Mad Women

So there I was last night, watching the most recent episode of Mad Men.  Don Draper, the best-looking semi-villain you’ll ever see, appears to be getting his life back together.  He’s swimming more, drinking less, and going out with a woman who’s as smart as he is.

Fine, all right, great.  Way to go, Don.

But Don’s tentative progress wasn’t what intrigued me and disturbed me.  What really got to me was the other story line about the only two professional women in the office, Peggy and Joan.  At a certain level, you could easily describe the two women — Peggy’s the ambitious, talented working girl about to come into her own and Joanie’s the sex siren and office manager.

But that would ignore the complexities and subtleties of their characters.  Peggy’s been testing the subversive bohemian currents of lower Manhattan and Joan’s clearly the smartest, most perceptive operator in an office of operators.  That’s what I love about the show: Just when you feel you understand a character, something new and unexpected gets slipped in and you find an unappealing jerk kicking up his heels doing a giddy Charleston with his wife and a failing physician who turns out to have a gentle, intuitive touch.  You end up adding, instead of subtracting or staying the same.  It’s more like life and the people you think you know.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to what I really meant to talk about, but sometimes I can’t help myself.  What riveted me about the episode and made me shift uncomfortably on the couch were the scenes of some of the office men’s normal, old, good-natured boys-will-be-boys exchanges with Peggy and Joanie.  It’s the way the culture was in the early 1960s, it’s what the world took for granted.  Men could joke about women asking to be raped, they could hang up crude caricatures of them in the workplace, they could insult them — and what were the women complaining about?  Couldn’t they take a joke?

I got in touch with Jane Boursaw, a well-known reviewer of TV and film at Film Gecko, who had this reaction:

“My first thought after watching Sunday’s episode was this: Good for Peggy for standing up for Joan and taking the pornographic drawing to Don. And good for Don for telling Peggy, ‘You want some respect? Go out there and get it for yourself.’  And good for Peggy for firing Joey.

“But then we got the shocker of Joan telling Peggy that her firing Joey just told the world that Joan is ‘a meaningless secretary’ and Peggy is ‘another humorless bitch.’

“I love Mad Men because it’s not only very entertaining, but it’s also a great history lesson. Things were really complicated in the 1960s. It wasn’t just a matter of women standing up for themselves and each other to break through the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude of the era. It was a time of figuring out how to do that without going backwards.”

Jane goes on to mention something I hadn’t appreciated — that the same sexist cultural dynamics are playing out in the life of Don’s ex-wife, Betty, who usually ranks as the most unsympathetic character in the entire series.  (Bad parents rarely fare well in public opinion, but bad mothers are poison.)  Betty had quickly remarried a husband who’s now criticizing her public behavior in a way that wouldn’t happen today.

But, most of all, once Jane mentioned Betty, I realize you can see how haunted and uneasy she is.  She’s a drop-dead beautiful woman whose powers will wane with age — and then what will she have left and who will want her?

I know, I know — it’s “only” a TV series.  But when programs are done this well, this incisively, they become something more than entertainment.  They make you think of the bad old days when many women knew instinctively that something was wrong, but they didn’t know what to call it.  They make you remember the potency of ridicule.  They remind you of an earlier generation of women who never had the advantages we now take for granted.

“We owe them a lot,” Jane Boursaw says.  Amen, sister.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about how I’ve heard enough “good news” for women

6 comments… add one
  • Thank you for this thoughtful post, Ruth. I think it’s easy for people to look back on a certain era and categorize it as “troubled,” “progressive,” “crazy,” “innocent,” or one of a hundred other adjectives. But a pensive show like ‘Mad Men’ takes us right back there and reminds us that nothing was simple and you can’t really tack any particular label on an era. Things are complicated now, and they were complicated in the 1960s and every other decade.
    But one thing most people will probably agree on is that women in every era have paved the way to where we are right now — and that includes not only women like Peggy and Joan and Betty, but also our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and friends. These are the women who were on the ground making a difference in their own way.

  • Cindy A

    That episode of Mad Men haunted me, too.  I feel transported back in a way I’ve never felt before and through details that are spot-on.  What fabulous writers to come up with the most un-pat ending of Joan thoroughly pissed off for being defended by another woman. 

    All of the characters intrigue me, including the very young and proper woman (until this episode’s blow job in the taxi) who is out to capture Don Draper despite only the occasional date with him.

    I know all of these people!  The man in charge with the libido, the office sex siren, the insensitive clods, the desperate single women. They are all still here!  They’ve just been suppressed by what is acceptable behavior today — but they’d still like to do and say all those things, and a few of them still get away with it.

  • Cindy A

    P.S.  Why do we, even now, accept Don Draper as an absent and careless father, but condemn ex-wife Betty for pretty much the same behavior?  Why is it so much worse to be a bad mother than to be a bad father?  Are we genetically programmed to feel this way?

  • ruthpennebaker

    Evidently, the show’s creator is abashed by the strong reaction against Betty. He thinks of her, more sympathetically, as a woman who probably should never have had children, but was caught up in what everyone else did at the time — marry and reproduce.

    In general, we’re all harder on mothers than fathers, though.  I don’t know how we can break away from that.  Why haven’t we yet?

  • I’ve always enjoyed this show, but I don’t watch it often because I don’t watch a lot of television – to the point that we canceled out cable. Maybe I should order it on DVD!

  • The difference between how we view Don and how we view Betty is interesting. I would say that neither one is a great parent. They’re both wrapped up in that era where women, like Ruth mentioned, were supposed to get married and reproduce. The men were supposed to go work at a job for 40 years and bring home the bacon.
    So, looking at their situation through 1960s glasses, maybe Don gets more of a pass because he was doing what he was supposed to be doing at that time — bringing home the bacon (and hopefully, NOT bringing home any STDs through his various affairs).
    Betty, on the other hand, was “supposed” to be a cheery and encouraging mom, making meatloaf and having coffee with the other moms on the block. Instead, she’s cold and unfeeling. Quick, somebody get her a copy of  The Women’s Room by Marilyn French – stat!
    I’ve been thinking about how different things are now when it comes to the roles of men and women. People — men included — rarely work at the same job for 40 years and then retire with a nice retirement package. I’m not sure many of those jobs even exist anymore. Things are always changing, always in flux. Jobs come and go — literally. Some jobs that existed 10 years ago don’t even exist anymore. New jobs crop up every day.
    And I know we’re not the only household where the woman brings home the (turkey) bacon and the man cooks it up. I wonder if maybe women can adapt more easily to changing times and changing jobs and new technology, and that’s why more women are the breadwinners in the family. Just a thought…

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