, 1981, p. 44), and the women cultivate a falsely exclusive relationship between work and social identity.

While a false consciousness of women’s identity may overpower the workplace within Mad Men, the home life reproduction of gender stereotypes reifies, and occurs due to, that notion of a “feminine essence” that Peggy defies. Toward the end of the first episode of the series, viewers are introduced to Don Draper’s wife, Betty, as he returns home from the city to greet her as she sleeps (Weiner, 2007). Blonde and beautiful, Betty, for the majority of the series, exhibits the “social- and service-oriented tendencies” that stereotypically define women (Heilman, 2001, p. 658). Specifically, Betty is a stay-at-home mother who cares for her and Don’s two children and ensures that food is prepared and set upon Don’s arrival from work. The sweetness of her voice, on multiple occasions, starkly contrasts against the gruffness and decisiveness of Don’s voice, particularly during instances in which her harmless actions are in opposition to Don’s desires (such as when, in the season’s eleventh episode, Betty permits an air conditioner salesman to enter her home, only to later experience Don’s outrage) (Weiner, 2007). Also, on some occasions at Sterling Cooper, the secretaries exhibit either meek and reserved or sweet and obliging attitudes toward their male colleagues. For instance, in the season’s ninth episode, Hildy, Pete Campbell’s obedient and productive secretary, silently endures Pete’s rudeness, unnecessary hovering, and sexual harassment as he informs her (in front of his male colleagues) that she should “smile more because [she is] beautiful,” and that he enjoys “watching [her] walk” (Weiner, 2007). Expectedly, Hildy’s unvocal presence in response to Pete not only mirrors the gender stereotypes that are exhibited in the home, but also maintains the gender stereotypes that catalyzed Pete’s behavior in the first place. As a consequence of these reified gendered actions in the home and workplace, males’ awareness of women’s true identities and positions in society – which are not defined by submission and meekness – are muddled. From this, these women also maintain this false awareness by essentially actualizing a self-fulfilling prophecy; the stereotyped “feminine essence” becomes them, and they, in turn, become this stereotyped essence.


As Ridgeway (1997, p. 225) establishes, it is the incomprehension of women’s genuine identities, a false consciousness, that creates an inherently unequal environment. Specifically, in the workplace, there is an apparent “sex labeling of workers” (Ridgeway, 1997, p. 225). Though work roles are, theoretically, without sex or gender, the “sex labeling of workers” defines the process by which work positions are bestowed a gendered essence. Consequently, it grows difficult to avoid attaching those societal attributes and tendencies about sex and gender to roles in the workplace. With this, a secretarial position may become something delicate, perhaps even lustful, while the executive position remains aggressive and forceful. It is such misunderstandings, such false consciousness, which enables men in the workplace to objectify and sexually harass women. For example, in the season’s tenth episode, Ken Cosgrove chases after a secretary and pulls up her dress to determine the color of her underwear, and thus, who of his male colleagues has won the bet (Weiner, 2007). This false consciousness also permits Pete Campbell to call Peggy “honey” upon meeting her and chide her for not looking like a Manhattan woman by obscuring her ankles with her long skirt. Additionally, it is such misunderstandings that permit Joan to recommend that Peggy, upon returning home after her first day of work, examine her naked body in the mirror with a paper bag over her head, for such an action may allow her to easily “evaluate where [her] strengths and weaknesses are” (Weiner, 2007).

The aforementioned actions could easily be reported to a human resources department for allegations of harassment; however, these actions and statements still illustrate the “powerlessness” of women within bureaucratic systems (Hantzis, 1987, p. 699). Namely, this powerlessness illustrates a socially constructed reality of male domination, created as a result of the false consciousness that forms those entitled sentiments of power. If “the boss gets obedience because he can” ensure the costs of “disobedience” (Hantzis, 1987, p. 700), then perhaps his protégé, the junior who dwells on the rung below his hierarchical level of authority, can oppress his female colleague. This may occur because the sexualized nature of the bureaucracy relies on female and male essences that stem from, and preserve, institutionalized false consciousness. However, it still stands that this dynamic is seldom actively inverted, for reversing the exchanges of gender inequality and oppression in this way would dissipate the very notions that form, and exist because of, the dynamic.


Can one assert that Betty, Peggy, or Hildy actively reject their passive appraisals of what their society sustains, and what truly exists? Rosenberg (1953, p. 22) outlines that, among the many definitions of “class,” one suggests a “subjective group identification” based on awareness of this group and its identity. As such, when an individual achieves what Marx deemed “class consciousness,” he or she grows aware of where he or she resides within this group, as well as where this group truly resides within the larger society. In addition, to achieve class consciousness, it is necessary to align one’s identity with the “objective definition” of one’s class, cultivate a bond with the members of one’s class, and dissociate oneself from those in an opposing class (Rosenberg, 1953, p. 22). Considering this, for women – whether homemakers, secretaries, or CEOs – to reject and reform the stereotypes, inequality, and oppression that stem from institutionalized false consciousness, suspension of passivity is imperative. That is, though these women may express discord with their societal positions and the subjugation of their sex, sentiments alone will not suffice; they must act in opposition to their own “essence,” pursuing those desires that aim to elevate the female class. In this way, the rival class – the male, power elite – may suspend its beliefs in an attempt to clearly comprehend the “objective definition” of the female class. As a result, the false consciousness of both groups, relating to gender stereotypes and dynamics within the workplace, may be destroyed. Only after such a feat shall both classes comprehend their true identities and motivations, which will allow for an establishment of a mutual class consciousness that rejects any hierarchy that cultivates, and exists because of, gender inequality and oppression.


I would like to thank Maggie Waltz for all the wonderful and intelligent ideas, suggestions, and feedback she put forth from the conception of this paper. Because of her assistance, I have learned so much more about research and writing, and I am incredibly grateful for this.


Eccles, J.S., Jacobs, J.E., Harold, R.D. (1990). Gender role stereotypes, expectancy effects, and parents’ socialization of gender differences. Journal of Social Values, 46(2), 183-201.

Eyerman, R. (1981). False consciousness and ideology in Marxist theory. Acta Sociologica, 24(1/2), 43-56.

Hall, R.H. ((1963). The concept of bureaucracy: an empirical assessment. The American Journal of Sociology, 69(1), 32-40.

Hantzis, C. (1987). Is gender justice a completed agenda? Harvard Law Review, 100(3), 690-704.

Hartstock, N. (2004). The feminist standpoint: developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism. Discovering Reality, 161, 283-310.

Heilman, M.E. (2001). Description and prescription: how gender stereotypes prevent women’s ascent up the organizational ladder. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 657-674.

Michailidis, M.P., Morphitou, R.N., & Theophylatou, I. (2012). Women at workequality versus Inequality: barriers for advancing in the workplace. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23(20), 4231-4245.

Ridgeway, C.L. (1997). Interaction and the conservation of gender inequality: considering employment. American Sociological Review, 62(2), 218-235.

Rosenberg, M. (1953). Perceptual obstacles to class consciousness. Social Forces, 32(1), 22-27.

United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2011). Employment and earnings [Data file]. Retrieved from http:// www.bls.gov/opub/ee/empearn201101.pdf.

United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2010). Highlights of women’s earnings in 2009 [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswom2009.pdf.

Weiner, M. (Creator). (2007). Mad Men [Television series]. New York: American Movie Classics.

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