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Mad Men: Have Things Really Changed?

November 3, 2009

I started watching the AMC series Mad Men a few weeks ago, the show is set in the early 1960’s and follows the lives of a few ad men and the women in their lives, from their secretaries, to their mistresses and to their wives. My interest in the show, at least at the beginning, was in the novelty of watching the lives of people from a different time period: the clothes, the speech, the fact that EVERYONE SMOKES ALL THE TIME. 

Beyond the novelty, came the characters and the way they interact with each other and the most notable interactions, at least for me, are between the men and the women. I’m sure there are a few people who watch the gender dynamics and think to themselves “ah the good old days when you’d come home and your wife would have dinner for you on the table” and if you’re anything like me you might have sighed a sigh of relief “thank god things have changed”.

The thing is though, the more I watch the show the more I realize that things really haven’t changed as much as you’d think and that was a realization that was much more disturbing than anything I had seen so far. Every subject that the writers of Mad Men tackle: gender roles, abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, religion, war, and racism, are all still very much present today. Of course a lot of things have changed, laws have been put in place that make prejudice and out and out wrongdoing illegal.

People are equal in the eyes of the law, at least in theory, and although discrimination has become much more subtle it is still very much a problem in our society. Sure, you might not hear people call someone a pervert for being gay, at least not in an office full of people, but you know damn well that kind of discrimination is still happening. Racism and oppression still abounds. The last episode I watched showed a TV clip of JFK addressing the issue of riots that had taken place down in the south when the first black kid was allowed to register in a college (the name of which I forget), but it’s what he said that struck me the most, let me paraphrase: “People don’t have to like a law, but they do have to obey it”. 

What JFK said in that TV interview is very much true, and although he probably had good intentions in saying what he said, it doesn’t exactly foster change in a very productive way, because that’s what we still see today. It might be illegal to discriminate against a woman, a homosexual or a non-white person, but hell you can go on hating them in the privacy of your own home if you want to. As long as you follow the law, because appearance is all that matters. 

I for one, don’t believe that to be true. Don’t get me wrong, fighting to be heard and changing legislation is a powerful thing to be a part of and to see happen, but we have to go beyond that. What happens after “equal rights for all”? What happens now? It’s all still there bubbling underneath the surface, and I recognize the all too familiar dynamics I see between the characters of Mad Men in my life and in those around me. How do we do it, how do we change the way people think and feel? Everything seems to hinge on changing a person’s behavior, but the problem still exists if you can’t change the ingrained thoughts that move a person to act. 

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessie permalink
    November 3, 2009 10:55 pm

    so interesting. I was in this class called race and ethnicity this summer that is really talking about the same issues…”polite prejudice” this underlying, almost more damaging racism and sexism and prejudice. It’s a bit like figuring out the formula and manipulating it…so for instance, in Canada we use the fact that we are multi-cultural as a positive thing all the time, but isn’t the whole idea of separating and labeling physical difference a tad bit racist in itself?

    I think people mostly have good intentions, but are unaware of the prejudices they hold…the key now, in all aspects of life is to be aware that we have the critical minds to know better, and try to have some sensitivity and depth in how we think of these issues. That might help…

  2. November 4, 2009 12:41 am

    “Polite prejudice”, as you put it, is so pervasive that it is still very damaging. The last two thousand years have been so filled with all kinds of racism, sexism and discrimination that it is so deeply imbedded in our society that most of the time we don’t even notice it unless it’s blatantly put right in front of us, and even when it is, we are also taught to mind our own business and to avoid confrontation, so most of the time, unless your cool with being a total pain in the ass by most people’s account, you just don’t do anything about it. And sometimes the inaction simply stems from not knowing what to do. It’s so easy sometimes to think “what’s the fucking point”, but you have a good point about awareness and critical thinking. That is something that helps. Being a “good person” is always something that’s in progress, and everyday I learn more about what it means to be more aware….

    I tried to finish that sentence with something that I am more aware OF, but after thinking about it for a bit, I decided to leave it open ended, because being “more aware” is the point.

  3. Daveoh permalink
    November 4, 2009 1:05 am

    I think you just need to be more patient.

