As Aviva Dove-Viebahn explains in “Feminism in a Mad World” in an issue of Ms. magazine, the show Mad Men has become “a hot topic on the feminist blogosphere and around water coolers everywhere, alternately lauded for its strong female characters and criticized for its nostalgic rendering of the halcyon days of sanctioned workplace misogyny.” The show’s creator, Matt Weiner, has insisted that by realistically depicting women’s oppression at home and in the workplace, his show ascribes to the feminist agenda.
Mad Men itself might ascribe to the feminist agenda, but thanks to its pervasive impact on pop culture, the show is crafting a whole new generation of would-be Bettys (Don Draper’s stylish wife) not Peggys (the show’s ambitious “career girl”).
Mad Men has entered the popular consciousness (and checkbook) to an almost frightening degree: Last summer, companies as diverse as Banana Republic, Clorox, Vanity Fair and Variety signed with the show. This July, Mad Men Barbie hit the market, featuring a set of “key players from the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency.” But we’re left wondering: Hey, where’s the Peggy doll? Where indeed. People have become obsessed with “the Mad Men look,” but certainly not with Peggy’s sensible shoes.
Don knew how to brand at home and in the office, and so it’s not surprising that this is reflected in the show’s sets and costumes, which are appropriately visually stunning. Yet the aesthetic elements that many adore about this period in American History (the mid-century) all signify a world of masculine privilege predicated on sexism, racism, homophobia–those infinite “isms” that said it was okay for the boys of Sterling Cooper to drink gin-and-tonics in the mid-afternoon while their maids detail the suede upholstery.
Mad Men consumerism replicates the physical trappings of that era with some disturbing cultural implications. The wives who tend to their Mad Men are allowed to grow up–but just barely. Stuck in the suburbs and squeezed into polyester garden party dresses, their emotions denied by their husbands and buried in their beehives, these women have to muffle their sovereignty. So when men and women try to reclaim the look of this past, they are also emulating the privileged patriarch/woman-child social roles that distinguish the celebrated signature style of repression and subservience.
Young women, who might identify with the perceived glamour and style of the era, should watch Mad Men and ask themselves if this is a world to which they want to return. Is it a world where they can see themselves thriving? Some might think so.
Men should also ask themselves if/why they might similarly identify. What is the reasoning?
Far from being a simple/trivial TV show, Mad Men provides a cultural touchstone for making contemporary nuanced arguments about persisting sexism, e.g. where it comes from and why it lingers. Thus, we might compare and contrast the overt patriarchy of the past with the more covert patriarchy of the present.
Things Women Couldn’t Do in 1960
Get a credit card
Up until 1974, banks and credit card companies could refuse credit cards to single women; and they often required married women to get cards in their husband’s names.
Get an Ivy League education
Harvard didn’t admit women until 1977; Yale and Princeton admitted their first women undergrads in 1969
Legally use contraceptives with a husband in every state in the U.S.
It’s only as recently as 1965 that the Supreme Court made it illegal for states to ban married couples from using contraceptives.
Keep a job while pregnant
Laying off women employees who were pregnant was legal until 1978
Seek legal redress if you are sexually harassed on the job
U.S. Courts did not recognize workplace sexual harassment as an offense until 1977
Refuse to have sex with a husband
Until the 1970’s, marital rape wasn’t illegal. Rape was defined in all U.S. states as follows: “a male who has sexual intercourse with a female not his wife is guilty of rape if….”
Get easy access to contraceptive pills
Oral contraceptives were approved by the FDA in 1960, but wasn’t until years later that they were made widely available
Serve on a jury
It wasn’t until 1970 that women were allowed to serve on juries in all 50 states.
Become an astronaut
Women were first admitted as astronaut candidates in 1978, including Sally Ride, who went on to become the first woman in space.
Officially enter the Boston Marathon
The Boston Marathon was not open to women runners until 1972
Get a legal abortion
The first state to allow legal abortions was Colorado in 1967. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision made terminations legal nationally in 1973.
Get a divorce easily
Before the 1969 No Fault Divorce law, divorce could only be obtained if you proved your spous had committed serious faults such as adultery. This law had a negative impact on men as well as women.
Get emergency contraception
The emergency contraception known as “Plan B” wasn’t approved by the FDA until shockingly late – 1998. And until 2013, you couldn’t buy it at a drugstore, you had to first obtain a prescription from a doctor.
Work in many military jobs
Women could not attend any U.S, military academy until 1976, when women were first admitted. In 2015, 16% of the graduating West Point class is made up of women. Female recruits were not “technically” allowed to serve in combat zones/roles until 2013.
Have paid maternity leave
As of 2015, the U.S. is the only developed county in the world that does not require employers to provide some period of paid leave when a woman has a baby.
Become a supreme court justice
There wasn’t a law on the books that prevented women from serving on the Supreme Court, but no women were appointed until Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. As of 2015, there are three women serving out of nine SCOTUS judges.
Get a job without being rejected for being female
Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women on the grounds of gender when considering whom to hire and promote.
Marry another woman
The U.S. movement to gain civil marriage rights for same-sex couples began in the 1970’s, but it wasn’t legal anywhere until 2004, when Massachusetts became the first sate to legalize it. Now, in 2015, same-sex marriage is legal in 36 U.S. states. Of course this legal barrier applied to men as much as women.
Compete as a boxer in the Olympics
Women couldn’t box in the olympics until 2012.
Article by Anna Kelner, MS. Magazine, 2010. Last accessed March 2015. Downloaded from http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/07/22/the-mad-men-effect-bringing-back-sexism-with-style/
Offbeat Topics. Last accessed April 2015. Downloaded from http://offbeat.topix.com/slideshow/15483/
What does the show convey about proper roles/jobs for men and women?
How can we de-construct the power dynamics of the show. Are only the men powerful? If not, how is power perhaps articulated differently for men and women?
What does the show tell us about patriarchy and privilege?
How do the men and women in the show “perform” their gender?
Do you find the show and/or it’s cultivated aesthetic appealing? If so, please explain. If not, why not?