From the 1900s to about 1960, American literature seems to organize around four major concepts about the country: That America is new, that America is big, that America is rich, and that America is free (McDonald). The study of the television show Mad Men addresses at least three of these concepts -- new, rich, and free -- but as circumscribed by the boundaries of the advertising world of Madison Avenue. The advertising business has been made new for television. The advertising world has not yet seen the creative revolution in advertising that grew out of the work of agencies like Doyle Dane Bernbach and Grey. The 1959 Volkswagen advertising campaign conducted by Doyle Dane Bernbach altered the face of advertising -- it is now considered an iconic representation of 1960s advertising. The ad-men of Madison Avenue often did very well, becoming rich during their ascension to the top rungs of the advertising world. With that level of rich comes an equivalent level of freedom. Not only was the advertising world free to experiment and create profoundly different advertising tone and technique, but the ad-men themselves experienced the sort of freedom that comes with money, status, and power. For each of these frames that both isolate and combine the effects of a fresh, wealthy, and liberated advertising business dominated by W.A.S.P. men, the experiences of women on the periphery of the business -- as secretaries, assistants, and wives -- were radically different from the experiences of the ad-men at the core. This paper will explore the film "treatment" of women in the Mad Men television show, the period placement of the show, and the cultural showcasing that the show provides.
Are the Women of 'Mad Men' Mad, Too?
The "Mad Men" of Sterling Cooper advertising agency are caught in a time warp between the conformity of the Cold War period and the repression of the McCarthy era in the 1950s. The angst-ridden -- yet breathtaking -- cultural revolution and social upheaval of the 1960s had not yet unfolded. A collective voice of discontent among American women could be heard prior to Betty Friedan's identification of "the problem that has no name" in The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. Friedan honed in on the 15 years following World War II when women slipped quietly and -- from all appearances -- blissfully into an improving domestic "home" front. Friedan, giving lift to consciousness-raising, wrote,
Nobody argued whether women were inferior or superior to men; they were simply different. Words like "emancipation" and "career" sounded strange and embarrassing; no one had used them for years. When a Frenchwoman named Simone de Beauvoir wrote a book called The Second Sex, an American critic commented that she obviously "didn't know what life was all about," and besides, she was talking about French women. The "woman problem" in America no longer existed.
The Equal Pay Act would not be passed until 1963 and the National Organization of Women would not be founded until 1966. A post-World War II trend saw a precipitous decline in college attendance of women compared to men, from 47% in 1920 to 35% in 1958 (Friedan, 1963). The work of early feminists a century earlier seemed to be forgotten -- put on the back burner in sleek turquoise and sunflower yellow kitchens across America. Where women had fought for the right to attend institutions of higher education, young women in the 1950s went to college to "land" a husband. Friedan (1963) wrote, By the mid-fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar. Colleges built dormitories for "married students," but the students were almost always the husbands. A new degree was instituted for the wives -- "Ph.T." (Putting Husband Through). (p.1).
The characters of Mad Men, riding the coattails of the I Love Lucy era, would be comfortable inviting Phyllis Schlafly to dinner. Schlafly's anti-feminism, anti-abortion, anti-Semitic, conservative-conspiracy-theory approach to politics is a point-by-point match to zeitgeist of the Madison Avenue ad-men. Betty Friedan would not be asked to sit down to a meal -- or even meet for drinks at the Italian Pavilion on West 55th Street. Friedan represented a threat to the status of the men on Madison Avenue and every other bastion of masculinity in a society that seemed hell-bent on eroding the rights of women -- rights hard-won on the Western frontier and the converted factories of an America at war. By Friedan's telling, "In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture" (Friedan).
Not What You Write Home About
Matthew Weiner, the creator and show-runner of Mad Men, is far from being an apologist for the bigotry, the sexism, or even the smoking, said in an article in The New York Times, "You can't look at 1960 and say, 'Why aren't you doing a show about 1965?" (Witchel). Weiner fends off critics, explaining that he chose advertising as the vehicle for the story he wanted to tell. "It's a great way to talk about the image we have of ourselves, versus who we really are," Weiner told Witchel of The New York Times. "And admen were the rock stars of that era, creative, cocky, anti-authority. They made a lot of money, and they lived hard…Sterling Cooper is not cutting edge; it's mired in the past…they're dinosaurs" (Witchel). The dinosaur dimension of Sterling Cooper has two edges. One of the "show's ironies is that [the ad-men of Sterling Cooper] are dinosaurs not just in terms of the impending social revolutions of the 1960s but also in terms of the creative revolution that would roil advertising that decade" (Handy).
Bob Levinson recently retired from International Creative Management (I.C.M.) -- one of the world's largest talent and literary agencies with offices in Los Angeles, New York, and London -- as head of the television department. Levinson spent 20 years at BBDO of New York, working in the television and media departments since 1960" (Witchel). He remembers the work well. "What he [Matt Weiner] captured was so real. The drinking was commonplace, the smoking was constant, the relationships between the executives and the secretaries was exactly right. Two or three women moved ahead only because the men they worked for wanted them to" (Witchel).
Although Weiner did conceptualize the show as a means of reconstructing and paying tribute to the "primetime" life of his parents, who relished all that they perceived as good about the era. And though postmodernity is predicated on nostalgia -- evidenced by a longing for imagined good times -- Mad Men is not about nostalgia (Lavery; McCabe & Akass). The show is much too clear-eyed about the era for that tag. Man Men is about deconstruction of ideals. Weiner peppers the show with wisecracks that are decidedly anti-Semitic, and he places the characters solidly in their period by letting pregnant characters smoke. The portrayal of both men and women in the show is intended to pull aside the curtain of innocence. The ironies of 1950s television standards, such as twin beds in master bedrooms in households with several -- or dozens -- of children, don't hold water in Weiner's shows. If the women in Mad Men seem incomparably iconic, exemplifying an "improbably compelling adaptation of The Feminine Mystique," these same women counter the emptiness they undoubtedly feel with an ironic sexual freedom -- they engage in hotel sex and office sex, creating a corporate version of the casting couch. The sexual freedom is not free at all, tied as it is to the conventional trade-offs of unequal gender-based relationships in a society that had not yet experienced the cultural shifts brought about by three waves of feminism (Johnson). For example, when the character Roger Sterling has a mid-day tryst with the voluptuous secretary Joan Holloway at a hotel, he offers to stop "sneaking around" and leave his wife. Joan retorts, "I know as much about men as you know about advertising, and I know that he sneaking around is your favorite part" (Hardy). In another example, Weiner has this to say about Betty Draper's character in relation to her on-screen husband, Don Draper: "She's not cliche -- the frigid wife. She married that man for a reason, because he's…handsome. She signed on with a guy she doesn't know at all…And then she's ashamed of it, because she knew the sex was what it was all about" (Hardy).
Low Concept, High Modernism
The show Mad Men would not be considered high concept -- the Hollywood vernacular for a story that can be pitched, with all the plot complexity understood, in just one to three lines -- it does depict high modernism. The story line is highly iconic, embedded in the interpersonal drama, and does not have the mass appeal of a high concept idea. For instance, January Jones says, "A lot of what I do…