I’m just finished watching the first season of Mad Men via Netflix. And it’s dawned on me that the show I’m watching is not exactly the one they’re putting out there.
I think the show is supposed to primarily be about Don Draper, the arrogant and talented man with the hidden past who occasionally suffers some angst of the sort documented by Malvinia Reynolds in the song, “Little Boxes”: “And they all play on the golf course and drink their martinis dry.” It’s also about the shift from the 1950s to the 1960s, clearly documented in Season 1 by the Sterling Cooper agency’s work for the Nixon campaign.
I see all that, but that’s not the show I’m watching. The show I’m watching is an almost documentary-level look at the blatant sexism of the time. I put off watching Mad Men for a long time because I was afraid the sexism was going to be too painful to watch. And at times it is. When Draper talks to his wife’s psychiatrist about her treatment, I get furious. How dare the shrink talk about his patient at all, much less talk about her in such belittling terms.
The constant abuse of the women in the office — from blatant sexual harassment to just plain nastiness — coupled with the way the women are expected to wait on the men hand and foot is excruciating. The lives of the wives in the suburbs is even worse — even the bare idea of being trapped in those women’s lives is enough to make me want to run screaming for the exits.
And, on a somewhat more positive note, the character I’m focused on isn’t Draper: It’s Peggy Olson, his secretary, the budding copy writer. I’m rooting for her all the way as she uncertainly finds her way into the kind of work she really wants to do.
I don’t mean all this talk of sexism as a criticism of the show: far from it. It’s a compliment. The show gets it right.
I’m not old enough to have experienced this precise world first hand; as I mentioned a couple of posts back, the Mad Men years are more about my parents’ generation than mine. But watching it reminds me of the lawyers’ wives who used to look down on my mother because she worked. And it also makes me remember that my mother loved her work (she was a journalist), but ran into plenty of discrimination on her jobs.
But while things got a little better in the 60s, let’s not forget that the only reason sex discrimination was made illegal in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was because some bigots thought they could kill the bill by adding something as laughable as sex discrimination to it.
I understand that seven of the nine writers on Mad Men are women, and it shows. They know their history and they make it real.
The show delves into other touchy areas, too. It touches on racism, though more by the subtle device of having an all-white staff except for the elevator men and janitors than by anything blatant, at least so far. (I suspect a viewer used to a white-dominated society might not actually notice it.) The anti-semitism is more obvious and damn ugly. There’s the occasional hint of class issues, particularly with the arrogant young men born to privilege. Their fathers may be assholes, but they are their fathers’ sons. I can’t help but want to see Draper, with his dirt poor childhood, put them down at every opportunity.
The gay issues are especially interesting. I get annoyed when the very closeted gay art director makes rude remarks about women, but I do understand why he does it. I spare a little sympathy for him.
Interestingly, I don’t like most of the women characters very much either, except for Peggy. The wives are stupid and shallow. I find Joan, the office manager well aware of her sexuality, grating. But every time some man undermines them, every time I see how few choices they have, I understand why they’re in the fix they’re in. In contrast, when poor little rich boy Pete Campbell feels trapped, I have nothing but contempt for his angst. The show keeps giving me signals that I’m supposed to feel something for Pete, but they’re not working for me.
Things have changed, and the frat house behavior at Cooper Sterling wouldn’t pass muster today, thank God. Those who think the world today is too “politically correct” should take a look at Mad Men and put themselves in the shoes of, say, Campbell’s secretary, and think about how they’d like to be treated like that day in, day out.
My novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.
My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.