mad men.

i’ve heard a lot of praise about mad men and it made me curious, so i started watching it.

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it’s a very interesting show to watch from a feminist perspective. the show centers around a new york advertising agency in the 1960’s. the agency is made up entirely of arrogant ad men (who coined the term mad men, a reference to their location on madison avenue, so that they could use it to refer to themselves), and their female secretaries. what’s amazing to me is how much things have changed since that era, and at the same time, how little has changed.

obviously the 1960’s were a different era, and the jobs that were available to women were minimal, but i find it really interesting that an advertising agency that deals mostly in creating ads that are geared toward women is comprised of all men. these ad men are creating a market for whatever it is their trying to sell: there’s a particular episode where the men are trying to come up with a new marketing strategy for a company that sells lipstick. what they come up with is the tagline “mark your man,” which they tell the company president gives the woman complete ownership, allowing her to kiss her man’s cheek and leave her specific shade of lipstick on him as a sign to other women that this man belongs to her. lipstick, in actuality, is just something a woman can put on her lips to get her closer to the standard of beauty (which is prescribed by men, by the way), but these men are able to spin it so that the woman sees a greater meaning in wearing lipstick: individuality, possession, femininity. when in actuality, the women who buy this particular brand of lipstick aren’t guaranteed any of those things; the only guarantee is that both the advertising agency and the lipstick company will profit. i think this notion of men shaping and manipulating what a woman perceives she needs in order to drive certain economic markets to thrive is something that is still relevant today.

the level of sexual harassment in the workplace is also really jarring. in the first episode, it’s peggy olsen’s first day: this is her first job in the city, she’s very innocent and doe-eyed and modestly dressed, and everyone refers to her (for most of the first season) as “the new girl.” as peggy goes around the office and meets everyone, they all tell her, men and women alike, that she has “great legs” and “mr. draper (her boss) would probably like to see them.” the ad men make crude jokes and subtle propositions directly to her face. they call her “sweetheart” incessantly, and hit her rear end with their files to get her moving somewhere. and she says nothing. i always wonder if i had lived back then, if i would see this kind of behavior as sexual harassment, and sadly, i don’t think i would; i think my cultural upbringing has conditioned me to see sexual harassment where women in the 60’s wouldn’t have recognized it as such. for women back then, it was just part of the job. the men had all the power, and to go against that could mean the loss of a job.

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the lines between the working world and the domestic sphere are very clear-cut. don draper, the most genius of all the ad men, works long hours in the city while his wife, betty, a college-educated woman, stays at home with the kids and doesn’t work outside the home. in fact, when an opportunity arises for betty to do some modeling and bring some money into the household, don is entirely reluctant to allow it, and only does so because he knows it won’t last long. being relegated to the domestic sphere has emotional ramifications on betty, and she seems to exhibit several signs of “the housewife syndrome”: fatigue, irritability, discontentment, bouts of depression. she is unsatisfied with staying home and not being able to pursue what she is interested in, and when she starts seeing a psychiatrist about it, don calls the doctor to get updates on her progress in the sessions (where is doctor-patient confidentiality?! apparently it doesn’t apply to women). even women within the working world are assigned to “feminine” tasks, like filing and typing. on peggy’s first day, she appears overwhelmed by the typewriter on her desk until joan, the office manager, assures her that “they’ve made it simple enough for a woman to use.” while the women are set to menial tasks, the men get to hang out in their offices, smoking and drinking at one in the afternoon, using their big brains to think up great ideas for how they can subliminally keep women in their places in the domestic realm. in addition to not being expected to be able to do intellectual work, all of the women are completely expendable: one false move, like failing to properly cover for a boss who’s out of the office with his mistress when his wife stops by the office to see if he’s free for lunch, and it’s the end of the line. the positions for women are like a revolving door.

the one shining feminist hero on the show is joan, the office manager. she’s a total bombshell and acts the role of the lesser-brained woman that the men expect of her, but she’s actually really intelligent, especially when it comes to using the system to her advantage. she’s like peggy’s instructor on how to subvert the stereotypes and expectations of women in order to not only get ahead, but to get what she wants; she teaches peggy how to get men to ask her out and pay for her lunches, how to be friendly and flirtatious and have men respect you at the same time, how to know what secrets to keep and which to tell (her). she’s a woman ahead of her time.

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