Mad Men Extras Explore How Media Influences Our MindsetS

Stuck at LAX last week, I started scanning the newsstands for something to read. My eye landed on the row of ladymags, but nothing caught my interest. After all, the only thing the glossies seemed to peddle was obedience.

Looking at row upon row of magazines whose headlines informed me how to be a better person, I realized how little these publications reflected my actual desires.

Cosmo is selling me sex, dirty sex, weight loss, and, uh...cures for "When Your Hoo-ha's Burning."

Elle is selling me Jennifer Aniston, smoky eyes, and smokin' hair (which doesn't include anything on how to style a natural. But it's not like I expected that...)

Everything else was equally dismal. I sighed and went to scan the business section.

While I browsed, I kept reflecting on the messages in the DVD extra "Birth of an Independent Woman" included with the season two disc of Mad Men. I had watched the supplement before heading out of town, during my pre-season 3 binge and realized the intelligent critique of how seemly innocuous messages (like the ones in newsstand glossies) helped to try to influence women to the "proper" way of thinking was influencing how I viewed the headlines.

The DVD discussion focuses on the environment for women in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how those factors led to the founding of the women's movement. The conversation also shows how little the messaging around the ideas of a woman's hopes and desires has not changed. Experts Michael Kimmel, Diana York Blaine, Emily Bazelon, Marcelle Karp, Michelle Wallace, and Ellen C. Dubois, all weigh in on the pressures of the period, focusing on how media helped to influence women's perception of what should be desired, starting with the image of what a woman should be:

We still see the waves of this type of thinking to this day. How much quality financial/career advice is available for women, particularly as compared to the advice and information geared at men. Lady mags almost never focus on personal finance. They spend pages and pages on love, sex, and physical appearance, and normally two or three on a career.

Back in the summer of 2008, I wrote a (sadly, print-only) piece for Bitch Magazine called "Dollars, but No Sense." In it, I compared the financial and career advice provided by major magazines like Cosmopolitan, Men's Health, Maxim, and Marie Claire.

Key point of my article?

The most egregious difference between the two articles lies in their respective approaches to saving and retirement. Cosmo, on one page urges readers to tightly scrutinize their budgets [and eliminate the daily lattes], but on the next urges them to invest a whopping $700 per month for the next 30 years. (This is the same strapped-for-cash reader the article encouraged to splurge on big-ticket clothing to balance out the cheap pieces.) The Men's Health piece, in a sidebar titled "Six Painless Ways to Build Wealth" outlines a much more realistic approach, advocating for hiring a financial planner, reevaluating your tax load, and saving in $100 increments.

So why is it so difficult for women's magazines to provide relevant advice that fit's their readers' lifestyles?

Stephanie Quilao of the blog Back in Skinny Jeans is one women's mag reader who has stumbled upon a key disconnect between the demographic information provided in magazine surveys and the topics those magazines actually publish. In a post titled "Now I get why every Cosmo mag helps us look hot to score that hottie," Quilao informs us that the average reader of Cosmopolitan is 31 years old, college educated, and career oriented. However, a quick glance at the magazine's table of contents reveals that a scant 1 percent of the coverage is dedicated to careers. (Relationships and fashion receive 29 percent and 20 percent of the editorial coverage, respectively.)

Quilao writes: "If the average reader is a career woman why is only 1% of the editorial spent on careers? And, in that careers section, I bet they lump in money. Every well rounded woman I know wants to know how to make, keep, and grow her own money. How about this for a sexy Cosmo headline, "Men can't keep their hands off a self made woman." "

This is discrepancy also dovetails into another theme for women - that in order to have access to capital, we needed to find a man to tie ourselves to:

In so many ways, the focus is still on finding a man with earning power, instead of focusing on increasing earning potential and financial stability for women.

And the ladymags' ongoing fascination with sex, sex, and more sex actually has its roots in this time period as well:

Michael Kimmel really takes the lead here in explaining the role they asked women to follow. He notes (in the video section above and in other parts of the special):

"In order to get women to stay at home, there was a movement in terms of marital happiness [...] how to be a sexy housewife. [...] And there was all this stuff for women about how you should greet him with a martini, or your lace underwear or whatever, how to keep your man, because now he's in the workplace and his eyes may stray."

Be sexy, mix drinks for him, cook - we're still hearing those messages today, in various forms. In this month's Cosmo, their 'Cosmo Life' section provides this helpful tip:

Instead of eating out for your next foursome, have another couple over, and show off your cooking skills. This isn't the time to get fancy with soufflés and beurre blanc sauces - fix a meal that can be made mostly ahead of time so your guy isn't left to entertain while you spend all night avoiding kitchen disasters.

I mean, you wouldn't want to put your guy out by asking him to entertain! We need to be more considerate. The highly gendered nature of the assumptions mars what is actually good advice for anyone hosting a dinner party.

But being a woman who is a lean (not mean!), cooking and cleaning machine isn't quite enough. After all, your mind may stray to other things. Birth of an Independent Woman demonstrates how media forces attempted to re-route women's thinking away from ideas and toward your waiting life of leisure...if you have the right accouterments, of course:

Ellen C. Dubois mentions "The majority of articles in popular magazines were about how fabulous the new world of women was. But there were other articles, in which they argued maybe women should do something with their education."

These days, magazines pay lip service to social issues, but the idea of thoughtful application of education is normally no where to be found.

Dr. Diana York Blaine summarizes the major issue (and impetus behind the idea that the personal is political) by explaining: "Here's a human being, with vast potential, and we're going to lock her into this one tiny little role [...] and tell her you can have anything you want as long as you want to be wanted by a man, and as long as you want whatever he wants you to be, then great! You can have anything you want." - Blaine

'Birth of an Independent Woman' also shed some light on the ultimate fears of men during that time.

Blaine poses the question: "If the woman is equal to the man, what does that make a man?" Her point was to explore how so often, society defines us by not who we are, but what we are not. So if a woman is smart, strong, and capable, it would men that the role of men, considered their opposites, had to change as well.

Michael Kimmel also relates a story about a guy who was set up on a date with a woman who was both athletic and academic. The man apparently asked her "What do you need me for?" Kimmel elaborates with the unasked question: "What's distinctive about being a man if the woman plays ice hockey and is smart enough to go to Yale?"

This question has never really left us - after all, much of the fear mongering about women over-achieving or being too independent or staying single forever are really veiled ways of expressing concern about the role of men in a changing world.

If men wanted a woman that does not intimidate them, what option does that leave the modern, independent woman? In the words of Lupe Fiasco, they want us to "dumb it down." Apparently, the idea of engaging as equals - 40 years after the second wave - is still considered radical.

On the DVD, Kimmel breaks down the workplace dynamic and how it changed during the 1960s: "When women were [in the workplace] they were there in service positions [...] they served to lubricate male-male interactions. They served the coffee, they served the drinks, they were hostesses, secretaries...[...] when women are entered as equals, it transforms dramatically the relations between women and men. "

Birth of an Independent Woman spans over two discs and includes almost 40 minutes of commentary on the evolution of the modern woman.

While it was an enjoyable viewing experience, it saddens me to walk through the world in 2009, and to see that for all of our gains, many of the same ideas have refused to die.

Mad Men: Season 2

Related:The Genesis Issue [Bitch Magazine]

Earlier: Cosmo: Make His Junk Look Like a Face