I am obsessed with Mad Men.

For those of you unfamiliar with the television show, it is an original cable series on American Movie Classics, set in a 1960’s Madison Avenue advertising agency. The agency itself is an independent, scrappy type, which has a number of moderately big clients, but does not quite have the juice to run with the big boys. This in itself would endear me to the series, however there’s so much more to like and appreciate.

Whether or not the office dynamics are an exaggeration (and, I imagine to an extent, they are), it opens one’s eyes to the difference a half century has made in the workplace, and not just the sheer absence of women anywhere other than the steno pool: smoking, liquid lunches, workplace affairs, and blatant nepotism were commonplace and accepted. Not so anymore (well, perhaps, except for liquid lunches – I would not know, as I work in the public sector and am barred from participating in such endeavors). It is a fascinating – if, perhaps, theatricized – look at the office environment from another generation.

Too, it is interesting to look at family life. Were successful men really so unfaithful to their wives? Looking at 2009, perhaps this is not so difficult to swallow, as that hasn’t changed much. I think, though, it is difficult to picture our grandfathers so cavalierly cheating on our grandmothers. We idolize “the Greatest Generation,” and in many respects this is deserved. However, some aspects of human nature are timeless – the only difference between then and now is that women no longer are in a position where they have to tolerate this treatment. The reason half of all marriages fail in 2009 is not because couples live together before marriage, or people enter into the commitment too lightly, but because women – whether they are the cheater or the scorned – are not ostracized from society in the way they were in 1960, nor are they as dependent on their husbands to provide for them, and they don’t have to suffer in an unhappy marriage. And Don Draper, though he does truly care for his wife, is in an unhappy marriage.

Michael Weiner, though making quite a few caricatures of the men, has created the women with surprising depth, which is one of the things I like best about the series. There is the female lead, Peggy Olsen, played by Elisabeth Moss (you’ll remember her as Zoey Bartlett from The West Wing), who is my favorite character in the show. She is somewhat quiet and reserved – not because it is her personality, per se, but more because she has been nurtured to believe she should be. She is kindhearted and intelligent, and despite the rampant sexism has managed to climb the ladder of success, by slowly chipping away at the glass ceiling, as opposed to trying to smash into it like some of her counterparts. There is Joan Holloway, who, as the office manager, uses her sexuality to her advantage, and is threatened by any woman who she views as competition – either sexually OR professionally. She clearly cannot stand Peggy, though is saccharine to her on the surface. Their dynamic reminds me very much of the dynamic I had with a coworker in my first job out of college, and perhaps that’s why I like Peggy so much (and, conversely, want to slap Joan in the face).

Then, of course, there is Betty Draper, the quintessential housewife. She is depressed, as she knows her husband is unfaithful (though, she does not want to know), and though he cares for her, he does not love her or view her as an equal. I do not know if this was a common dynamic between successful men and their wives in the 1960s, but it is nevertheless fascinating to watch. Betty does much of what she does because she is “supposed” to. She lives in the suburbs, because she is “supposed” to. She married well, because she was “supposed” to. She had children, because she was “supposed” to. However, none of these things make her happy, and it is clear she longs for the days of living in Manhattan, working as a model. There is a scene where she and Don are out to dinner for Valentine’s day, and she runs into an old friend from her modeling days. The friend is a call girl, and while she laughs it off and speaks of how “lucky” she is to not have that life, you can see from her face that she’s a bit jealous of her friend – not in a a mean spirited way, or even an conscious way, but more of a subconscious longing for something other than what she has, which is the contributing factor to her Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Then, of course, is Don’s string of mistresses. They are all very different in so many ways, but all have one very important characteristic in common – they are strong, intelligent women. There is the Greenwich Village artist, who is a beatnik hippie; the daughter of a Jewish department store mogul; and the wife of a comedian with whom she has an open, all-business marriage (she is his agent more than she is his wife). All of them, while not necessarily against marriage, have a much more cavalier attitude toward it – they do not see it as something necessary, as they can provide for themselves, but they do crave companionship. They like Don, because, despite seeming somewhat chauvenist on the surface (no doubt because of societal expectations more than anything else), he respects their confidence and intelligence and treats them as equals. He could not see himself marrying any of these women, not because he would not want to, but rather because he views marriage as something different. He is a guardian and protector of his wife. He loves her like he would a daughter, or a younger sister, and his interactions with her speak to that, as he often treats her like a child (which she seems to like and, in fact, crave). He does not treat these other women that way. He KNOWS it is wrong, and you can see often he feels guilt for his actions, but he is not sure, exactly, what he is supposed to do about it.

It is because of this, in part, Peggy finds an unlikely mentor in Don. He treats her, too, in a daughterly fashion. She is somewhat of a combination of his wife and these women he lusts for – independent, intelligent, but also sweet and naive. When she refers to him as “Don” for the first time (as opposed to “Mr. Draper”, in an assertion that she is now his peer, not his secretary), he seems taken aback initially, but pleased once he settles into the idea. It seems, too, that while in some ways her colleagues do not view her as an equal, when she demands it in a non-shrewish way (for example, by showing up at a “meeting” at a burlesque show dressed sexily – but tastefully – in a jovial manner), they accept it and even embrace it.

In a sense, it is showing an evolution of the times – the women who want and embrace the housewife role, and are resentful of women who are standing aside from it; the women who use their sexuality to assert their independence, being somewhat leery at best (and disgusted at worst) by the housewife role; the women who want nothing to do with the conditioned chauvenism rampant throughout, and assert against it in a caustic manner; and then, the women like Peggy, who quietly take the best of all of these roles, and, in an unassuming way, make their paths.

It seems odd, at first, that one might think a show with distinctly chauvenist undertones would have so many feminist themes, but then again, how could it not?

I suggest you start watching this show, which airs at 10pm Sundays on AMC, if not for the feminism aspect, for the fact that it is one of the smartest, well-written shows currently on television.

Advertisements