Goodbye, Rosie…

 Posted by on September 17, 2008 at 1:28 pm  Characters, Season 2
Sep 172008

One of the advantages of setting a show in an advertising firm is that the writers can talk about societal symbols directly. According to Paul, every woman fits one of two archetypes: the wife or the mistress. Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe are not only two of the biggest female icons of the post-war era, they’re also historic figures. And, whether they knew it at the time or not, there was only one degree of separation between them in the person of another icon, JFK. (But let’s not get smutty.)

In Paul’s assessment, there’s only one thought in women’s head: How do you want to get your man? With promises of the hearth or with a detour through the bedroom? Jackie and Marilyn’s motivations, characters, their entire lives even, are seen from this one perspective. Peggy is the only one who chafes at the restriction of having only two role models, neither one of whom fits her career aspirations.

Whatever happened to another iconic Monroe, Rose Will Monroe, aka Rosie the Riveter?

During WWII, women joined the workforce en masse in order to pick up the slack from the men shipped overseas. Once in factories and offices they often found that they liked the work, the money, and the sense of accomplishment, not to mention the fulfillment of being part of the war effort.

But the truth is that women had joined and succeeded in the workforce as far back as the 30s and Hollywood depicted them in movies such as Pat and Mike and Woman of the Year. In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant has to persuade Rosalind Russell to give up the wrong-headed notion of being a housewife and return to her rightful calling as a reporter. (And, interestingly, a lot of the outfits Hepburn and Russell wore in these movies are the perfect amalgam between fashion and power).

At the end of the war, though, as the soldiers returned, women were pushed back to their traditional roles as housewives and mothers. And as caretakers of traumatized war veterans.

In the postwar economic boom of the 1950s, the one dark secret that was never really addressed was the psychic cost of war on men’s souls. The men came back haunted by the horrors they had witnessed. Thus the swing back to the more conservative ideas of womanhood. When you’re afraid and unsure, you want a safe haven. Whether it’s the bed or the kitchen, it doesn’t matter, just as long as you have a home to retreat to. Remember “nesting” after September 11? New Yorkers were baking pies and stews and hunkering down with friends or loved ones. And sure enough, a baby boomlet followed a year later.

Season 2 opens in February 1962, some six months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this context, Paul’s campaign might also be asking: “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn? Which way will you soothe me and make me forget the dangers at large?”

The MM men reflect the need to hold on to these retro images of women, not just out of their own fear of emasculation but precisely because they feel their own vulnerability. In this way, Betty’s insistence on being the perfect housewife seems almost heroic — even as it is doomed to failure. You can see her refusal to pry into Don’s past, perhaps out of a misplaced sense of respect for what he went through during the war. Would it be too much of a stretch to call Don a sex-addict? He certainly acts like one and not just because of his promiscuity. Like a good addict, when confronted with the truth, he places the blame on the person he hurt. He evades the guilt by trying to make Betty question herself. Don is looking for comfort from both a wife and a mistress. No woman is enough to quench his hunger for solace. And the women, too, yearn for these comforts whether by channeling mother or by leaning on a man.

Peggy is the only one with enough foresight to forge a different path.

In August, Marilyn, the most famous sex symbol of all time, will die an early death. In the fall of the following year, Jackie will lose her husband in a particularly cruel way. Beauty and sex appeal non-withstanding, each one made terrible compromises in love and neither enjoyed the comfort of a long-lasting and genuine relationship with the man she loved.


  20 Responses to “Goodbye, Rosie…”

  1. Not to take anything away from your thoughtful post, but I wanted to add a bit of history regarding women, work, and your statement that "women had joined and succeeded in the workforce as far back as the 30s . . ."

    Middle-class women started working in American offices during the Civil War, when the Treasury Department hired them to replace men off fighting (it was helpful that they could be paid half of what men made, too). The advent of a workable typewriter in 1870 brought more women into offices. By 1890, 60% of clerical office workers were female; by 1930 or thereabouts, they were the majority. And don't forget that lower-class women have always worked outside the home – as slaves and indentured servants, domestics, and on factory lines, for example.

    All best,
    Lynn Peril

    P.S. I'm hard at work on a book about the history of the secretary ("Swimming in the Steno Pool") that will be published by W.W. Norton in Fall 2009.

  2. Thanks for your additional comments! Your book sounds great.

    "And don’t forget that lower-class women have always worked outside the home – as slaves and indentured servants, domestics, and on factory lines, for example."

    Yes, I didn't know how to fold this into the discussion about icons and archetypes, though.

