Watching Betty Draper (now Francis) march out to her front lawn and take aim at the neighbour’s birds in season one of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men there is a moment of realisation – maybe, just maybe, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s the same when Joan Holloway (now Harris) is raped by her fiancé on the floor of Don Draper’s Sterling Cooper office in season two. Or when, throughout her rise to copywriter, Peggy Olson is constantly met with the kind of barriers a modern career woman does not expect to encounter.
She works through the weekend, she pulls the weight of three copywriters, she drives successful account pitches, but no matter how hard she pushes herself, she will never be given the slack or recognition of her male counterparts.
The draw of Mad Men is that it is a study in deception. Don Draper is built on an unraveling lie. But the world around him is equally misleading – no one is really who they appear to be. These women are what make Mad Men such compelling television, because their struggle to fit into the world around them is a nod to the brewing second wave of feminism. We come to see it as just as relevant today, because there always seems to be something missing, something more to fight for, even though young women are told it’s all so much better now. Really, it is. There are laws. Even TIME magazine in the late 1990’s declared feminism was dead. “Is there any need for it?”, the article asked.
Few shows have created such a buzz. There’s The Sopranos. The Wire. But Mad Men‘s season five – and the near two-year wait its fanatics have endured since the last season as producers haggled with network bosses over contracts – has filled newspaper columns, blogs and entertainment shows. Why such an impact?
Writing in The Atlantic in 2010, Sady Doyle speculates it may be because the sexism – which is what has us talking after every show – is in equal parts horrifying and conveniently (and dangerously) distant.
“Of course the 1960s were sexist. But something about the show’s Grand Guignol presentation of discrimination and contempt for women makes it feel unfamiliar: our own lives, after all, are nowhere near this dramatic. And the fact that it’s all being undergone by people in funny, old-fashioned outfits makes it feel comfortably distant. We root for Peggy, but it’s hard to imagine being Peggy,” she wrote. “Or maybe not. If we blame Peggy’s distress entirely on her era, we risk missing the ways in which her situation is familiar.”
That idea – that what happens to the women of Mad Men reflects some of what goes on to this day – makes the show. Well, at least it makes the show something to really think about for young women. Most of us grew up being told we can “do anything” although as we move through the world, we find increasingly that’s not the whole story.
And the evidence?
Women are still fighting for equal pay. More on that in a moment.
We don’t reach the top of our game in numbers equal to our male counterparts.
There are fewer women in Australian federal parliament today than there were five years ago, and there have never ever been as many women as men.
The morning after the American State of the Union in January, I logged on to read the coverage. The first headline I saw? Hillary Clinton wore a headband. That’s right – the United States Secretary of State has entire photo galleries online devoted to her choice of headband.
And lets not forget the commentary – direct and indirect – about the “barrenness” of our own PM, or the fact that in March, 2012, Germaine Greer brought up the prime minister’s ill-fitting suits and “big arse” on ABC’s Q&A. Greer had a lot of good things to say about Julia Gillard, but in the end all anyone could remember was her take on the size of the prime minister’s arse.
Let’s face it, while a lot has changed, a lot hasn’t. Women might not be forced by law to endure rape in their relationships, or feel so trapped by their lives they begin shooting next door’s pigeons. But some of the appeal of Mad Men, for younger women at least, is that it doesn’t pretend life is rosy once you find some bloke to put a ring on your finger or land the job of your dreams.
Mad Men is full of imperfect characters, but the truth of the show is that it enables a more critical assessment of the power relationships at play at home and at work. And that’s precisely what Mad Men‘s makers set out to enable.
As the show’s executive story editor, Robin Veith, said in 2009, many of the storylines are drawn from the real life experiences of the women writers of the show.
“There’s more decorum about it now. People have trained themselves to hide it better. I’ve worked in many offices, and that stuff still goes on. It’s just not as blatant, and women have learned to draw lines a little more strongly,” Vieth said.
And series creator Matthew Weiner is pretty upfront about what he set out to achieve. When the show debuted in 2007, he said it was a kind of science fiction, in that it uses a different time to portray problems that continue to exist today.
When we left them at the end of season four in 2010, the women of Mad Men were each living very different lives. Peggy was focused on her career, fighting for recognition and reward and often feeling undervalued by Don – who sees her as ungrateful for being given the opportunity to work as hard as a man for less money. Joan is married to a volatile husband who wanted a prize not an equal, and to boot, she’s pregnant with her boss’ illegitimate child. Betty, remarried since her divorce from Don, is still struggling to find any kind of happiness in her life as a housewife.
If Peggy is the pioneer, then Betty is the throwback. She’s a 1950s housewife in the sexually-liberated 1960s. Her identity is wrapped up in her marriages, her children, her looks. And although she was raised to want a version of the life she has achieved, she is grindingly, perpetually unhappy. Sometimes her self-destructive streak is painful to watch. Here she is flirting with the neighbour’s early teenage son. Now she’s drinking a gimlet in a dingy bar, steeling herself for a revenge-fuelled one-night stand. Next she’s considering divorce, and without missing a beat she’s married again. Her quest for fulfillment through relationships is matched by no other character, save her ex-husband, Don.
Joan walks the line between working woman and housewife. Having independence and being valued for her skills is very important to Joan. But so, too, is having a husband. She is vulnerable, and perhaps more than any other woman portrayed in Mad Men, being loved is central to her happiness. It’s shocking when Joan stays with her abusive fiancé. It is horrific to watch her tiptoe around the violence at the centre of her home life.
