Sure, there’s been a lot of chat about everything that’s wrong with Mad Men and why women in general and feminists in particular should hate its unrepentant misogynystic guts. And let’s face it: this is a show that glorifies gin, Lucky Strikes and getting laid (by anyone but one’s spouse).
What’s not to hate, right?
Not so fast. As Stephanie Coontz wrote a year or so ago in the Washington Post: “Mad Men’s writers are not sexist. The time period was.” And so as a woman and a feminist let me unapologetically admit that I can not wait for the season five premiere on Sunday. Sure, it’s great TV, and the attention to period detail is freakishly fantastic. (Pause here to drool over those dresses.) And, as nighttime soaps go, there’s one hell of a story going on. But the real reason I love Mad Men – as opposed to, say, its short-lived period clones (read: The Playboy Club and Pan Am) — is because it resonates:
Lesson 1: The Way We Were. Want to know what second-wave feminism was all about? Or why we needed a focused movement? Look no further than the women of Sterling Cooper who, with the exception of Peggy (more later), type their days away in the steno pool or, if they’re lucky, move up to the outer office, answering someone else’s phone. What’s great is that Mad Men doesn’t pretend that these “career girls” are empowered – as Pan Am and The Playboy Club tried to do. Instead, we get it right away: these gals are as hemmed in by the intractability of the system as they are by their rigid underwear. Their only defense against what we now call sexual harassment was a giggle and a shrug. And for those who wonder what The Feminine Mystique was all about, may I introduce you to the chain-smoking Betty Draper? She left her husband (as well she should have), ignores her kids, and ran off to Vegas to marry another guy who treats her like a house pet.
Lesson 2. Where We Need to Go. So, yeah, we’ve come a long way in terms of career. Back when I graduated from college — not that long ago. or maybe it was – it was still legal for an employer to list an administrative job in the “female” classifieds and a managerial one in the “male.” Most women who graduated from college were told they had three career options: secretary, teacher or nurse. And prospective employers were allowed to ask women what their husbands did for a living. Ugh. But for all the progress we’ve made, the workplace still hasn’t caught up. Take away the ashtrays and the booze and if you look closely, you realize that the structure of today’s workplace isn’t all that different from Sterling Cooper’s, where every Don had a Betty at home to take care of business. It’s still designed by, and for, men. But the reality is that in today’s world, Betty puts in 52 hours a week, just like Don, and then comes home to do the laundry. Even when men step up at home in ways their fathers never did, there’s still the math: take the current workplace expectations, add in the omnipresence of technology that keeps us uber-connected 24/7, and there aren’t enough hours in the day for any of us. Unless, of course, one has a housewife.
Lesson 3: Ask, dammit. In a word, Peggy. She started as a secretary. Ended up a copywriter. Which apparently was pretty unheard of in those days. So how did she end up with a title, an office, and a snazzy new job? She asked. Enough said. All too often, even decades after the days of Sterling Cooper, many of us are afraid to put ourselves out there, for fear we might be labeled as ambitious and thus, less likable. Or that we might get turned down. And so we cross our fingers and wait to get the nod from a higher up – and then are grateful if we do. Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that keeps us from taking those risks — the possibility that the answer might be a big fat no or that even if it’s a yes, we might fall flat on our face. But as the wise woman told us when we were reporting our book: You’ll always get over a failure. But regret? It’s not recoverable.
Lesson 4. Beware the personal brand. And then there’s Don. Okay, he’s a guy and we write about women. But, regardless of gender, he is the embodiment of what we call the iconic self, that image we create to project who we wish we were. Don is an illusionist, a mystery man who invented himself out of whole cloth and, as David Weigand writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, is “on the run from himself.” Weigand, who compares Draper to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (Fun fact: Fitzgerald got his start as an advertising copywriter), writes:
Fitzgerald, the Midwesterner who went East to reinvent himself, saw both sides of the American “dream.” On the one hand, ours has always been a culture of hope and aspiration. On the other, our abiding belief in change and the ability to reinvent ourselves can bring us perilously close to the edge of self-delusion.
In short, Don is a cautionary tale, a desperate example (cue the falling man in the opening credits) of how we can lose ourselves when we work too hard to become our brand. When it comes to Don, we wonder: is there a there there? Who knows. But it definitely makes you ponder what Don might do with Facebook. Scary thought.
Lesson 5. Embrace our differences as our strengths. It’s a revolutionary thought, the idea that men and women bring different strengths and talents to the table. After all, we came up thinking that to be successful, we had to fit in — to be “a man in a skirt,” as one of our sources dubbed it. But what if we could tap into our authentic, feminine selves and do what we do best: Studies show, for example, that women negotiate in a win-win manner, we’re interactive leaders, we’re sensitive to subliminal cues; we’re multithinkers, multitaskers, and are more comfortable with ambiguity. Not to say one gender is better than the other. Just different. Which brings up one of my favorite bon mots from Man Men, seasons past. The context may have been different, but you gotta love the line: “Don’t be a man, be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.”