"Mad Men": A Postseason Retrospective

Stephanie Coontz teaches family history at The Evergreen State College. Her next book, "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s," will be published in January.

After four seasons covering the eventful years from 1960 to 1965, MadMen continues to rack up points for historical accuracy. True, as several women I interviewed for my new book on women at the dawn of the 1960 pointed out, the scene in which secretary Joan Harris visits an abortionist located in a fancy office is not typical of the majority of abortions in that era, which were performed in seedy settings and surrounded by secrecy and fear. But Elaine Tyler May notes that Joan’s lover Roger Sterling might well have been able to get a doctor to sign off on the supposedly therapeutic abortion that privileged women were often able to negotiate. In her recent book, May uses a scene where then secretary Peggy Olson goes to the doctor to get a prescription for the pill to illustrate the challenges and stigma facing women who were sexually active in that time period. And Daniel Horowitz tells me he caught only one error of fact in the first three seasons: A character was described as having been in a sorority at Bryn Mawr, when that institution did not have sororities.

For the most part, then, the scriptwriters have clearly done their homework. Even the smallest details often reveal deep truths about the era. One of May’sfavorite scenes shows Don casually flipping the trash from a picnic onto the ground and walking away. One of mine is when Betty sees her children playing with a plastic bag from the cleaners and comments only that they had better not mess up her clean clothes. Parents today instinctively gasp, but the scene nicely sums up a time when children’s lives, contrary to nostalgia, were far more dangerous than today.

Above all, Mad Men stands out for its unflinching and unvarnished depiction of the racism and sexism its characters, along with their casual cruelty toward Jews, gays and lesbians, and disabled people. Not that everyone gets the point. Historian Beth Bailey notes how unsettling it is to realize that many viewers have embraced the show’s characters and period as the epitome of cool. Similarly, historian Steven Mintz, remarks on how easily cultural criticism can shade into nostalgia. But if we were to ask scriptwriters to ensure that no one ever likes the “wrong” characters for the “wrong” reasons, our art would be reduced to moral catechisms and didactic lessons rather than intelligent, complex drama. And intelligent, complex drama is what Mad Men delivers, along with a dose of very painful reality.

It is disturbing for those of us who remember the civil rights struggles of that era, for example, to note the absence of black characters in the show. Yet that is the historical reality of the milieu in which the series’ characters move—a world of privileged individuals who may be embarrassed by Roger Sterling’s blackface performance but lack any commitment to the struggle for equality, even when they hear about the murder of civil rights activists or see events involving black Americans on television. (Betty Draper says that perhaps the violence down South goes to show it isn’t time for civil rights yet, and though she dreams about Medgar Evers while sedated during childbirth, this seems to be more related to her own needs than to any sympathy for black activists.)

To most of the white protagonists of MadMen, black people exist only as backdrops to their own lives. The personal life and feelings of Carla, the Drapers’ black nanny, are of no interest to Betty, who summarily fired in the season finale. The ad agency employees who rode up and down with the black elevator operator from the first three seasons day either ignored him completely or made clumsy attempts at conversation that betrayed their total lack of exposure to blacks in any role except as servers. Even the two white men who have black girlfriends do not see them as individuals. To Paul Kinsey, the pompous copywriter of seasons past, having a black girlfriend seems mostly to advertise his hip liberalism (she dumps him during a civil rights sojourn in Mississippi). Englishman Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny,” in his cringe-inducing words, seems mainly a vehicle for him to further reject his British identity. But the racism in all this belongs to the place and period, not the scriptwriters.

I have argued elsewhere that the same is true of the sexism portrayed in the show, and that in this case the show goes further than on the question of race, conveying an explicitly feminist message. Its failure to portray any female who escapes the constraints of the era is not a weakness of the script but one of its strengths. To add such a character would be to imply that women did not need an organized movement to effectively challenge their legal and social subordination, which is clearly the reverse of the show’s message.  I have spoken to many women who came of age in the early 1960s who find the show too painful to watch because it stirs up so many unpleasant memories of that period. But some of the same women have told me that watching the show has made their daughters and granddaughters understand why they became such committed feminists.

I have to confess that my view of Mad Men as feminist was shaken by this season’s finale. Initially Don seems to be moving toward a serious relationship with Dr. Faye Miller—a competent psychologist successful in her own field and, unlike Peggy, not Don’s workplace subordinate. Faye is a woman who knows Don’s secret past, has seen and accepted his panic, and is ready to help him deal with his past so the two of them can move forward together. Yet just a few days later, Don takes his secretary, Megan, with whom he once had sex on his office couch, to Los Angeles to act as a nanny for his kids. Midway through the trip he proposes to her.

Megan is everything a chauvinist man could hope for in a woman. She is an ideal employee and an ideal fiancée, able to make a man feel authentic without demanding that he actually be that way. Don has never had to make any effort to get to know her. After she sleeps with him in his office, she promises he will owe her nothing afterwards. As his nanny, she becomes, as Don puts it, Mary Poppins. When the children misbehave, Megan exhibits the same gentle acceptance that she displays when Don knocks on her hotel room door asking to spend the night. Megan offers nurturing without nagging, devotion without demands.

But I don’t think that the edgy scriptwriters of Mad Men are going to let Don’s story come to a gentle, happy ending with his marriage to Megan. The most interesting aspect about the announcement of Don’s engagement was what it did for the relationship between Joan and Peggy. For the first time in four seasons the show’s two leading female characters really connect, around their cynicism about yet another boss marrying yet another youthful office subordinate.  And they also express a new sense of resentment—not, for a change, directed at other women, but at the cultural values of their colleagues. Joan has almost single-handedly kept the new agency functioning and Peggy has just landed the first big new account since the loss of Lucky Strike. But the champagne toasts and congratulations are reserved for Don’s engagement to his secretary, who, they speculate, may even be promoted above them. I am betting that what we saw in the season finale was not the beginning of Don’s rehabilitation but the first rumblings of what will become a louder and more assertive strain of female discontent.

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james joseph butler - 11/6/2010

Joan and Peggy are us, forty years removed, antiquated appliances seen through the ideal Madison Hollywood prism. We watch this show, Ok I do, for the beautiful people and the beautiful scenery and the sense that truth is irrelevant where custom resides. What's true today?

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