But it’s not something that’s left in the past. Watching the debate around the two singles that singers Rihanna and Chris Brown released after February’s Grammy awards, it is clear domestic violence, and how we view it, is an ongoing concern.
Rihanna, who was viciously beaten by Brown in 2009 while they were in a relationship, is now calling on his critics to forgive him, saying she has moved on, and we all should, too. But when you read comments like these from her father – “Chris is a nice guy, and everybody’s entitled to make mistakes in their life. God knows how many I’ve made” – it is hard to accept that Rihanna isn’t stuck in a difficult situation without a lot of support.
She’s a powerful, talented, rich woman and she’s still unable to exclude a violent ex from her life. If Rihanna can’t break free, who can?
Mad Men ‘s confronting assessments of the lot of middle-class, American, white women in the 1960s are not based in fantasy, nor are they designed to elicit self-congratulatory back-patting among today’s employers. As Veith and Weiner say, they are designed to show how far we have not come.
Writing in The Washington Post in 2010, historian Stephanie Coontz praised Mad Men as television’s most feminist show.
“Every historian I know loves the show; it is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced. And despite the rampant chauvinism of virtually all its male characters (and some of its female ones), it is also one of the most sympathetic to women. Mad Men‘s authentic portrait of women’s lives in the early 1960s makes it hard for some women to watch,” she wrote.
When she says some find it hard to watch, Coontz is talking about the women who lived through that period. But for those of us who’ve read the texts and heard the stories, Mad Men provides another dimension, and a bit more context.
In 2006, then Prime Minister John Howard gave an interview about his government’s baby bonus scheme in which he said he believed women today are living in a post-feminist era.
“Fortunately, I think today’s younger women are more in the post-feminist period, where they don’t sort of measure their independence and freedom by the number of years they remain full-time in the workforce without having children,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.
There is a lot of talk about post-feminism. It is a powerful idea that has been bandied around for years. Young women are told the fight is over, that the steps taken by their mothers and sometimes their grandmothers have led to a solid, equal playing field. In some cases women are told the rights of men are now being curtailed. If you believe ideology is a battleground, well, then, feminism and its noughties version, post-feminism, is one of the bloodiest.
For women of my generation the message was delivered very clearly. “Girls can do anything” was the motto of the 1980s and 90s. Growing up, many of us didn’t stop to think about that too deeply. But the women I know all had their moment – usually as a teenager, sometimes earlier, sometimes later – where they looked around and said, “Hang on, something’s not quite right.”
In 1999 Courtney Love’s grunge rock outfit, Hole, toured Australia for the Big Day Out. The band’s first Australian stop on the festival’s calendar was Queensland’s Gold Coast showgrounds, where Hole played an energetic festival set. At the end, Love held up her guitar and surveyed the crowd. Pointing out a woman a few rows back, she directed the bouncers to give her the guitar. On the way to its intended target, the guitar got waylaid when a keen male fan grabbed at it. Love didn’t miss a beat. “Hey, not you. No. Not you,” she said. “Every time you make a dollar, she makes 62 cents. She gets a guitar, you don’t.” And with that, she departed the stage. Aged 15, and at my first big festival, I was just beginning to understand what Love was saying.
That was 13 years ago.
How disappointing then, that after decades of improvement, the pay gap between men and women in Australia is growing again. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Many of the changes that took place in the era of Mad Men – the rise of women in the workplace, increasing divorce rates, legal recognition of women’s bodily autonomy from their husbands, access to birth control, more and more women entering education and staying there – while revolutionary, were not absolute. And the problems were not magically solved.
And in a way, that’s the central pull of Mad Men. The imperfect world of Peggy, Joan and Betty echoes our own imperfect world, with its inequalities, violence and oppression that continue to exist, in some form or another.
Some of it is insidious and institutionalised. I am interviewing women in scientific fields for a series I am writing for The Global Mail, and in the course of these interviews with these incredibly intelligent, ambitious women who have achieved so much, I am told over and over again that men more often put their hands up for grants, push harder for promotion, and back themselves more. When men and women apply in equal number, the women get the work in equal share, because they are just as worthy. It is just they don’t as often think they are.
That’s Peggy’s story arc. She’s broken through that barrier, she believes she deserves success and she pushes for it – sometimes. But she’s constantly cataloging the ways in which her work is undervalued, and the way her extra effort goes unnoticed.
But some of the oppression is overt and resurgent. Writing about attempts in the United States to legislate significant restrictions around women’s reproductive health, Soraya Chemaly said: “The rest of the civilized world thinks this country has lost its mind. It’s no wonder.”
Her words, imbued with a white-hot rage, point to the surprise many younger Western women feel when they encounter blatant throwbacks to an era they’ve been told is dead and gone. What John Howard was articulating in 2006 was a reflection perhaps of the idea that the women who are in their 20s and 30s today don’t wear their career achievements as a badge of honour. That’s true. We were taught to expect if we work hard, we can do anything even if, as we emerge from our teens and into womanhood, we increasingly see that that’s not necessarily so. Having been brought up to believe that equality has arrived, when inequality strikes it shocks us.
But that doesn’t mean young women don’t know it when they see it. Or that young women don’t see the value of feminism.
What will happen to our 1960s trailblazers, Peggy, Joan and Betty? That remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure — if Mad Men‘s audience did not see in these women’s stories elements of their own experiences, the show would not have enjoyed such strong success. We are invested, not in the costumes or the quirks, but in the lives of those deeply flawed women and men.
There but for the grace of God, go I – and all that…
This post originally appeared on The Global Mail. You can see it here.