  3. MarlyK, another great write up!

    Lynn Peril, thanks for the info and the reminder of how women, at all social levels, have always worked hard. But women of a lower socio-economic background are many times overlooked. (That last statement is a general term and in no way references MarlyK's fantastic commentary.)

  4. I know at least five people (myself included) whose dads were World War II veterans and died when we were in grade school or junior high school. The dads who went into corporate jobs with long hours, and a lot of drinking and socializing had it very tough: they saw the horrors of war, and traded it for an office/social environment that did nothing to promote a healthy lifestyle.

    The WWII vets who are still around today are very very lucky, because I'm betting that many veterans did not lot live to see 60.

  5. In order…

    Marly, great post.

    Lynn, thanks so much for your contribution.

    Marly, the way we incorporate working-class and poor women into the iconic imagery is to understand that these are forbidden images. Advertising shows us what we are supposed to want, and icons are aspirations. We are not supposed to want to be working-class, and let's remember that in advertising of the era, we are definitely not supposed to want to be black.

    Brenda, life expectancy in 1962 compared to today was abysmal. You're definitely onto something.

  6. Hmm, so true, Deborah. Excellent!

    I'm interested in Lynn Peril's take on secretaries in MM, given her book's subject matter.

    I've supported myself as an admin for the past twelve years or so and there are days where it's hard to admit it because there's a lot of contempt for secretaries. (I think I mentioned this in a previous incarnation of this blog.)

  7. Really good stuff.

    My grandmother was a Rosie — she worked at a tank factory. She was an inspector because, being a little thing, she could get into the nooks and crannies.

    I've been talking to her more about her youth and young adulthood, and it's interesting to get her memories.

    My husband's mother is not that much younger than my grandmother, so they get on pretty well. I remember sitting there trying to sink into the upholstery as they discussed how in their day they always had a hot meal on the table for their husband and kids. I felt woefully inadequate. 🙂

    This topic also reminds me that there was been no Greta Guttman this year — their "man" in research. I'd like to see a scene where she talks to Peggy, but that might just be me.

    The book sounds interesting, Lynn.

  8. @ Brenda #4
    I know at least five people (myself included) whose dads were World War II veterans and died when we were in grade school or junior high school. The dads who went into corporate jobs with long hours, and a lot of drinking and socializing had it very tough: they saw the horrors of war, and traded it for an office/social environment that did nothing to promote a healthy lifestyle.

    When Matt Weiner was interviewed on NPR last year, he mentioned that a lot of the men that he would have wanted to talk to when researching the show were long dead.

  9. Yes, wonderful post and comments and the book sounds interesting. Keep us posted!

  10. Hi, Marly,

    I supported myself as an office worker for twenty years (three as a secretary, seventeen as a word processor), and I know what you mean about contempt. Regarding the secretaries on MM, I'm on a deadline right now, so can't go into detail, but MW and crew have definitely been reading 60s-era secretarial guidebooks as well as Helen Gurley Brown! IMO, the secretary portrayals on MM are pretty accurate.


  11. I loved this post and everyone else had great input. I too wondered what happened to Greta. So many women who worked during WWII stayed in the work force. She seems like one of them. She and Peggy definitely are kindred spirits. I also look forward to reading the upcoming book. I too have worked as an admin, secretary, receptionist, and word processor. I was always told that I was the most important person in the area because so much depended on me. You can see that in MM, too. When the secretary is sub-par, bad things happen (just thinking about poor Lois).

  12. How do you want to get your man? With promises of the hearth or with a detour through the bedroom?

    Wonderful post.

  13. Marly – fantastic post. I think the very language that is used is a contributing factor to what you are describing … "Icon."

    In the post WWII world, icons are made by the media. Marylin and Jackie were iconic because of the attention paid to them by a ravenous media infrastructure. Marylin's movies were her second best known product, after herself. Jackie's profile rose when she married JFK as a senator, and then became first lady. The televised White House tour and state visit to France became iconic touchstones.

    Previous archetypes such as Rosie the Riveter became less relevant after the war, and the culture was eager to move on to more popular diversions.

    While icons certainly existed prior to WWII – many of them sports figures, Babe Ruth, Seabiscuit, Joe Louis, etc. – they were slower to rise (and fall) because neither the media nor the public was as sophisticated as they are today in crafting and digesting narrative.

    What a great topic for a post! Thx.

  14. Also, these two women were strong, if exaggerated versions of different types of femininity. Jackie with her fashion, with her perfect decorum, and well, with her position. Also, the giant eyes that read from a mile away. Marilyn with her… Marilyn.

    I've always wanted to dive into the history, but more so the makings of a gay icon. These women certainly qualify.

