Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On Another Topic: Mad Women

In the past few days, I have watched the entire first season of Mad Men and most of the second. In my need for something to take my mind off the life I have been handed, I have become completely addicted.

As I have mentioned, the rampant sexism of the early 1960s is on display as an overarching theme and in every detail of this brilliant production. I've been thinking a lot about the women characters:

Betty (Bryn Mawr) ~ childlike wife of ad genius Don, with her intelligence and sexuality simmering rapidly toward explosion.

Helen (Mount Holyoke) ~ scorned by the neighborhood housewives due to her status as a "divorcee' " and her job in a jewelry shop.

Joan (Radcliffe? BU? I tend to think perhaps the latter on the basis of her roommate's reference to having seen her on the first day of college walking across the "Common" rather than the "Yard," but maybe the writers thought the former allusion would be more accessible to viewers) ~ the office manager with a figure that seems to grow more pronounced with every episode and a pragmatic desperation that enables her to keeps tabs on every type of temperature in the office.

Rachel (Brandeis? Barnard?) ~ exotic (to Don, because she is Jewish) and adult, a businesswoman whose mind gleams with ambition.

Peggy (no college, no husband) ~ whose quixotic combination of innocence, intelligence, and drive are pushing her out of the secretarial pool and into the no-woman's land of copywriting.


The fashions in this "Marilyn or Jackie?" world (one of the running metaphors of the series) highlight both the narrow path each woman walks and the barriers she seeks to circumnavigate:


Betty ~ form-fitting bodices and full skirts, breasts and waist accentuated and hips hidden under the petticoats of a little girl, the madonna of her era.

Helen ~ pencil skirts marking a return to the dating world and cardigan sweaters a nod to her status as mother of two.

Joan ~ full figure molded by armoured undergarments and poured into her clothing, exuding her own confusing and distracting blend of office professionalism and blatant invitation.

Rachel ~ elegant suits and elaborate hairstyles, the businesswoman who longs for genuine love.

Peggy ~ the wardrobe of a young adolescent trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs, hiding the reality of a pregnancy she could not believe in and an ambition equally mystifying to her.

Who would I have been?

Peggy, I suppose. When we were a year into Mount Holyoke, one of my friends and I decided we should drop out and go to Katie Gibbs, where we might learn to type and thus become actually employable. We harbored no dreams of finding husbands in the cool elegance of Boston office buildings, however; our plan was to make enough money to head for British Columbia and some kind of adventurous outdoor life. Like Peggy, we were somewhere in the middle ~ uncertain about who we were, dissatisfied with the role models of the past, unsure about how to create a different kind of future.

Three years later, I was in law school. I hope Mad Men remains a success so that we can watch how its women veer out of the roles the 1950s seemed to have preordained for them.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Now that Im in my 60s, I realize just how short societal memory can be. Mad Men should be required viewing for two groups: those who think that nothing has changed for women and those young women who have no real feel for how much has changed.

Growing up, my choices of earning a living were basically nurse, secretary or teacher. Even those choices had a short "shelf life," as I recall my desolation when my wonderful 4th grade teacher had to quit in the middle of the school year---as soon as she started to "show."

I never envisoned being the lawyer I am today, a choice that serves me well. I agree with you that Mad "Men" turns out to have much of value to say about women.

And, Im happy you can find some respite in it.

Kathryn J said...

Sigh. Last week, in my grad class on "Race, Class, Gender & Disability", a 21yo women who is a recent college grad told me that feminism was irrelevant because the work was done. When I brought up glass ceilings and issues such as lack of decent child care or wage inequity, she told me that was all in the past. Sigh.

The professor, who is approximately my age, overheard this and reacted similarly but didn't say anything because it was small group discussion. She told me later that I handled it well but it is hard to accept that there are times when further discourse is futile. So many issues, so little time and not as much energy to fight the battles.

Stratoz said...

I just added to first disc of season 1 to my netflix account.

Kathryn-- reminds me of what folk say about unions. sad to be living at a time where all the battles have been won, nothing to do, nothing to do

Jennifer said...

We're on a topic that consumes my days--feminism, not Mad Men (though my husband has been watching, and I'm wondering, GG, if I should join him!). I work at a university--I direct a small foundation focused on advancing women. I am 35, in the midst of these two generations--feeling the pain of oppression with a sharp and real sting one day, feeling the freedom that the 20 somethings feel as they imagine that the "work is done." I alternate between despair (what will be undone?) and tremendous hope (act "as if" until you live your way into it) from the perspectives of young women. In truth, every generation fails to appreciate the accomplishments of the generation before. Accusations toward these young women serve only to alienate further (something I've witnessed many, many times), and seeking out our points of connection works well. When I'm tempted to say, "Don't you know how it was/is?" I'm now trying to say, "Tell me about your life. What is it like to be a woman today?" Some of them truly wow me. Many of them, in fact.

Carol said...

I think I need to get these DVDs and watch this series. So many people are talking about it and I heard an interesting interview with the creator and 2 of the male stars on "Fresh Air" the other day. My interest is now sufficiently piqued.
And this discussion has caused me to insert Sarah Palin into it. For those of you who have either lived through the 60s or are currently living in the professional world, where does she fall?