MAD MEN: When the Past reflects the Present

I wrote this essay to apply to the master’s course I’m currently doing. Any feedback or comments are welcome.

Mad Men – the TV series created by Matthew Weiner, winner of fifteen Emmy Awards and four Golden Globes, and considered among the best written TV shows of all time (according to the Writers Guild of America) – will release the second part of its seventh and final season in April of this year. It will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most accurate and glamorous period TV dramas ever made. Jane Maas – a female copywriter who worked at the legendary advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather in the sixties – said to the New York Post that this series “gets lots of details right, including the mechanics of an ad agency, the lack of diversity in the industry and the ubiquity of cigarettes”[1]; as well as the employment status of women at the time.

It’s no coincidence that Weiner chose Madison Avenue as the setting for his show, given that the sixties were the Golden Age of advertising: “The 1960s was arguably the most vibrant, and certainly the most tempestuous decade in the history of advertising”[2]. Likewise, the 60s was a decade of great expansion; “more people were needed to market products and services as more people were becoming consumers. Along with this, more products and technologies were being introduced”[3] and inevitably, these products influenced people’s lifestyles and affected their purses.

Weiner uses advertising as a means to portray the social values and roles of men and women in the sixties and to show us that not all that much has changed, especially in regards to sexism. According to therapist Mario Guerra, we define sexism as all differential treatment “to a person for reasons of their biological sex […] it can be from male to female, female to male, men to men and women to women […] it is not a personal attribute, but a form of relationship. Therefore, it is not difficult to find homes governed by the rules of maleness in which there are no men.”[4]

How is sexism shown in Mad Men? Most of the main male characters are wealthy businessmen who drink a lot and have sex out of wedlock with their co-workers, secretaries or prostitutes as a way of flaunting their masculinity and power, and many of the female characters are secretaries and women who portray the stereotype of the middle class housewife.

That’s the case of Betty Draper (January Jones), the first wife of protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm). She was born in an upper-middle class family; she’s fluent in Italian and studied modelling[5], but she abandoned her career to get married and have children. In the first season, she tries to work again as a model, but fails. Furthermore, due to several emotional experiences, such as the recent death of her mother and conflicts in her marriage, Don sends her to therapy.

Lots of middle class housewives were very similar to Betty Draper. In the sixties, women were expected to follow that one single path: get married before 25, have children and dedicate their whole life to their husbands and family: “the housewife, with their suburban and technological kitchen, became a symbol of American superiority during the Cold War.”[6] In some U.S. states, married women couldn’t get a credit card without their husbands’ signature, divorce was hard to obtain[7], there were no laws against sexual harassment or rape within marriage and only men had access to the Ivy League higher education (Yale and Princeton didn’t have female students until 1969). Therefore, the jobs women could aspire were limited to teaching, nursing and secretarial.

Sexism against women didn’t only happen on a social level; it happened in the media, and of course, in advertising. In 1951 Van Heusen, a tie brand, released the “Show her it’s a man’s world” ad, which showed a man resting in his bed while his wife served him breakfast on her knees. A year later, the coffee brand Chase & Sanborn released the “If your husband ever finds out” ad, in which an upset man sat on a chair and spanked his wife. In 1964, one of the Volkswagen campaigns made fun of women by portraying them as clumsy drivers: “Sooner or later your wife will drive home. One of the reasons for owning a Volkswagen […] Women are soft and gentle, but they hit things […] it may make you furious, but it won’t make you poor”.

This is why feminists of the sixties pointed out how crucial a role advertising played in the way Americans saw themselves: “We had been taught to look at ads to see how to dress, what to eat, how our houses and our cars should appear – and in the case of women, what women should do and how they should act.”[8]

People started to see that advertising limited the lifestyle of women by “perpetuating the care of the children, decorating the home, making life easy for the husband as the final goal of the woman’s life and the ultimate high wall around her creative opportunities.”[9] Other feminists followed with increasing resentment over advertising’s repeated use of women as either sex objects or brainless housewives wildly excited about a detergent or a new decaffeinated coffee. They resented the implication that women were preoccupied with cosmetics, style, fashion, and attracting men. And throughout, they accused advertising of selling this idea in a thousand subtle ways that a woman’s place was in the home.[10]

 Mad Men’s leading female character is the one who tries to break free from this norm and live the ‘American dream’. This is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a lower class girl from Brooklyn who graduated from a secretary school and looks for an opportunity at Sterling Cooper Ad Agency.

Peggy’s life changes completely when senior copywriter Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) discovers her talent as a publicist when she participates in a focus group for Belle Jolie lipstick. This is when Peggy stopped being Don Draper’s secretary and joined the copywriting team. And yet, her life got more complicated. Her co-workers didn’t take her seriously and only let her work on campaigns related to female products. Her office was the photocopying room, she didn’t have an assistant and even though she spent more time working, her salary was noticeably lower.

The show also depicts woman-to-woman sexism. Peggy’s mother, Katherine (Myra Turley) a very Catholic and conservative woman, rarely supports her daughter’s decisions, especially when Peggy decides to live with her boyfriend Abe. Katherine says she is living in sin.

Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré) is another important female character. She started as a secretary at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) and then promoted to copywriter when she becomes Don Draper’s second wife. She shows talent as an advertiser (she wins a Clio Award), but Megan wants to become an actress. Unlike Betty, Megan doesn’t want to be a housewife and doesn’t even want to have children with Don and decides to move to L.A. to pursue her dream. Unfortunately, this situation damages her marriage.

