I'm obsessed with Mad Men. I wasn't one of the millions who tuned in to watch the Season 4 premiere on Sunday night - only because we don't have cable - but I did pay 20 bucks to download the new season from iTunes. (Actually, my husband did it for me. Mostly, I think, to avoid the effects of Mad Men withdrawal on our marriage.)
Last night, I sat down and watched the opening episode on our desk top computer. When I should have been writing my CurrentMom blog. Then, I read way too many articles and blogs about the episode, ranging from the Wall Street Journal's highbrow analysis to Fashionista's style recap. And then I watched it all over again. And the "sneak peek" photos and preview for next week. Until well after midnight. So, I'll just blame Mad Men if this post isn't coherent.
I wasn't a "Mad Maniac" at first. In fact, I didn't start watching the show until earlier this year. But once I got hooked, I devoured (almost) all of the first three seasons on DVD. Now, I'm falling headlong (see the series' opening sequence) into the fourth.
I'm fascinated by my fascination. The last time I actually watched a television series - Northern Exposure - was sometime in the early 1990's. I never was much of a TV-watcher. And once career, spouse, kids, and the Internet came along, I pretty much shut the set off for good.
So what is it about Mad Men that's pulled me back? (Apart from the ability to download it. Legally, of course.)
The sharp writing and realistic acting?
The stunning but flawed characters?
The fabulous fashions and authentic sets?
The tumultuous events of the sixties poking through the plot?
The lurking changes to the entire social fabric?
Yes, yes, and yes.
The main lure of Mad Men for me are the mad women. (Although Jon Hamm, who plays the creative director Don Draper, is more than a close second.) And while that might not be obvious from the show's title, it's not surprising given that the majority of Mad Men writers - at least in the early seasons- were women. (We'll see what effect the departure of some of the more prominent women writers means in the weeks ahead.)
The show provides a prism for viewing my own life - and the lives of my female friends and colleagues - in a larger context. How does life for women in 2010 match up with life for women (or should I say "girls") in the sixties? What would our options have been, really? What path would I have taken? And who would I had been had I lived in the sixties? (Confession, I did live in that decade. But mostly in diapers. Or at least in pigtails, which my mom called "bunches," and patent leather Mary Janes.)
Now, I'm not planning on creating my own Mad Men avatar to answer these questions. (Yes, you really can give yourself a sixties persona on AMC's website.) And I don't think I'll find the answers either in any of the show's main female characters: the bored and trapped suburban housewife, Betty Draper (now Betty Francis); the naive but ambitious secretary-turned-copywriter, Peggy Olson; or the savvy, sexy office manager, Joan Harris. Memorable as these women are, it's hard for me to see myself in any of them. (Well, maybe Peggy. A little bit. In the office. But not in her personal life.)
There have been a few wonderfully-complex women, like Helen Bishop and Bobbie Barrett, in earlier seasons, who, like me, could probably be called "working moms." We don't really learn much about their parenting lives, however, apart from the weird relationship between Betty and Helen's son. And their jobs seem more a matter of chance (for Helen, divorce, for Bobbie, a husband who needs to be "managed")than choice. (Not that women who were mothers didn't work in the 1960's. But they often worked in "traditional" women's jobs such as teaching (like my mom), nursing, and clerical positions.) I don't think I'd be them either.
The one thing that's clear is that, back then, I certainly wouldn't be who I am now - a wife, mother, and lawyer (and CurrentMom blogger) who juggles these roles on a daily basis. Mad Men increasingly has hinted at the tremendous social, political, and economic changes to come that have made my life possible, but we're clearly not there yet. At least not when the new season opens in 1964. (The Feminist Mystique, by Betty Friedan, of course, had just hit the bestseller lists in 1963.)
But Mad Men also shows us that the world of 2010 is not quite as progressive as it seems. After the first season, MommyTracked pop culture blogger Meredith O'Brien pointed out that "there have been plenty of . . . moments when the beliefs about women and work in 1960 don’t seem vastly different from some of those held today." O'Brien wrote:
Even today, in some quarters, mothers’ employment still serves as a hot-button issue. When a woman becomes someone’s mother, her decision about her paid employment is perceived as some kind of political statement. If she decides to be an at-home mom -- like the majority of the “Mad Men” women -- contemporary feminists . . . . say she’s betraying the sisterhood, leaving herself financially vulnerable to lout husbands . . . and setting a poor example for her daughters. If she’s a working mom, some folks (those who adhere to socially traditional beliefs) pity her and her children by lamenting how her offspring are being raised by strangers, how she’s selfishly focusing on herself instead of her family. If she works part-time, she gets it from both sides. Even today, “Mad Men’s” divorced mom character, Helen Bishop, would be pitied by some for having to work, for not keeping a clean house, for serving her generation’s version of fast food to her young children and for having to rely on oftentimes unreliable child care providers. On the flip side, Betty Draper would likewise be pitied and despised for “wasting” her Bryn Mawr education and becoming an at-home mom whose chief job is to raise the kids, keep the house, look pretty and put dinner on the table. The propensity of people to critique women’s life choices, sadly, have not changed that much, despite the passage of 47 years.
Whew! O'Brien's insights are on the mark. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the season to come in Mad Men and, of course, in the real world.
Image via MShades on flickr.com.