Vintage Sexism: Work It, Girl

Oh yes, we can do it! Do you often get pumped about an inspiring female lead? Does this woman manage the office or call the shots? This doesn’t happen nearly enough in popular entertainment. Our current stylebook, Nine to Fine, celebrates the women who take charge at work and pave the way for future leaders both on and off the screen. Here’s a very brief historical overview of depictions of women in TV and film. So, if you yearn for more empowering women in the workforce in the media, keep on reading!

Rosie the Riveter, the iconic image that reminds us of the American women who held jobs previously owned by men in WWII supply factories, represents our gal pal ancestors who rolled up their sleeves and got down to business as leaders.

However, what happened after there was no longer a need for the war effort? Women were expected to go home and live out their traditional domestic roles. Many households now had a television, which aired shows that reflected the blissful and dutiful side of being a homemaker, and rarely the negative sides of the role. One ’60s incarnation of this was the Dick Van Dyke Show, in which Mary Tyler Moore played a prim and proper wife and mother.

Luckily for Moore, the ’70s came along, and with it, the Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the below clip, her future boss humorously interviews the main character, Mary Richards. The lack of conduct in his questions allows us to consider Mary’s unique situation for the times. The situation Mary finds herself in isn’t necessarily new, just one that was formerly ignored or shunned. Rather than settling for a traditional path, Mary rejects guilt and societal pressures in favor of living life as she pleases. That’s worth a beret toss!


In the 80’s comedy 9 to 5, a trio of secretaries scheme to overthrow their sexist boss. While hijinks ensue, the movie is actually based on the demeaning treatment of whom we now call “administrative assistants.” Watch this clip in which Violet, played by Lily Tomlin, questions a recent promotion that went to a less qualified man. Her boss’ reason for passing her up is that he “needed a man in this position.” What does that say about perceptions in office structure?

Murphy Brown image (left) via Stuck in the 80’s and Working Girl image (right) via IMDB

Though Working Girl is dubbed a romantic comedy, I would argue that it’s really about the relationship that Tess, played by Melanie Griffith, has with the business world. While a secretary for executive Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), Tess takes advantage of a chance to impersonate her boss. While her method isn’t completely legit, Tess’s motive is sincere – she just wants to lift herself up to a better place in life. Working Girl not only depicts gender differences in the workplace, but it brings up competitiveness among women and the divide between socioeconomic classes.

Murphy Brown, an 80’s sitcom about a plucky and tough investigative TV journalist, takes Mary Tyler Moore to the next level. By 1992, Murphy had become a single mother, a roll that wasn’t necessarily new in society, but wasn’t widely appreciated either. It made such an impact, politician Dan Quayle publicly criticized the fictional character’s dual role as mother and career woman. There are tons of successful working single mothers in reality, so why is it so shocking to see them on TV?

Image via The Grindstone.

You know we can’t talk about Vintage Sexism in the workplace without getting into Mad Men! No matter how much we swoon over the vintage garb, our scorn over how its female stars are treated never wanes. In my job as a copywriter at ModCloth, I can easily say that I will never have a conversation like Peggy and Joan do in this clip.

Why do we react the way we do to the arresting sexism in Mad Men? We may say, “I would have never let my boss talk to me like that!” or “I can’t believe women put up with that back then!” Well for one, there are laws that protect employees against such treatment.  Also, in light of the decades of women like Rosie, Mary, Murphy, and so on, we know that there’s little reason to live like ‘Mad Women’ do. How much better is it really?

Image via Rolling Stone.

Many of us may fancy ourselves a 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, played by her creator Tina Fey. The socially awkward showrunner is often teased and put down in ways that refer to her gender, among other traits. Her foil, Jenna, does not have as much authority or responsibility, but she too gets poked at. Still she’s the “girlie” to Lemon’s “bossypants.” How do you think traditional femininity and “girlieness” play into women’s respect in the workplace?

Image via FanPop

What commonalities do you see in all of these examples? For one, they are all main characters in comedies. Perhaps finding humor in workplace inequality helps us consider the severity of it.

There’s also a lack of diversity in these examples. On one hand, TV and movies have progressed since the original Mad Men era and even the Mary Tyler Moore days. But on the other, the lack of non-white women in leadership roles or even non-stereotype roles could use a little oomph.

Mindy Kaling, a.k.a. Kelly Kapoor on The Office, is currently one of few female and non-white writers and producers in mainstream entertainment. If you ever feel frustrated by the lack of decent female characters in major films and TV today, statistics like these and information like this could explain why.

Us gals got to stick together, and rolling up our sleeves like Rosie the Riveter and tackling the unbalanced world of entertainment is a way to promote a more equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the subject of women in the workplace as seen on TV and films. What favorites did I miss? What are your thoughts on how women are depicted on the screen?

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  1. Avatar
    Carolyn Griffith 05/11/2012 at 2:45 pm #

    I think women are being portrayed being more equal or above men in the office now. This seems really evident in some the shows on USA. Fairly Legal comes to mind with Kate Reed as the lead and her step mother as the head of the firm. It’s nice to have more equality in the work place since the 50s and 60s. My grandmother was a womens activist during that time so I’m always hearing about the injustices from that era and what women like her had to go through to fight for change. It makes one grateful, that’s for sure!

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    Sabina 05/13/2012 at 8:58 am #

    This is a pretty full list so I don’t think anything’s missing except perhaps Married… with Children. At that point in time (late 80s), it actually became socially acceptable for a woman to say (at least in a comedy involving a big-haired housewife named Peggy Bundy): Work? Not for me.

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    madeline 05/14/2012 at 12:27 am #

    This articles talks alot about things featured in the documentary Miss Representation its point being as well that women need to step up to leadership positions and stick up for ourselves and push on progress more and more.

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    Laura (ModCloth) 05/15/2012 at 9:37 am #

    This is such an amazing post, Angela! It’s awesome to see all of these clips collectively with your commentary.

    You know, thinking about today – there is still, obviously, a round-about pressure to be one of the guys in the workplace, or at happy hour! You need to be able to ‘hang’. Pressure to take a shooter with ‘the guys’ at out-of-office functions doesn’t seem much different than our yesteryear discrimination, does it? I’m not sure why that example popped into my head, but you’ve definitely got my wheels turnin’!

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    Michelle 05/16/2012 at 11:11 pm #

    You’re missing not only Gilmore Girls but Parks and Recreation! Leslie Knope annihilates sexism all the time. And Gilmore Girls features several strong females.

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    Jennifer 05/17/2012 at 2:42 pm #

    What a great post! I would have to say that while there are huge strides in equality, we still have a long way to go. One example that pops into my head is that when there is a woman in power and she does something monumental or assertive, the focal point of criticism always seems to be aimed at the quality of her looks, or her build, etc. For example, First Lady Michelle Obama came up with a campaign to get children in shape, the criticism that we heard was not about the content of that campaign but rather her backside, and oddly enough from overweight priveleged men. I would consider it a huge step in equality when the conversation about a policy, decision, or whatever that has been spearheaded by a woman is about the content of that subject and not the quality of her looks or weight.


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