Women in the 1960s according to Mad Men

I have a slight addiction to watching television shows on DVD, and my most recent obsession is Mad Men. Although I watched the first season when it first came out in 2007, I was put off by the protagonist, Don Draper. He came across as having little to no redeeming qualities, and I found him hard to identify with. But with all the buzz and awards attributed to the show, I decided to give it a second chance. Now, I can’t get enough of it, and find various excuses to watch it instead of doing work, and to bring it up as a point of conversation. Sadly, many people haven’t seen it! Perhaps I can convince you otherwise.

As a starting point, I think it’s important to note the time period in which the show is set: the 1960s. It was an era jam-packed with historical significance; the unprecedented changes in race relations, politics, fashion, gender roles, science and technology, and social customs make a perfect recipe for any dramatic screenwriter. Yet, it would be very easy to do this all wrong. For example, the movie Down with Love. Despite the fact that I really do love this movie, it satirizes the drama of the 1960s, particularly Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique, with a fairy tale ending in which female empowerment is complete.

However, Mad Men takes a more realistic look at the challenges of womanhood at the time, identifying how difficult it is for many women to take control of their desires (both physically and intellectually), in a society still mostly ruled by men. Perfectly sexy Joan Holloway is the “ideal” secretary: she is discreet, pro-active, and has a rack that makes Pamela Anderson look bad. The ad men therefore love her, and many of them tumble over their words just looking at her. Joan’s character takes control of all situations according to her job description, but when she is asked to help with reading television scripts as a favour, this task is quickly taken away from her when they hire a male associate to do the job. Although we see that both Harry Crane and his clients acknowledge her job well-done, Joan is still put aside and plopped right back into her place as a secretary.

Women also struggle with their sexuality, and the many mixed messages in the media do little to help this. Peggy lacks Joan’s sex appeal, and strives to be more like her. When she asks Joan for advice, she tells her to stop dressing like a twelve-year-old girl, while the one “outed” member of the ad team cuts Peggy’s hair without her permission so that she can look sexier. Meanwhile, Peggy is on the creative team, writing copy for advertisements, yet still feels that she must portray sex appeal in order to be accepted. She even sings “Bye Bye Birdie” in front of the mirror, mimicking Ann-Margret whom all the men at the agency love, in her attempts to change.

These are only a few examples of the many nuances and social commentaries seen in the show, and despite my bias Mad Men certainly appeals equally to both sexes. The men will be drawn to the male camaraderie of the advertising world – a world filled with whiskey and women – while women will be drawn to the variety of female characters who struggle through a stereotypical men’s world, but with the luxury of having fabulous outfits.