    I was alive and well in the 60’s. To say that things really haven’t changed underneath is, in my opinion, wrong. They have changed a lot. To be frank the world I grew up in in the 60’s (and 70’s) no longer exists in any way, shape or form. If you think the “underlying racism/sexism/ismismism” is still there now you are right. But it is impossible to expect the quantum shift in the world view (well, the Western world anyway) that has occurred so quickly to completely settle with absolutely everyone in a mere 4 or 5 decades. There are and will continue to be vestiges of reactionary thought. Indeed, the degree and speed of change has left many bewildered and desperately seeking an opinion, a voice or an idea they still recognize. And don’t forget that even this blog (with the title Cuntlove) would have been deemed obscene even in the 70’s. You would have been locked up for trying to publish it, and ostracized in virtually every community. Instead, while you still can’t say ‘cunt’ on the front page of the New York Times, your ideas are now considered as thoughtful, reasoned and- dare I say- almost mainstream.

    Please indulge my old man thinking and consider that more has changed in a very short time then during any other period in history. Yes, it still has a way to go in some areas. But I dare say you have a freedom of thought, deed, action and lifestyle that would have been unthinkable a short time ago. That is, I think, something to be thankful for.

  4. November 4, 2009 1:43 am

    Daveoh: Thanks for your reply, it does put things into context. Perhaps, I am too impatient, and although it’s not an excuse, I suppose I become frustrated, from a feminist standpoint, when women are satisfied with the progress that we have made and even worse still believe that there is no more progress to be made. It’s true that a lot of things have been achieved in a short amount of time, but I still feel like all those isms float much too near to the surface for my liking.

    Have you watched the show Mad Men? I would be interested to know if, in your opinion, it lives up to the reality you lived through in the 60’s.

    I am thankful for the freedom of “thought, deed, action and lifestyle” that equal right pioneers have made a reality for me and my generation. I’m grateful to the people who stood up and did something, often at their own peril, so that I could grow up in a world where I can have a blog and call it Cuntlove if I desire to do so, and I am grateful to live in a part of the world where this is my reality, but how far should my gratefulness go? Should a person be grateful to be given something that is undeniably theirs in the first place? Shouldn’t what is juste be a reality instead of something that can be bestowed upon someone else by whomever holds the power?

    Those questions weren’t directed towards you in particular, I just think it’s something to think about.

    Example: If a government whom has enslaved and colonized an entire people, stripping them of all their rights and freedoms, one day decides to give it all back, as well as the land they had usurp by force in the first place, should the enslaved people be grateful?

    Like I said, this is just something that your response made me think of, I don’t have the answers, but I would appreciate some input.

  5. wakingpersephone permalink
    November 4, 2009 9:12 am

    “The thing is though, the more I watch the show the more I realize that things really haven’t changed as much as you’d think and that was a realization that was much more disturbing than anything I had seen so far.”

    Which is what makes this show soooooo fascinating.
    That and seeing where so much of our current behaviour (and societal conventions etc) stem from. This show has had me hooked from day one.

    There ARE some radical differences between then and now in the show but you’re very right, in many ways not much has changed and it’s a trip to watch and try to wrap your head around why that is. And why people won’t acknowledge it 😉

  6. November 4, 2009 2:31 pm

    I never considered it, but it’s an interesting point: that through the show we can see were some of this behavior stems from.

    “in many ways not much has changed and it’s a trip to watch and try to wrap your head around why that is. And why people won’t acknowledge it”…Yes! that’s definitely a fascinating aspect.

  7. Daveoh permalink
    November 4, 2009 4:13 pm

    “There ARE some radical differences between then and now in the show but you’re very right, in many ways not much has changed and it’s a trip to watch and try to wrap your head around why that is”

    To answer one of your questions, Olga, I have not seen the show. Yet!

    However, the show cannot help but be inherently flawed because, while it is set in the 60’s it was made in 2008 or 2009 by writers and actors who probably weren’t even born when the show is supposed to take place. To really see how things were then, look at re-runs of Twilight Zone, Bewitched, Gidget, The Patty Duke Show, Andy of Mayberry and others that are authentic 60’s shows. Again, I haven’t yet see Madmen, but it will be interesting. There is more subtext to the 60’s than the fact that everyone seemed to smoke. So for me, the jury is still out on that.

    To the other point is that if one wants to wonder why people haven’t changed, the answer might be because we are still humans with the same needs, wants and desires we have had since the dawn of time. The only thing that changes is meeting those needs given different opportunities, technology and moral opinions.

