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. 1/2 |


One may contend that attaining unadulterated awareness of one’s existence is, in present society, idealistic. Specifically, such achievement is unlikely if, in the midst of oppressive forces, one rests in a state of what sociologists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels deem “false consciousness.” Defined as a detrimental condition in which members of the proletariat – the oppressed, working class – misunderstand “their real situation in society,” false consciousness nurtures an inverted sense of existence for members of the working class who are dominated by the bourgeoisie, the wealthy who own the means of production (Eyerman, 1981, p. 44). Specifically, as the wealthy bourgeoisie control the proletariat, these oppressed workers maintain subverted positions within the social hierarchy. Thus, only when they truly recognize and comprehend the conditions of their existence may they obtain “class consciousness” (Rosenberg, 1953, p. 23). Although these notions of false and class consciousness originally stemmed from analyses of economic systems and inequalities, they have been adopted by feminist theorists to analyze the misunderstandings that cultivate gender inequality within bureaucratic institutions. The present paper examines the bureaucratic system, an advertising agency, as it exists in AMC’s Mad Men. Using the concepts of false/class consciousness and feminist theories as frames, the bureaucratic system and its processes are inspected. They appear to maintain a false consciousness of gender roles in order to reproduce and support male domination.


The “proletarian standpoint,” though conceived to describe economically disadvantaged groups, exhibits similarities to “the feminist standpoint” that stems from analyses of women’s roles and positions in society (Hartstock, 2004, p. 290). Essentially, it stands that the capitalistic society – economically dominated by the bourgeoisie – is additionally defined by “phallocentric ideologies and institutions” that elevate masculinity (Hartstock, 2004, p. 288). Curiously, however, as women “are institutionally responsible for producing both goods,” in terms of economically profitable work, and “human beings,” in terms of birthing and rearing children, one could propose that women “work more than men” (Hartstock, 2004, p. 291 & 292). Theoretically, then, it stands that the reality framed by this notion of women’s relevant societal roles establishes an existence of unquestionable merit for women; however, presently, such truth is obscured by the “reality” framed by those “phallocentric ideologies and institutions” that maintain male domination.

These present day ideologies that maintain male domination and female oppression stem from lessons that are instilled into people’s self-understandings of their abilities during youth and adolescence (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990, p. 184). For instance, research establishes that parents exhibit “gender-differentiated expectations” for their sons and daughters, particularly within the domains of math, English, and athletics (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990, p. 184 & 186). These theories additionally suggest that the discrepancies between parents’ expectations for their male and female children stem from stereotypes about gender roles, which manipulate parents’ own perceptions of their children’s competencies (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990, p. 193). Thus, if parents internalize stereotypes that suggest females excel greatly in English and males excel in technical and mathematical domains, it is more likely that the processes of “gender role socialization” (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990, p. 188), which are principally directed by parents, may promote the children’s self-fulfilling prophecies that parallel these stereotypes. As a consequence of socialization, these gender stereotypes are actualized, causing them to be internalized and institutionalized through unequal wages and sex separation in the workplace (Ridgeway, 1997, p. 224). In this way, workplaces operate with and uphold those processes that sustain female oppression and male domination. For instance, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (2011), the median income of female workers is only 81 percent of their male colleagues’ salaries ($669 to $824) for the same position. Male domination in the workplace is additionally evident when considering that a mere 24 percent of CEOs in 2009 were women, and these women’s incomes were only 74.5 percent of their male colleagues’ incomes (United States Department of Labor, 2010). These statistics exemplify male domination and overt female oppression. Still, the societal structures and processes that maintain gender inequality are neither preordained nor independent mechanisms; they stem from and are supported by socially constructed stereotypes, expectations, and perceptions. Hence, these structures maintain no predetermined or expected characteristics. Instead, as Marx contended, they frame, and are framed by, a false consciousness of women’s subjugation, gender inequality, and oppression.

As a result of the false consciousness that is nurtured by such ideologies and institutions, women are subjugated. More particularly, through the formation and maintenance of gender stereotypes (Michailidis, Morphitou, & Theophylatou, 2012, p. 4232), these social structures cultivate and perpetuate the gender differences that may impede women’s progress. In turn, both gender inequality and gender oppression are born, nurtured, and maintained. Hence, when those who endure and promote the false consciousness actively reject its existence and power, class consciousness – an essential appraisal of the actual conditions of one’s existence – may be obtained, which then diminishes pre-existing and essentialist beliefs about gender and its dynamics.


