By Maria Wiegel

When Betty Friedan gave ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ an actual name—in the Feminine Mystique (1963)—she wrote that “[o]f the growing thousands of women currently getting private psychiatric help in the United States, the married ones were reported dissatisfied with their marriages, the unmarried ones suffering from anxiety, and finally depression.” Little did she know that half a century later, another Betty would be illustrating those very same observations. Betty Draper, unlike Friedan a fictional character, performs the feminine mystique like no other.

One might wonder: what is the purpose of her performance as the housewife in Mad Men (2007-2015)? Is she merely a cliché the audience is supposed to be astonished by or to laugh at? Or is her character pointing at a more prevalent problem in contemporary American culture? Another late-50s, early-60s housewife prominently appearing on TV is Miriam Maisel from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-today). I argue that the depiction of housewives in both series, rather than merely reproducing stereotypes, reflects contemporary problems white middle class women are still facing in 21st century America. 

First of all, the housewife is an American hero. After WWII women increasingly left the workforce to find their place in society as homemakers, who provided a peaceful and idyllic home for their freshly returned men. And so, by the 1950s, a myth was born. A myth that has been kept alive by, among others, actress Donna Reid with her The Donna Reid Show (1958-1966), First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, or Phyllis Schlafly. The latter’s STOP ERA movement was the countermovement to second wave feminism, which was associated with feminist such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug. America’s obsession with housewives up until today is reflected in the production of TV shows centering around homemakers, such as The Desperate Housewives (2004-2012), but also the ongoing reality franchise The Real Housewives (first aired in 2006).

No wonder Betty Draper is such an important and interesting character in Mad Men, a show focusing on her husband Don who works at an ad agency. While most of the plot lines have to do with the agency’s working environment, another line focuses on Don’s past as Richard “Dick” Whitman. Don’s is a ‘from-rags-to-riches’-story which is also reflected in his professional relationship to his secretary Peggy Olson. Throughout the series, Peggy becomes a copywriter and has a success story of her own.

The female characters in Mad Men each reflect stereotypical female figures from the 60s, as Erika Engstrom observed drawing on Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 1977 book Men and Women of the Corporation. Kanter assembles a number of archetypes in the workplace, among them the corporate wife who is ideally an asset to her husband’s image in the corporation. After all, women’s place in the early 1960s was still often enough assumed to be at home. They were wives, mothers, and most importantly homemakers. 

Yet Kanter’s inclusion of the housewife into the corporate milieu shows the housewife’s relevance for the workplace outside of the house, while emphasizing that women are reduced to stereotypes in the process. As an asset, housewives must be pretty and hospitable. We can see the former in Betty Draper, who was brought up to simply “be beautiful,” as Kimberly Wilmot Voss argues. Betty does not only learn this set of priorities from her mother, but she also passes on her knowledge about the value of beauty to her daughter Sally. In one episode she punishes her for cutting her own hair. This in turn raises the question if this is to be seen as a rebellious act on Sally’s behalf against her mother’s beauty standards (S4, Ep5). 

We gain even deeper insight into a woman’s maintenance of beauty from another fictional mid-twentieth-century character: Jewish-American housewife Miriam “Midge” Maisel, from Amy Sherman Palladino’s series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The end of Midge’s marriage marks the beginning of the show which tells her story of becoming a comedian. In the very first episode, Midge performs a detailed beauty routine which reminds of contemporary beauty tutorials on YouTube.

Like Betty, Midge submits herself to the beauty standards of an ideal woman as advertised on TV, in movies, and lifestyle guides, such as Helen Gurley Brown’s books Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Sex and the Office (1964). Midge pursues this routine secretly at night so that her husband does not see how much effort she is putting into being a ‘natural beauty.’ As we learn later on, her mother does the same, suggesting that this behavior is modeled and passed on from generation to generation. TV shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel hence aim to demonstrate how engrained it is for women to merely serve the male gaze.

Further, a strong emphasis on women’s beauty produces a problematic power dynamic in which women are held responsible for making their marriages work. It creates what British feminist Florence Given calls the ‘normalization of abuse.’ In the Drapers’ marriage we see this normalized abuse, for instance, when Don accuses Betty of flirting with his boss, Roger, although he had approached her. After dinner, Don once more puts emphasis on his wife’s beauty while disregarding her integrity and morality (S1, Ep7).

Him patronizing his wife is a regular occurrence throughout their marriage. Midge, on the other hand, loses any chance of getting back with her husband, when she persuades a career as a stand-up comedian, since Joel refuses to be married to a woman who talks about him on stage. Since his own failure at stand-up comedy led to him leaving Midge in the first place, one cannot help but wonder if it is her having a career—and especially in a branch in which he failed—that keeps Joel from getting back together with his wife. 

Shows, like Mad Men and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, although at first sight reproducing those standards, rather deconstruct them. More than just showing us how absurd they are, they map those standards from the 1960s to contemporary America. (Sexual harassment did not only happen on screen, but also shaped Mad Men’s production conditions, since creator Mathew Weiner faced allegations of sexual harassment by one of his writers.)

