In AMC’s wildly popular Mad Men, administrative assistants are sexy secretaries in a male-dominated world. Sue in Veep and April in recent seasons of Parks and Recreation portray a slightly more empowering but still-tired trope: the sassy secretary. In real life, the role of administrative assistant is, statistically speaking, woman’s work. But at a time when four out of ten recession-era postgrads are working whatever jobs they can, the real world image of assistant work has recently transformed from a sometimes sexist and racist cliche to a reliable job in an uncertain economy.
“I know a girl who had your job who ended up with everything,” says Mad Men’s office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) to a receptionist in the episode “A Little Kiss.” In the context of this ’60s-era show, landing an office assistant job at a company full of eligible men was considered a lucky break. At a time when women often went to college just to earn their “MRS” degree, secretary work was a chance for a young woman to make some extra money—and perhaps catch the eye of a successful, single man in the office. Although secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) instead chooses to gain upward mobility through her hard work, receptionist Megan follows the status quo and parlays her secretary job into “everything”—that is, trophy wife of wealthy Don Draper (Jon Hamm).
On the sharply witty Veep, Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw) is Vice President Selina Meyer’s executive assistant and the keeper of her calendar. Sue is no Mad Men femme fatale; she’s not there to land a rich and powerful politico husband. On the contrary, Sue asserts herself when the entitled men (and women) of Capitol Hill try to push past her to get to Meyer:
The Vice President is the second most important person in the world. I arrange for you to see her. So, in my eyes, that makes me the third most important person in the world. So you better be nice to me. Or you won’t get to see her. And if you do get to see her, you better be nice to her. Or you won’t get to see her again. The Vice President may forget but I hold a grudge. And my grudges are nasty.
Here we have a cliche of another sort, the sassy secretary. And while the word “sassy” often conjures stereotypes of African-American women, Veep’s Sue—who is African-American—goes beyond the racist stereotype of neck-snapping comic relief. Her character displays a sharp humor that makes the people who approach her the butt of the joke (ahem, Jonah) rather than Sue herself. Her character is more transgressive than other so-called sassy secretaries, such as sarcastic April on Parks and Recreation, or quirky Beth on the ’90s hit NewsRadio. We laugh at April and Beth because they’re misfits in the office who express themselves in ways we know are taboo. But we laugh with Sue because she can see past politicians’ talk straight to their petty personal agendas. We laugh with her because she’s smarter than those who are more powerful than her, and by laughing with her, we show that we’re on her side, not theirs.
Which brings me to administrative assistants in real life. As previously noted, some downwardly mobile postgrads view food service as a way to earn money until they can transition to a sustainable career. Still others view administrative work as a temporary way to pay the bills or a stepping stone to a career. Keep in mind that nearly half of all millennial men (46 percent) are employed full time, compared with 35% of young women. So for new female grads saddled with student debt and trapped in a contracted economy, the role of administrative assistant, though fraught, has started to look more and more appealing.
I spoke recently with a friend who graduated from college in 2011 (and wanted to remain anonymous for this interivew). Her experience seems typical: her postgrad job hunting experience was a time of helplessness and hopelessness. After graduating, she worked in retail (“I had to start at $8 an hour. It feels so good when you hit $9 an hour!”) And she said that, from her perspective as a broke college grad, working as an administrative assistant seemed like a cushy job—one she’d aspire to. In fact, she looked covetously at another friend who, thanks to her father’s connections, started out in office work making $10 an hour. Thankfully, my friend did land a higher paying temp job in legal services and, after that, scored a more secure job as a teacher with a one-year contract.
So what does this say about young women who are new to the workforce? Due to high rates of unemployment and underemployment for post-recession new grads, young women are angry about the lack of job opportunities in general. And thanks to TV portrayals of secretaries, we’re ambivalent about administrative work in particular.
Hollywood shows us that office assistants are necessarily disenfranchised. Mad Men tells us that we’re working for men of privilege who feel entitled not only to our labor but also to our bodies. Veep shows us that, at best, we can be overqualified and yet underappreciated; we’re near the seat of political power, but we don’t occupy it. Yes, administrative assistants are, by default, helpers of the managers, executives, and even politicians in power. But, after all, we’re new to the world of work. Who’s to say we can’t unionize to safeguard and improve our rights in the workplace? And who’s to say we won’t ascend or create our own ventures and soon become the ones in charge?