Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mad Men.... and Women

Mad Men is back, and CTVW, my window into the world of the single-20-something-in-NYC, doesn't get the hype.  According to her Facebook status, she watched the previous seasons on DVD and the opening episode of Season 5 on Sunday, and she's unmoved.  How can that be?

Good television is hard to find.  Rich content, thoughtful videography, stylish set decorations and sharp dialogue is a rare combination these days.  To my mind, Mad Men has all of that, and more.  What is my young cousin missing?

Sally Draper, 14 in 1964 just as I was, wears pajamas just like I did.... pedal pusher pants with a row of faux lace at each cuff and a matching top with a cap sleeve and lace.  Her reaction to the curve of her step-mother's naked back in her father's bed - a long look, no words, no facial expression - was exactly what I imagine I would have done in her situation.  We were not empowered then, we teenage girls.

I'm not talking about the sense of entitlement endemic to American middle class middle schoolers these days.  I'm talking about an innate sense of what is appropriate and what is out of line and the recognition that my thoughts on the matter are relevant.  Dad left the door open, Sally saw what there was to see.  No one gave any thought to her reaction; she was not the most important person in the space

Dad offered breakfast and the house was calm and peaceful, but no one asked Sally how she felt.  No one ever asked me, either. I was never the issue. Jennifer Getzinger, the director, gets it right.  The camera holds Sally in the corner of the shot, still as stone, polite but watchful, as the inexplicable roils around her, couched in suburban bliss.

It's the women who grab my attention in this show.  They don't know where they fit.  There's no slot in the social order for the married mom who wants to leave her infant son at home and return to the workplace.  Her mother worries that the husband won't allow her to work.  Repeating that phrase aloud, rolling it around in her mouth, allowing her reaction to flash from her eyes to her mother's startled face, Joan sets herself apart from traditional roles.  Mom is not amused.

I wonder if CTVW can understand just how serious Mom's objections were.  I wonder if she can imagine a time when the little woman was just that.  I know that my mother can. I know that I can, too.

Don's French wife, Megan. is similarly adrift.

Some may say that her risque birthday song was merely a foreigner's inability to read her American audience.  I think that's too simple an explanation.  I think she misread her place in society.

Sexy worked then (think Marilyn Monroe serenading JFK) but there was something sordid and unacceptable attached to the frisson of passion and lust.  Her co-workers admired her beauty and sex appeal;  showing it off in a public display, as a wife, stretched the boundaries of what was permissible... understandable.... explicable.

The series has explored birth control and abortion and extra-marital sex; I wonder if CTVW can relate to the fear, the frantic sense of what will I do, the lack of options that were the back story I and women of my generation were able to supply without missing a beat.  She and her age group know no one who's had a back alley abortion, who couldn't find contraception, whose options were circumscribed.  Given what's going on in State Houses all across the country, she may well find out soon enough.

The beauty of Mad Men is that all of that is there.  It's hiding behind the girdles and the white cotton gloves and the smiles on the faces of the black women proud to be leaving their resumes for a non-existent secretarial job.  Betty Friedan had Joan and Peggy in mind when she railed against the under-utilization of half the potential workforce.  Gloria Steinem endured stilettos and a bunny tail, seeking the truth behind the Playboy mystique.  Joe Namath didn't show up in pantyhose on television for another decade; such gender bending was unthinkable in 1964.

Is that really so hard to imagine, CTVW?  Do you know that I was not allowed to wear pants to school until the fall of 1968.... my senior year in high school?  Until the late 1960's, girls (not boys) had parietal hours at Cornell - be in the dorm by 11 on weekday nights or collect demerits.  Boys in the girls' dorms?  No way they got past the lobby lounge, with the piano, the couches and the housemother.
Females required protecting; society took that responsibility seriously.

Now, with Rick Santorum touting contraception as the root of sexual promiscuity, I am struck by the absence of outrage from the demographic which would be affected most immediately if his perspective became law.  Where are the young women who depend on Planned Parenthood for medical care?  It's always been there, so it always will be... is that the refrain they hear?  I and my cohort are here to tell you that these were hard won victories, that life was very very different before Roe v Wade, that how the world looks at you depends upon how the law defines you.

Take a closer look at Peggy and Joan and Sally and Megan.  Consider their options, or the lack thereof. Notice the way they are marginalized, objectified, diminished and demeaned.  Pete is peeved because Trudy is no longer the fashion plate he married, no longer the supportive help-meet he needs to further his career.  She just doesn't understand, he moans on the train.

I spoke aloud to the screen as he paused for a breath: Neither do you, buddy.  Neither do you.


  1. Excellent post! I, too, have wondered what the young women are thinking these days as the right to contraception is under attack. Why aren't they in the streets; protesting, waving signs to keep your sticky fingers off my uterus? I'm your age and remember the bad old days vividly. I'd be interested to know what the 20 somethings are thinking about.

  2. Are you out there, 20-somethings? Let your thoughts be heard.... Allison and I are listening!

  3. Incredible, this really is beautiful. Envision all of the looking at as well as creating you could do this... Cool in the winter even though. D3 Gold

    GW2 gold


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