Mad Authenticity: Television Portrayals of Women in the 60s

Welcome to the Labragirl Film Project’s weekly film literacy discussion. Every Monday morning Labragirl provides a resource, activity, or methodological discussion to help incorporate film analysis into your classroom. This week we invite Cecilia Portillo, a blogger from our sister organization’s blog Images Shaping History, to discuss the portrayal of women in the television show Mad Men.

Along with bringing film literacy into language arts classrooms, the Labragirl Film Project works to bring film analysis and media literacy into history and social studies classrooms. In addition to teaching students how to engage in traditional historical study, it is important that students be able to both understand the way popular culture shapes our understanding of history and also be able to navigate their relationship with history within this sphere.

Today’s conversation takes a look at:

  1. our relationship with media images;
  2. how our modern conceptions of the past shape our understanding of the past; and
  3. the ways moving images shape our view of history.

How do our modern ideals shape our portrayals of the past?

How do modern morals and beliefs shape the way we perceive the past, visually speaking?

Let’s see what Cecilia has to say. Discuss below!


Academic texts and articles are the most common ways historians explain the past to the public. However, television programming based on historical topics gives people a look into the lives of people from a different era, providing a sense of closeness and a reality that words on a printed page can never do.  Television viewers are able to actually look into the past to witness the culture and attitude of a particular time period. 

Let’s explore these human and cultural connections by discussing an episode of AMC’s Mad Men, a television drama based in the 1960s that focuses on the home and work life of several advertising executives.  Although the story is a work of fiction, the look and feel of the show seems very authentic. The historical authenticity can be seen in the fashion, the cars, houses and most importantly in the everyday problems faced by the characters. These interactions highlight the concerns and mentalities of the era. Through character interactions, the viewer can learn of the daily workings of the people of the 1960s.

The cast of Mad Men {Click on image for source information.}

My favorite part of the show is the portrayal of the white working woman and homemaker. The shows’ main female characters are:

  • Betty Draper: the stay at home wife and mother
  • Peggy Olson: a copy writer and modern working woman
  • Joan Hollaway/Harris: a 1960s corporate secretary

These three characters have been crucial to the show since the first episode.

Betty Draper ( January Jones), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) {Click on image for source information.}

Let’s take a look at Betty Draper’s character – the stay at home wife and mother.

Betty Draper

Mad Men Season 3 Promo. January Jones as Betty Draper {Click on image for source information.}

Betty Draper,  the quintessential homemaker and wife of Ad Man Don Draper, is the series protagonist. Her character provides many visual lessons about understandings of what it was like to be an economically stable woman in the 60s.

She tends to her children and the home and tends to her husband when he arrives from work. Betty is resourceful, charming, and seemingly unhappy all the same. On the surface it appears that she is content with her life, however, Betty Draper is an example of the syndrome that many women underwent during this era. This  syndrome  would later pave way for an important piece of literature in the time  “The Feminine Mystique”  which describes the sense of void  that many suburban housewives felt throughout their supposed successful lives. Through her character such issues as infidelity, independence and reproductive rights are brought to light – all issues that were impactful in the sociocultural sphere of the era.

How do our modern gender ideals and beliefs shape the way we perceive the portrayal of Betty Draper?

In the following clip, we see how normal Betty’s life seems on the surface. We have a greater understanding of the domestic issues that she faces as a housewife and mother.

Her life is filled with troubles bigger than having to get dinner on table.

How does our modern knowledge of the past shape the way we perceive this portrayal? 

There is a wild misconception that all women of the era were happy suburban housewives completely fulfilled and living the “perfect” life. The character of Betty disrupts the notion that all women of this era were as identical as the Levittown homes where many housewives lived.

Do you watch the show?

What do you think about the portrayal of  suburban housewives? 

Next week Cecilia takes a look at the portrayal of another Mad Men character in Mad Authenticity II.

Until Next Time,


Check out our Downton Abbey discussions here & here.


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