In order to examine the methods through which the systematic institution of the workplace may nurture a false consciousness of gender in its workers, season one of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men served as this paper’s analytic subject. In the series, viewers are presented with a retrospective representation of the pervasive false consciousness that blanketed 1960s work life, which stemmed from the gender role stereotypes that defined 1960s home life. To be sure, though the AMC series is a presentation of the social realities of the 60s, the prominent and consistent depiction of unequal gender dynamics still proves to be significant for society’s present understanding of false and class consciousness.

Largely concerned with the processes of its characters’ professional development and personal growth, Mad Men focuses on the dapper, Manhattan- based, bureaucratic advertising agency of Sterling Cooper. Its principal character, Don Draper, exhibits the glamour, corruption, and complexity that similarly characterize the series’ supporting junior account executives, secretaries, wives, and lovers. By presenting the goings-on of Sterling Cooper as the foundation of the show’s story, Weiner illustrates the ways in which the conflicts, celebrations, and characteristics of the workplace significantly affect the personas and relationships of its employees, including those of these employees’ relations. Though Sterling Cooper’s primary employees, the advertising men of Madison Avenue, exert autonomy over the work they produce, they are still socialized and affected by the bureaucratic system in which they work. As Hall (1963, p. 32) explains, Max Weber’s formulation of the bureaucratic institution illustrates the extent to which the functional mechanisms of the workplace operate in order to promote apparent efficiency for its workers. Specifically, the bureaucracy is defined by a division of labor, authority that is hierarchically structured, a system of rules, a division between administrations, and qualification-based hiring and promotions (Hall, 1963, p. 32). Thus, Sterling Cooper’s hierarchically structured division of labor becomes apparent when one considers the firm’s reliance on the principal leadership of partners Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, and creative director Don Draper. These men dictate the decisions and guide the actions of the company’s junior account executives and copywriters, which include Pete Campbell, Harry Crane, Paul Kinsey, and Ken Cosgrove, as well as head secretary Joan Holloway (Weiner, 2007). In addition, as an agency that relies on the logistical expertise of its many secretaries that are nurtured by Joan, Sterling Cooper ensures that each level of the hierarchical division of labor is governed by he, or she, who resides above. This inherently guarantees that divisions between administrations are recognized and adhered to. In addition, Sterling Cooper relies on protocol and regulations in all matters concerning its advertising clients, as well as those related to hiring employees based on qualifications (as illustrated in the season’s tenth episode, when, based on his expertise, Don hires Duck Phillips, a previous employee of a flourishing London-based advertising agency, as head of accounts instead of Pete Campbell, a junior account executive) (Weiner, 2007). Hence, it stands that Sterling Cooper maintains those characteristics of a bureaucracy originally defined by Max Weber (Hall, 1963, p. 32).

Within its hierarchical division of labor and authority, and given its existence in 1960s American society, the power elite at Sterling Cooper are men, while those harnessed by this group in power are women. Specifically, Roger, Bert, and Don occupy the peak of the triangular hierarchy. These men are the wealthiest in the company and exert much dominance; yet, ironically, they are the employees most frequently seen drinking or eating and acting lackadaisical in their offices. Nevertheless, one cannot invalidate their work efforts, for the company still maintains success (Weiner, 2007). And, though junior workers Pete, Harry, Paul, and Ken do dwell beneath the peak of the hierarchy, they still exhibit actions mirroring those of the power elite’s. They frequently fraternize and demonstrate camaraderie, as well, further establishing a notion of successful male domination in the workplace to the point of laziness. Essentially, the men bask so frequently in their work achievements that they relax as often as they actually work. Sterling Cooper’s seemingly countless secretaries, on the other hand, rarely display such relaxed behavior, with the exception of the firm’s election watch party in the season’s tenth episode (Weiner, 2007). Instead, they ceaselessly remain at their typewriters and desks, informing their superiors, who are arguably Sterling Cooper’s own bourgeoisie and ruling class, of their appointments and meetings, phone calls and visitors. Of course, these women engage in their own personal projects on their typewriters; curiously, with the exception of Peggy’s personal involvement with a lipstick account in the sixth and seventh episodes, viewers remain ignorant of the work these women truly perform on their typewriters (though they are productively fixed in this position throughout their workdays). On the other hand, the tasks and trials of those who dwell toward the hierarchy’s apex – the men – are the crux of the series (Weiner, 2007).

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