  15. @Iannna, I thought Don's comment was very telling: "I don't want to lose any of this." But like a lot of men then and now, he compartmentalizes. Home life, one box; office, another box; fooling around, a third box; Dick Whitman, a box up on a shelf that keeps falling onto the floor.

    Also, re the Madonna/whole issue: remember that until the 60s or even later, many people, men and women, were virgins when they married. A woman learned everything she knew about sex from her husband. If she acted in any way other than the way he taught her, he'd wonder how she knew that — i.e., was she telling the truth when she said she'd saved herself for marriage? This was before Cosmopolitan and other magazines gave sex tips. Of course, women compared notes and read Kinsey, etc., but information was not as easy to obtain as it is now.

  16. The wife or the mistress. The virgin (chaste except when she’s having my babies) or the whore. Horrible, limiting archetypes for women, not least for Jackie and Marilyn themselves. (Marilyn was considered a whore no matter how many times she married, and Joe DiMaggio hated the attention she got, insisting that she dress chastely, leaving her after she filmed the infamous subway grate scene from “The Seven Year Itch.” And wasn’t the chaste, demure wife of the beloved martyr vilified when she married Onassis, since clearly she would only marry him for his wealth, and that’s what whores do, not wives?)

    The opening shots of “Maidenform”: the white, demure girdle on Betty; the black bra and shocking blue slip on Joan; pantyhose for Peggy (who made it look way easier to slip into those things than it is!). Pantyhose are awful, but they were perhaps liberating compared to the more structured undergarments that came before.

    In “A Night to Remember,” Don is sincere and desperate, I think, when he tells an angry Betty, “I love you, I love the children, I don’t want to lose any of this.” He needs the security contained in the archetype, while Betty chafes. But he’s not willing (or able?) to change his “whoring” behavior in order to secure a life with his wife. He hopes he doesn’t have to, that he won’t get caught between the archetypes. The irony is that the women he has sex with are more like Rosie the Riveter–independent, happily employed–than like Marilyn or Jackie.

  17. If this is a topic that interests you, I encourage you to check out Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.

    May discusses exactly this transition, including the shift from the ballsy, striving, strong women's film heroines of the 1930s and 1940s (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn) to…well, to Marilyn. More specifically, to the roles available for women (think the helpmeets of The Best Years of Our Lives, etc.)

    Her term for the cultural shift is "containment" – the sexual containment of women at home was necessary for/resonated with the containment of the Soviets abroad.

  18. Even in those Katherine Hepburn movies there was usually some implication she needed to be tamed a little. In Adam's Rib it turned out that her husband really didn't want her to compete with him. Same with, I think it was Woman of the Year. Is that the one where she puts on an apron and tries to make breakfast?

  19. Oh, totally – my comment actually posted before I was done. Interestingly enough, most of those "women's films" ended with a taming or containment of some sort, but what female viewers often took away from them was not the taming but rather the shrew, if you will. In postwar films, generally speaking, even the potential example was taken away and the "lessons" became a lot more stark.

    (Also Adam's Rib was 1949, and could be seen as evidence of the change from something like Bringing up Baby. My favorite example is actually A League of Their Own, which so perfectly demonstrates containment while also acknowledging that it wasn't a completely totalizing process.)

  20. Fascinating post and comments everyone!

    A very good movie to watch concerning housewives of the '60s, is the installment/episode in the Tom Hanks HBO series "From The Earth To The Moon" (Part 11 – "The Original Wives Club"). In that ep, the focus is on how the astronauts wives had to deal with taking care of everything at home, while their husbands were mostly away doing their duty for the space program and the USA. They also had to protect their husbands from the gory details of everyday family life, as it might interfere with how they did their jobs (and if they came back alive). Portions of "The Right Stuff" addresses this too.

    These real-life ladies' courage in dealing with their home life mostly by themselves (but with each other for support) is incredible, and really makes Betty Draper look like a whiney little squirt. And the problems that the space program wives had was also mirrored to an extent in the suburbs of that time also. Many husbands commuted out of town to work, and didn't get home till very late, leaving the wives/moms to deal with things on their own, and the kids didn't see their dads too much except on the weekends. The 'burbs and commuting creating a whole new dynamic for the American family that had a detrimental effect on the family unit overall, as compared to the Waltons-type structure of the early 20th C where the family lived and worked together a lot more. Even in the city, families often had family owned businesses where everyone worked in some capacity.

    My dad worked for the early space program too, and, we lived in the new suburban developments, so I agree with all that I've read described on the era. It was fun, but it had it's bad points too.

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