Mad for Anachronistic Gender Roles

In The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker, Janet Groth provides a pleasurable, well-written story about the love of good writing. The storytelling is personal and accessible, yet replete with detail and sparkling turns of phrase. I even had to look up the meaning of a few words. That’s thrilling in a text so charming as this story of Dr. Groth’s 21-year tenure as a receptionist at the iconic magazine

Yes, that’s Dr. Groth. During her time at the magazine she earned a Ph.D and moved on to a career as an English professor but, interestingly, her writing was never published at The New Yorker. She didn’t move up from her role as receptionist, shopper, babysitter, confidante and all-around helpmate to the famous writers (mostly men) whose words graced the pages of that famous magazine between 1957 and 1978.

The introduction to the book promises to delve into how this lack of upward mobility came to pass. Indeed, Groth frames her story historically within the first five pages:

I entered the workforce before the feminist era, and as I ponder the way women in general failed to thrive in that world, how often they were used and overlooked, I recognize that I was part of a larger historical narrative.

The reader may be disappointed that this statement is not a foreshadowing. In fact, there’s immediately something strange going on in the text. While the writing charms, it’s anachronistic, though we’re well aware that the writer is a retired professor reflecting on events that happened in the past.

I was wooed into the story by Groth’s storytelling persona: the ingénue in the big city in the 1950s and 60s. Throughout the first chapter, I wondered how she would pull back from this voice in order to offer feminist–or at least experienced and reflective–commentary. But she didn’t. 

The entire text proceeds in this voice–presumably her viewpoint during the time she was living these events. We hear gay people referred to only in terms like “playing for the other team.” We hear her fears of becoming a “dumb blonde cliché,” a “fallen woman,” “seduced and abandoned.” Even her suicide attempt seems almost romantic in its period drama, sans historical reflection. Only in the final, and shortest, chapter of the book does Dr. Groth even attempt to convey “what the receptionist received.”

What’s disturbing about The Receptionist’s narrative voice is that it’s familiar in a contemporary way. Indeed, the book’s press materials market its similarity to popular shows such as Mad Men. Let me be blunt: The book seems aimed at those who’ve gone mad for anachronistic gender roles. Rather than watching a show like Mad Men as an opportunity to analyze how we moved from the gendered workplace interactions of the 1960s to the more subtle yet structural sexism of 2012, many fans just love the clothes and how the characters flirt. 

Viewers love the subversive wielding of sexual power and charm–the artful ways that women got what they needed and men remained overprivileged dimwits. It turns out that America loves the anachronistic gender roles of the 1960s, and now other television shows (the gone but unlamented Pan Am andThe Playboy Club) and books such as The Receptionist pander to our cultural fascination with upper-class settings in which women can be glamorous and privileged without any bothersome analysis.

I wondered if this is the book the author truly wanted to write. Giving the clearly bright and erudite Dr. Groth the benefit of the doubt, did she originally include a stronger analysis of gendered trends in the American workforce, only to have it removed by a marketing department who didn’t want to sully the allure of her story? Perhaps not. She’s no women’s studies professor, after all. But she did take up the charge of investigating how a (truly interesting) personal story is part of a historical narrative, and in this way the story fell short.

So, let me fill in a gap or two, Dr. Groth. You earned the gorgeous privileges you had at The New Yorker (trips to Europe, flexible scheduling, psychoanalysis, education, party invitations) by being beautiful, smart and terribly helpful to those who paid you little and didn’t allow advancement. As you said, “I deemed it part of my job to ‘make nice’ with everyone.” Simply put, Dr. Groth, the maid and mother never get a byline. And you colluded with your anonymity. You didn’t submit your work very often to The New Yorker because of internalized oppression. Though smart, your account of how you viewed your own creative work was not congruent with the greatness you assigned to the male writers in your midst. 

And dare I speculate? You didn’t speak up about it then, or now, because you were (and still are, via this book’s publication on a press like Algonquin) getting a return from your silence.  Quelle domage! I hoped for more from this otherwise cultured account.

 

Comments

  1. I think the writer is exaggerating the popularity of 1960s-style sexism a bit. If it’s so popular, how come “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club” didn’t last? Even “Mad Men” doesn’t score huge ratings, despite its critical acclaim and being a show that gets talked and written about a great deal by those of us who do watch. I’d say the reason “Mad Men” survives and the other shows are gone is precisely because the other shows picked up on the sexism of the era and tried to make it some kind of “woman power” asset for its characters, which it really wasn’t–aside from just not being good enough shows. “Mad Men” does a far more complex job of showing all the dimensions of the kind of lives women lived and the choices they made in the 1960s (ironic for a show with “Men” in the title). It’s too bad the author of “The Receptionist” seems to have made only the choices that were safest for a woman of her era…to have been more of a Joan Harris than a Peggy Olson.

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