Women weren’t only shown as sexual objects only in advertising, but also in real life. That’s the case for Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the office manager at Sterling Cooper. We’re led to think that Joan got her position because of her sensuality and because she had an affair with Roger Sterling (John Slattery), one of the agency’s name partners. That’s partly true; Joan’s looks helped her, but she didn’t want to be only a sexy redhead. Joan is as ambitious as Peggy and is willing to do anything to achieve her objectives. For example, she accepts to sleep with Herb Rennet from Jaguar, in order to secure that account and for a partnership at SCDP.

We could say that gender roles have changed somewhat over the last 50 years because they are not as exclusive as they used to be. They have been ‘modernized’ by portraying empowered women and domestic men in order to break old stereotypes. Examples include the dad portrayed in the Nissan “With Dad” ad, and last year the Under Armour sports clothing brand celebrated the determination and accomplishment of ballerina Misty Copeland through the ad “I will what I want”, where Copeland shows off her talent, even though they told her she was too old and didn’t have the body for ballet.

Nonetheless, sexism hasn’t disappeared. Advertising still “keeps relating men to action and autonomy, and women to feelings, seduction and dependence”[11], it often uses women’s sexuality to sell a product, even if their presence is not related to it, and now it attacks both men and women.

In March of last year, the Australian insurance company “1st for women” released an ad where three dumb guys were about to touch an electric fence. The copy said, “Guys + more guys + Ja, but how do you know it hurts? That’s why we only insure women”. On the other hand, the brand of clothes, American Apparel, released a very controversial ad in July 2013, where a twenty-something girl is depicted as a sexual object by lying with her legs wide open. The title of that ad was “Now open” and the copy said, “Now hiring” and “Send a photo and a brief letter if you’re interested”.

Although sexism still exists, there’s more balance between the genders today than there was 50 years ago. There is, however, still a long road ahead of us. It is hard to say what needs to be done to stop sexism, but one thing is certain: if men and women continue competing against each other to prove gender superiority, the battle of the sexes will never end.

Bibliography:

Castañeda, Marina (2002). El machismo invisible. México: Grijalbo.

Loiseau, Marc; Pincas, Stéphane (2006). A History of Advertising. París: Mundocom.

Bloom, Alexander (Ed.). (2001). The Long Time Gone. Sixties America, Then and Now. New York: Oxford University Press.

Meyer, Jackie (2000). Mad Ave award-winning advertising of the 20th Century. New York: Universe.

Electronic Sources:

Friedan, Betty (1963). “The problem that has no name” in The Feminine Mystique. Retrieved from http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ows/seminars/tcentury/FeminineMystique.pdf, [consulted on February 8th, 2015]

Sciullo Pittsburgh, Maria. (July 25th, 2010). “Mad Men series inaccurately depicts difficulties of divorce for women in ‘60s”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/tv-radio/2010/07/25/Mad-Men-series-inaccurately-depicts-difficulties-of-divorce-for-women-in-60s/stories/201007250142 [Consulted on February 11th, 2015]

Guerra, Mario. (January 13th, 2015). “5 señales para detectar a un hombre sexista”. Podcast retrieved in http://www.marthadebayle.com/sitio/md/radio/martes-13-de-enero-de-2015/ [Consulted on January 16th, 2015]

Tucker, Reed. (March 13th, 2012). “Confessions of a real-life Mad Woman”, New York Post, retrieved from http://nypost.com/2012/03/13/confessions-of-a-real-life-mad-woman/ [Consulted on February 19th, 2015]

Sánchez Aranda, José J. “La publicidad y el enfoque de la imagen femenina”, Communication & Society, retrieved from http://www.unav.es/fcom/communication-society/es/articulo.php?art_id=100#C03 [Consulted on February 22nd, 2015]

[1] Reed Tucker, Confessions of a real-life Mad Woman in http://nypost.com/2012/03/13/confessions-of-a-real-life-mad-woman/

[2] George Lois, “1960’s” in Mad Ave award-winning advertising of the 20th Century, p. 112

[3] Karl Steinbrenner, “Mad Ave has moved”, Op. Cit., p. 129

[4] “todo trato diferenciado […] hacia a una persona por cuestión de su sexo biológico […] puede darse de hombres a mujeres, mujeres a hombres, hombres a hombres y mujeres a mujeres. Asimismo, el sexismo no es un atributo personal, sino una forma de relación. Por lo tanto, no es difícil encontrar hogares regidos por las reglas del machismo en los cuales no hay un solo hombre.” 5 señales para detectar a un hombre sexista, http://www.marthadebayle.com/sitio/md/radio/martes-13-de-enero-de-2015/

[5] “More and more women had education, which naturally made them unhappy in their role as housewives”. Betty Friedan, “The problem that has no name”. The Feminine Mystique, p. 22 http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ows/seminars/tcentury/FeminineMystique.pdf

[6] Sara M. Evans, “Sources of the second wave. The Rebirth of Feminism”. The Long Time Gone. Sixties America, Then and Now, p. 190

[7] “New York had one of the strictest divorce laws […] Divorce was still a big scandal. We always thought that Hollywood people could do it, but for the average person, there was a lot of guilt”. Maria Sciullo Pittsburgh. Mad Men series inaccurately depicts difficulties of divorce for women in 60s, http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/tv-radio/2010/07/25/Mad-Men-series-inaccurately-depicts-difficulties-of-divorce-for-women-in-60s/stories/201007250142

[8] Stéphane Pincas, Marc Loiseau, A History of Advertising, p. 255

[9] Ibidem, p. 258

[10]Idem

[11] “sigue asociando a los hombres con la acción y la autonomía, y a las mujeres con los sentimientos, la seducción y la dependencia”. Marina Castañeda, El machismo invisible, p. 263

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