Watching TV: Mad Men

martiniI’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 flash fiction “Writer to Manage Baseball Team” is featured today (March 31) on the front page of Book View Cafe and directly available here.

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.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.


About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Watching TV: Mad Men — 8 Comments

  1. I almost didn’t watch it because the first thing Peggy does in the first ep is totally unbelievable for that time, given her background. Utterly and totally, and likewise there’s a totally unbelievable moment at the end of an ep with Betty. But gradually the show grew on me, even though the period stuff is heavy-handed at the time (and there is a tendency for modern unawareness of grammatical correctness, which could have gotten you fired back then). The characters gain in depth and complexity, including the women. Peggy and Joan are my favorites–give Joan time. Whew!

  2. And it is good for young people, especially young women, to see this. If we don’t remember our history, we’ll be doomed to repeat it. I am delighted that my son is a MAD MEN fan, even though the last thing he really needs is to be taught to respect strong women.

  3. At first I couldn’t stand to watch the show because seeing the sexism hurt, but I’ve now grown to be a big fan. And I agree, that Joan gets far more interesting as the show goes on, as does Peggy. The fate of the gay art director is also fascinating and sad. One of the other things that gets me about the show is its depiction of office politics. I find that not much has changed in that way, except that there are new rules on sexism and racism.

  4. When I was a kid growing up, my father’s design practice was on Madison Avenue. The visual presence of the show takes me back immediately. I can’t watch it too often, though, because it gets so much of the sexual and cultural politics right that it is hard for me to take.

  5. Sherwood, I found that bit with Peggy totally unbelievable, too, but I let it go. And I think I know which unbelievable Betty episode you’re referring to. I kind of decided that was surrealistic wish-fulfillment and not actually happening, but that’s probably not an option on this show.

    I put off watching for years, because I just couldn’t face it, but I ran out of good TV shows available on Netflix and had to expand my horizons. Glad I did.

  6. Nancy Jane: I am up to the fifth season now, watching it when my hands are bad. And in three lines, there is a sudden and total payoff with Betty’s character that reverberated back down the earlier seasons. Terrific, but wow, is this season dark. Wow, wow.

  7. Ooh, dark! Thanks, Sherwood — something to look forward to. I’m on Season 2 at the moment, but I’ve got seasons 3 and 4 reserved at Netflix. I tend to watch two or three episodes a week. Maybe I’ll write about the show again when I get to where you are.

  8. Actually, I think that is the show you’re meant to be watching, and it only gets better (worse). It’s funny, after a time you come to expect the rampant sexism, racism and homophobia – not to accept or condone it, but take it as a part of that world, however heinous. It took a scene of litter being tossed in a park after a picnic to bring me to hysterics in a later season.

    It’s amazing how much we’ve changed, and how well the writers and actors manage to convey a world that’s not as far removed as we’d like.