    You won’t change human nature. Xenophobia is a primal defense mechanism (along with all its various permutations) that ensured our survival for thousands of years. As we became less ignorant our xenophobia dissipated as it became less necessary, but it hasn’t disappeared completely. Perhaps it will over time, but as I said earlier 4 or 5 decades isn’t nearly enough. Having the notion that you “find/defend food/shelter or become food and have another tribe take your shelter” is hardwired into our DNA. I think we as a species are doing quite well overall shedding that. Obviously we are on the right track and have been for some time (I don’t think either of us would relish living in the bronze age, never mind the 1960’s).

    That said, I MUST have a look at this show!

  8. November 4, 2009 4:52 pm

    “You won’t change human nature.” I don’t know about that, part of me wants to say that of course we can change and then part of me wants to say that xenophobia isn’t inherently part of human nature…let alone the debatable idea of their being a human nature to begin with.

  9. November 4, 2009 9:46 pm

    For me, while I enjoy watching Mad Men, & I understand that it’s explicitly critiquing atitudes etc, of the time. I’m a little concerned about this nostalgic trend of the 1960’s that Mad Men is a (highly visable and significant) part of. I think in this nostalgic view, it’s easy to look past the satire and criticism of the show and read it only superficially – I’ve certainly read and heard a lot about Mad men parties in particular, where people dress up pretty and engage in some old fashioned gender stereotyping, making it a little more culturally acceptable (again). It’s just a little gender politcs niggle and on the scale of things perhaps not a big deal, but it still concerns me.

  10. November 4, 2009 10:12 pm

    I hadn’t heard about that, it definitely a trend to be concerned about or at the very least it’s something interesting to observe.

  11. November 5, 2009 7:59 am

    On the subject of Mad Men parties (and this will have to be brief because I need to go to work), I think the reason that dressing up like the 60s and romanticizing about it has less to do with gender politics and everything to do with the self and society. Don’t forget how the 50s are looked back on as the golden years and Mad Men takes place just at the end of it, where the disillusionment began to settle in. If there is ever an era of disillusionment to reflect that, it is this one. At the time, you got a career at one business and worked your way up. Defining yourself by what you did didn’t seem so weighted or frustrating as is does now because now it’s so malleable, unpredictable, and not anything like we thought it would be like in school. Perhaps people aren’t necessarily re-enacting imbalanced gender roles but looking back to a time that’s rose-coloured, that they can only be nostalgic about because they didn’t live through it and can’t judge it’s superficial perfection.

  12. November 5, 2009 6:59 pm

    I often find myself nostalgic for eras and time periods I did not live through, but the strange thing is, that if I play the whole “imagining myself being part of another decade’s zeitgeist” game, I usually come out thinking that it would be a much easier transition if I were a man.

    I was recently told about a comedian (whose name I forget) who did a whole skit about how if a time machine that would allow you to go to the past were invented it would probably really suck for anyone who wasn’t a white male. There are some decades or entire centuries, really, you really wouldn’t want to visit if you were considered an “other”. The way the skit was described to me was pretty funny and it brings up a good point, but at the same time I think that a lot of people would love the opportunity to be part of something that may have been a struggle, but ultimately changed the world for better, like: the equal rights movement.

    Although Martin Luther King probably didn’t lead an “easy” life, I’m pretty confident he wouldn’t have exchanged his life for something “easier”. In fact, I’m sure of it, because he could have shut up, right? And he wouldn’t have been assassinated, but he choose something else: a life worth dying for. Think about it, he led a life with a conviction so deep and unshakable that he died for his beliefs, he died for what’s right. How many people can say that. I might like to think of myself as that kind of person, but who knows how far anyone is willing to go when faced with personal harm.

    Tangent over….All that to say, good comment, Liz.

  13. wakingpersephone permalink
    November 5, 2009 9:19 pm

    To really see how things were then, look at re-runs of Twilight Zone, Bewitched, Gidget, The Patty Duke Show, Andy of Mayberry and others that are authentic 60’s shows. Again, I haven’t yet see Madmen, but it will be interesting. There is more subtext to the 60’s than the fact that everyone seemed to smoke. So for me, the jury is still out on that.

    ok but you can’t take Leave it to Beaver and apply that to the entire culture. There’s way more that has informed peoples’ experiences growing up as a child in the 60s with parents who were adults then. For example in season one (and this is when I realized how brilliant this show really was in its subtlety) Sally Draper is playing in the closet. She has taken the plastic drycleaning bag off of Mom’s dress and put it over head. Mom opens the closet door and yells at Sally: Sally Draper stop messing up my clothes!