Both shows reflect the desire for marriages in 1960s American society as a means of organization. They also show how deeply marriage is ingrained into contemporary American society, while postfeminists and neoliberals proclaims that there is already equality between genders and classes and that thus everyone has the same opportunities. Postfeminism, which started to dominate the Western media landscape in the 80s, suggests that women can achieve anything, if they want it enough and work hard for it. 

Although, at first sight, this view may sound empowering, it often ignores structural obstacles and blames women for not Having it All, as the title of Gurley Brown’s 1982 book suggests. What we learn from postfeminist depictions of romantic relationships, therefore, is that if women just work hard enough, they can make even the most stubborn man fall in love with and commit to them. When we look at current legislation, society still seeks for this kind of organization, when asking for the marital status on forms, but also when it comes to inheritance and adoption laws or the right to gain medical information concerning one’s partner.

Which brings us back to the question of why marriage, although frequently also expected from men, is still especially demanded from women? Women do have careers now—it is part of Gurley Brown’s postfeminist ‘having-it-all’-doctrine, after all (and by the 1980s apparently even more than marriage, as she claims in Having it All). Divorce ceased to be a taboo by the beginning of the new millennium, although and very interestingly, divorce rates have hit a 50-year-low in 2020 with only 14.9 divorces in 1000 marriages in the US. Even though women “are a rich man” now, as Cher would say, the narrative of having a happy life as a happy wife is still deeply engrained in women. 

Postfeminist media, such as Hollywood movies, but also reality TV, still mainly suggest that finding a man and having children is part of the achievement of ‘having it all’ (see, for instance, shows that have marriage at their center and a female audience as their target group, such as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Married at First Sight). Looking at statistics, however, it is hardly imaginable that women can have it all. The Pew Research Center published D’Vera Cohn, Gretchen Livingston, and Wendy Wang’s research results on the rise of stay-at-home-mothers in 2014.

Especially striking is their discovery that finding a job is still challenging for mothers. And even if both parents are working, most tasks concerning family life and the household are performed by women, as a Pew Research Center Report from 2015 reveals. It seems that marriage remains a desired goal in today’s American society, and that, in those marriages, women are still most likely to be the homemakers—even if they have a full-time job.

Thinking about beauty standards, Given argues in her book of the same title, that women don’t owe you pretty (2020). Nevertheless, Given explains that women are still subjecting themselves to beauty standards and that, although this subjection is widely discouraged by feminists, life is easier when being “beautiful,” since this brings something Given calls ‘Pretty Privilege’ with it. (Again, this is not exclusively experienced by women, since there are also beauty standards for men. The extent to which the female body is subdued to the neoliberal gaze, however, is greater, if we think about e.g. the cosmetics industry).

Both, Betty and Midge, live off their pretty privilege, since they both find husbands that enable them to live an upper-middle class lifestyle, while less “beautiful” women in both shows, such as Peggy in Mad Men and Susie in Mrs. Maisel, have to work for and still can only afford to live in shared apartments. Centered around white upper-middle class characters, both series depict a rather limited image of the American housewife and only occasionally give glimpses of the lives of non-white American women. We do not get any insight into the lives of black women in America. Mrs. Maisel, however, with Susie as a main character and driving force, provides a queer character and thematizes non-heteronormative sexuality in the early 60s. The idea of intersectionality and inclusion of diversity of third wave feminism is not present in both series. 

Mrs. Maisel’s openly talking on stage about her life as a woman, however, I argue, contains elements of fourth wave feminism, with its idea of speaking up on the internet and on the streets (e.g. on Women’s Marches). This is a reaction to women not complaining and not making their needs clear (think about the depiction of Britney Spears’ breakdown in 2007, which Lena Dunham commented on in an Instagram Post in 2021).

This might be because they are constantly in a position between fearing to be not enough, if they don’t succeed in looking a certain way, or achieving certain goals, and being too much, when expressing needs and concerns (see, for instance, Marisa Melzer’s This is Big (2020), Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl (2014), Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud (2017), and Rachel Bloom’s I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are (2021)). 

The depiction of 1960s housewives, such as Betty Draper in Mad Men and Midge Maisel in Mrs. Maisel, are the result of the having-it-all-doctrine that millennial women have incorporated as a default setting (Meltzer, for instance, makes this visible at the example of the dieting industry, and Dunham, shows this relating to her very own upbringing). Viewers look at them in astonishment, for they believe they are an archaic picture of a certain kind of woman that has ceased to exist.

Yet, popular culture shows that ‘the feminine mystique’ still exists, after all, and is still part of the feminist struggle. It also tells us, however, to speak up and to make our needs clear. Women should keep in mind that they do not have to submit themselves to and thereby reproduce traditional standards and expectations. Instead, we should reshape them, and ideally get rid of them once and for all.

Maria Wiegel is a PhD candidate in North American Studies at the University of Cologne and works at the intersection of history, fiction, and gender studies. Her current research focuses on the depiction of the 1960s in American literature published after 9/11. She is especially interested in paranoia, surveillance, cultural memory studies, and metamodernism. Her writings and reports have appeared in Critical IntertextsFood, Fatness and Fitness and HSozKult, and are forthcoming in zeitgeschichteonline and the collective volume Encountering Pennywise: Critical Perspectives on Stephen King’s IT.

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Housewife shopping in supermarket (Gisella), 1957. Photographer: Thomas J. O’Halloran. Source: LOC. Public Domain.