Mad Men and the Movement

Mad Men succeeded in showing how social change seeps into otherwise unremarkable lives.

A promotional photo for "The Party's Over," the final season of Mad Men.

The end of Mad Men calls to mind an advertisement — not an advertisement for Topax or Secours Laxative or any of the other products the show’s writers have pitched, but for the show itself. As the series comes to a close, Netflix’s ad for the old episodes keeps appearing online with the line, “Before feminism, there was Peggy.”

For a show so deeply invested in the seductive powers of advertising, it’s funny to see it given such a banal tagline. But it’s also unsettling to see such historical amnesia given the show’s famously painstaking attention to period detail.

Such amnesia is not exceptional, of course, especially when it comes to the history of social movements in the United States. As Shulamith Firestone wrote in The Dialectic of Sex, which came out in 1970, the year Mad Men ends:

A hundred years of brilliant personalities and important events have also been erased from American history. The women orators who fought off mobs, in the days when women were not allowed to speak in public, to attack Family, Church and State, who travelled on poor railways to cow towns of the West to talk to small groups of socially starved women, were quite a bit more dramatic than the Scarlett O’Haras and Harriet Beecher Stowes and all the Little Women who have come down to us . . .

But most people today have never even heard of Myrtilla Miner, Prudence Crandall, Abigail Scott Duniway, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ernestine Rose, the Clafin sisters, Crystal Eastman, Clara Lemlich, Mrs. OHP Belmont, Doris Stevens, Anne Martin.

Mad Men is, of course, a television drama and not a historical documentary. From the beginning, it took its power from its ability to meticulously document the hierarchies that dominated its world, both in the office and in the home. It has always been far more uncomfortable portraying those who attempted to confront these hierarchies.

This was in many ways a major weakness of the show. One particularly infuriating example is the frequency with which Mad Men gestured towards developing black characters or portraying the Civil Rights Movement in a meaningful way, only to back off. Depicting the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr through the eyes of white characters struggling to reach out to black colleagues and neighbors might be an effective commentary on how most people put political upheaval out of their minds until they are forced to do otherwise, but it also underscores how Mad Men itself repeatedly pushed these stories aside.

At the same time, the show’s resistance to standard dramatic story lines — its slowness, its interiority, its focus on the psychological — reveal something about how we have come to understand feminism and the transformations it produced during the period.

As journalist Ruth Rosen notes in the introduction to The World Split Open, the iconic images of revolutionary change — “bursts of artillery fire, mass strikes, massacred protesters, bomb explosions” — are absent from feminist history.

Even that picture of reform — the passing of key legislation — largely wasn’t present: some of the most important advances of the time came through the inclusion of women in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while the period’s most famous legal milestone is the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed to pass. And while women were in the streets throughout the sixties, the most indelible image of street protest (bra burning at the 1968 Miss America pageant) never actually happened.

It’s particularly revealing, then, to think about one real-life event specifically referred to in one of the show’s final episodes: Joan Harris, who throughout the show moved from being an office manager tasked with enforcing the office hierarchy among other women to a firm partner and single mother who continues to run up against those who underestimate her. As the series draws to a close, the dissolution of the firm in which she had a stake means she is demoted, and returned to a corporate environment even more predatory than where she began.

Powerless to stop sexual harassment from her new boss, Joan wonders if anyone is paying attention to what just happened at Ladies Home Journal. On March 18, 1970, almost two hundred women staged a sit-in at the magazine’s offices.

The group, which included prominent feminists and employees of the magazine, came armed with twenty pages of demands and story ideas. The demands included an increase in all salaries to $125 a week, free onsite child care, that all editorial employees be women, and that non-white women be hired at all levels.

As for the magazine itself, they called for an end to not only all advertising degrading to women, but also from companies that discriminated against women and articles about celebrity and other advertising-friendly content women’s magazines are famous for. To ensure this shift in coverage came to fruition, they demanded a monthly column, and that an issue be turned over to them.

As their demands reveal, the activists wanted to remake the magazine both as a workplace and as a cultural product. Like many journalists, writers, editors, and artists involved in the movement, they saw media industries as an important site of struggle, as places that advanced sexist ideologies, ignored and distorted the needs of women and the movements aims, and, not coincidentally, were largely staffed by underpaid and underemployed women. (The sit-in came shortly after forty-six women at Newsweek filed an EEOC complaint against their employer, charging rampant sexism.)

The sit-in lasted eleven hours, and that summer the magazine published a supplement with articles about the movement, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a meeting with a delegation to North Vietnamese women. The issue sold well, and other women’s magazines soon followed suit. Two years later Ms. started as a supplement to New York. Meanwhile feminists around the country produced scores of local small papers, from the Cleveland Feminist to Big Mama Rag (Denver), Oklahoma New Woman to Goodbye to All That (San Diego).

Some were more liberal and others more radical, some more countercultural, some more connected to the broader left, but they were all lively publications with far-reaching, intense intellectual and political debates designed to question all forms of received authority, from the workplace and education to medicine and psychiatry.

Reading these publications today, this intellectual seriousness comes through more than anything. Whether discussing the design of houses, literature for children, what to do about shitty office jobs, or abortion, sex, and housework, the underlying question was not how to make women more “equal,” whatever that may mean, but to liberate women from the drudgery of meaningless work, whether in the house or outside it, paid or unpaid. Crucially, they understood unpaid work as not only child care and household labor, but also as the emotional labor required to present oneself to the world in an acceptable manner.

What has made Mad Men so compelling for so many viewers are the ways in which, despite its inability to look at the movement that helped foreground those questions, it remains aware of this struggle for meaning.

The successes of Peggy Olsen as she rose from secretary to copywriter have always been bittersweet not only because of the sacrifices she has had to make or the injustice that forced her to surrender her child, but because we know advertising — like most jobs — cannot do what she needs it to do. Happiness on Mad Men often seems most possible for those willing to go with the tide, the skimmers of surfaces, even if it also often reverses our expectations of who these people are.

It seems particularly fitting, then, that the penultimate episode gave us the final chapter of the show’s central tragedy — that of Betty Francis Draper, who began the show as a quintessential 1950s suburban housewife always holding a cigarette and ended it a remarried college student who reads Freud and will die of lung cancer before forty. Spoiled, racist, beautiful, and cruel, Betty was, above all, unhappy.

Given the low regard in which the show holds happiness and those capable of it, that might be her most redeeming trait. January Jones’s performance, often criticized for its stiffness, brings to mind what Roger Ebert said about another iconic icy blonde, Kim Novak as Judy in Vertigo: “Ask yourself how you would move and speak if you were in unbearable pain, and then look again at Judy.”

When we learn Betty is dying of lung cancer, it’s devastating to witness how her treatment mirrors her earlier mental pain. In the first season, her psychiatrist talked past her to one husband. One of his fellow admen assures him there’s nothing serious going on; therapy is just this year’s accessory, the latest thing they’re selling along with the cigarettes that will kill her. When she finds out she has cancer, a doctor talks past her to her second husband. (The challenge to the paternalism of doctors brought about by the women’s health movement was yet to come.)

But, despite the persistence of paternalism, something has changed: Betty.

We see her reading Freud and going back to school to study psychology, and after the diagnosis she continues her coursework. When her husband asks why she’s going, she says, “Why was I doing it before?” Whether she’s found meaning in her reading and studies, she understands her desire for meaning, however unfulfilled, wasn’t just something someone was selling her.

Mad Men failed to show the lived experience of social movements. But it succeed in revealing how the changes these movements brought seeped into the corners of otherwise unremarkable lives.