    No concern for the fact that the kid could suffocate from the plastic bag over her head.

    This is how (some of) our parents grew up and it makes a difference in how they interacted with us when we were young children. Things are so much different now but your parents still grew up in that overall environment.

    Know what I mean?

  14. November 5, 2009 9:46 pm

    I clearly remember that scene and I thought the exact same thing. There was no mention of the plastic bag over her head and the fact that it could be dangerous. In a way, I found it a little refreshing, since parents these days seems to be overly concerned about safety and things like that. It might sound strange, but I really do think that the present culture we live in is a tad too paranoid and fearful. Blame it on the news if you like! I do sometimes. We live in such a culture of fear that it leads some people to extremes. Think of all the antibacterial products out there, it’s enough to give anyone obsessive compulsive disorders.

    But back to the show, there are so many moments like the one that you mention that really strike a cord even today, which is pretty much what I was talking about in my original post. They are so touching and slightly disturbing in the fact that I recognize my reality in them, which I think is what frightened me to begin with. That’s why the show is so great, because it really is about the characters as opposed to a novelty show about another era. They are so well developed that they transcend their own decade, in a way to speak.

    The scene were Greg rapes Joan on the floor of Draper’s office, and really the entire dynamic of their relationship, is so close to reality that it’s hard to separate the time we live in from the time that is shown on the screen. What she’s feeling in that moment and the reasons that make it “OK” for him to do what he did are still present in the lives that we live today. And that thought is scary and sad.

  15. Daveoh permalink
    November 7, 2009 9:03 pm

    ” Sally Draper is playing in the closet. She has taken the plastic drycleaning bag off of Mom’s dress and put it over head. Mom opens the closet door and yells at Sally: Sally Draper stop messing up my clothes!

    No concern for the fact that the kid could suffocate from the plastic bag over her head.”

    No we didn’t worry about such things. Nor did we worry about seat belts, 2nd hand smoke, carcinogens in barbecued meat or the fact that we might end up dead or abused because of some sexual predator living in our midst.

    And still we managed to survive without government restrictions or guidelines and lived unencumbered (The last generation to do so, in my opinion) by chronic fears of death, death, death, fear, toxic waste, genetically-modified food, unsafe cars and dismemberment from products made by greedy corporations. We just got on with it. And in so doing we changed the world- for the better, thank you very much- by taking risks and challenging conventions with NO guarantees that all would be well, peaceful and respectful. And it wasn’t.

    It’s worth thinking about.

    And Olga, as to your point about not believing in “the existence of human nature”….I taught high school for 12 years and saw human nature at its finest: the strong and the weak and the primal instincts that underlie our behaviour. (As Madeline Albright, the former US Secretary of State once said: “Anyone who thinks the world would be a better place if women ran it obviously doesn’t remember high school”)

    You may congratulate yourself (justifiably) on being an evolved, progressive, liberal human being. And you are. But you would, however, be deluding yourself to think that humanity is not a global catastrophe away from returning to its primal imperatives. We have the luxury of our “evolvedness” because we live by the rule of law in an affluent and tolerant liberal democracy. I am not sure if you have read Lord of the Files, but it is exactly what would happen should the unthinkable happen.

    I, for one, never lose sight of that.

  16. charles permalink
    September 17, 2011 4:39 am

    For us humans, otherness is a wonderful treasure trove and a big difficulty. We all struggle with it and revel in it. But achieving ease with the other – in this case man with woman and vice versa – is hard to achieve – though hugely worth while.

    There is such an accretion of fear (transforming into contempt), on the part of men. Millennia of Jewish, Christian and Muslim deities who are all masculine, for instance. So it would be unrealistic to expect it all to be resolved in a generation or so.

    For me there will always be something magical, miraculous about a woman – frrom the way the ovum is fertilised, to the growth of the foetus inside her, nourished by her, until birth. And a woman’s cunt is the beautiful, delicious gateway to these miracles.

    You probably all know the story of Tiresias, who spent some time as a woman (I can’t remember why) before returning to his original state. He was asked whether sexual pleasure and fulfilment was better as a man than a woman, and he answered ‘as a woman; emphatically so’.

    Perhaps, then, we men are all a bit envious.

    charles

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