Mad Men. And Surprisingly Not Angry Women.
SPOILER ALERT: This post contains several spoilers for AMC’s Mad Men series finale.
For several nights last week I was catching up with the rest of you on the trials and travails of Mad Men in time for the series finale. For years I avoided watching the Emmy-award winning show: Who wanted to relive the awful way women were treated in the late 50s/early 60s, especially in an office environment? But a good friend with style and an eye for mid-century design worked in advertising as a copywriter and was a fan of the show. She, along with the hype around the finale, persuaded me to tune in.
Over a four-day marathon, I covered the ten or so years of the series, which coincided with ten of the more tumultuous years of change in the U.S. I was surprised to find I preferred the first few seasons set in the early 1960s: the world just looked better, cleaner, and more orderly than in the later seasons of the early 1970s, with sideburns and tie dye and slightly sloppy clothes (and some would say, sloppy morals).
But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.
These years were just on the edge of my personal history: I was born two weeks before President Kennedy was shot, and as an adult I wondered what my mom must have thought, having only immigrated to the States in 1952 and now with a baby girl, civil unrest and what must have seemed like chaos everywhere. We went from pill box hats to openly pill-popping in a very short time. We often forget how far we’ve come since.
So we see Mad Men begin with the introduction of a new woman to Madison Avenue: Peggy Olsen. Sincere, ambitious, slightly naïve. I related to Peggy. The other women of the series – Joan (statuesque office manager), Betty (blonde and beautiful wife of Don Draper, former model, now mother of his children) – never settled into the stereotypes they might have. They all struggled with what we now call work/life balance.
But in this era, the choices were few. In one episode the men mock how the young women in a focus group about cold cream only wanted to know if the product would help them find a husband. The reality of the time was that there were few other options: before the 1970s, a woman could be fired if she was pregnant (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 changed this), she couldn’t get a credit card without a husband to cosign (changed by the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974), and could be forced to retire at 32 (Pan Am’s requirement for stewardesses, changed by the Civil Rights Act).
At the end of the Mad Men run, the women found contentment we might not have expected. Joan chooses love of career over romantic love, Betty chooses honesty and her education over the image of perfect domesticity, Peggy chooses career – and finds love that fits into that choice. The strength it took for the women to make these choices — and other difficult ones along the way — given the obstacles of their time, was for me the real draw of the series. The women focused on what they really wanted, and went for it, despite the odds. Fairer sex indeed.