September 1, 2010 / Uncategorized

Are We the Women of Mad Men?


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

I’ve been watching the fourth season of Mad Men with a knot in my stomach.  For the first three, I convinced myself that the level of blatant sexism at the Sterling Cooper (now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) advertising agency was as retro as three-martini lunches and girdles.  But the most recent episodes have disabused me of those notions.  Truth be told, when it comes to sexism we have little to brag about.  After 40 years, we’re not as far from Mad Men’s women as we might like to think.

For the non-viewer, the show brings us back to the days right on the cusp of momentous social change – before women, people of color, and gays shouted “enough!” and demanded equality.  Mad Men focuses on the strained relationships between the sexes and the simmering anger that occasionally explodes when women scratch the surface of the sexism that defines their lives.  It’s now 1965 (the series began in 1960) and you can see the subtle shifts in how the women respond over these years to being treated as afterthoughts, trophies, sexual conquests or children.  Two years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, junior copywriter Peggy Olson now pushes back harder against her dismissive boss and male colleagues.  Betty lashes out at ex-husband Don Draper’s self-involvement and Joan Holloway claims a less dutiful posture at the office – and at home — asserting her smarts and her limits.  Secretaries bedded by Don don’t automatically accept his morning-after nonchalance.

That said, it’s still a sexist cesspool at the ad agency, and the women who work there are generally leered at, laughed at, or ignored.  The cold crème focus group scene in Episode 4 was particularly painful to watch, as the women give voice to their rage and hurt (as their male bosses smirk from behind a two-way mirror, conveniently explaining away their angry tears with a “they just want to get married”).

It’s tempting to think that this level of sexism is behind us, and Julia Baird’s excellent piece in Newsweek reminds us how it made millions of women crazy and drove many to suicide (before they got liberated).  But honestly, we are really far from being out of the woods.  It may no longer be legal to bar women from certain jobs and fire them when they get married or pregnant, but laws that ensure a basic level of equality and protection against rape, harassment, domestic violence, stalking and other gender-based crimes don’t change the culture.

The dynamic between women and men in 2010 looks alarmingly similar to that of 1965.    Contempt for women is obvious in politics and business, and the sexualization of women is ubiquitous in entertainment and advertising.  The double standard around sexual freedom remains, with no male correlative to “ho” and “slut” that I know of (to some who think that owning one’s “slutiness” equals power, I respectfully disagree).  Glass ceilings are rarely shattered, gender discrimination and harassment on the job are common in many industries, and there is a growing trend throughout the blogosphere insisting that it is men who are the real victims of domestic and dating violence, even though nearly all battered victims are women.  But, what about those outlandish comments from Roger, Don, and the guys behind the two-way mirror?  In the past four decades, they’ve gone from clumsy double entendres to brutal, in-your-face, insults.

Getting back to that focus group, I can’t help think that the same would happen today – maybe worse.  Now, women might brush off the sexism they live with, or deny that it even exists at all. (The Mad Men women didn’t have that F-word baggage to contend with, yet.)   If Mad Men reveals anything about sexism, it’s not how far we’ve come, but how little progress we’ve made in 40 years.  We may have anti-discrimination laws and violence against women may now be considered a hate crime, but culturally, we share more with Peggy, Joan, Betty and the secretaries than we are willing to admit.