The return of the Mad Men series tonight coincides with a strange “meme” of our times as the Republican Party pursues a war on women that would return us to the era of the early 1960s when men were men and women were second-class citizens
Never to miss a beat, if you had been watching public affairs programs over the weekend, it would seem the country has quickly pivoted from the killing of Trayvon Martin to the return of the Mad Men series tonight after an 18-month absence. The series is based on a 1960s vintage plot that draws the viewer into the professional and personal machinations of lead protagonist Don Draper and his public relations firm, watched by three million viewers, which in the scheme of things, is not all that significant.
Yet the “meme” of the Mad Men seems to have created such a cultural buzz–the wardrobe of skinny skin-tight suits and ties for men and classic a-line dresses and skirts for women, along with “garter belts” and thigh-high nylons, well before dreaded panty hose emerged on the women’s fashion scene. One thing for sure, this is a hyper heterosexual, patriarchal, sexist, racist meme from an over glorified past. And while the series has portrayed push back by women and men characters in tightly held gendered stereotypes of the era, its reminds of a time past that deserves little glory–Jim Crow racial discrimination, gross job discrimination against women leaving them with few career options, limited to the following three tracks: teacher, nurse or secretary, who pulled down paltry wages, which ultimately pushed women to flee a limited workplace when they married.
And for all of us who are queer, just think of a barricaded and reinforced closet that included “beard” marriages; a bar scene policed by “faggot” hating cops who periodically raided the bars, beating and arresting the gay clientele; suicides transpired when outed by humiliating arrests and a lesbian scene that was so low profile, that we had to seek each other out because we were few and far between.
I do not have fond memories of this time in America, especially as a daughter of a divorced woman. Although my mother worked as a secretary, she was within inches of qualifying for public assistance, given her poor wages, that were not supplemented by child support. My father retaliated and refused to provide financial support–he was a “dead beat” dad who reigned with impunity during this glorious time because court ordered enforcement of child support did not become public policy until the mid to late 1970s.
La plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose–a French saying which means “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” seems more than appropriately referenced when it comes to the return of the Mad Men series.
And there is such an irony in the pundits excited anticipation of the return of the Mad Men’s sexual revolution tonight. The show goes to authentic lengths to depict the liberal consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, a sign of the social times. It was an innocent era before we knew tobacco caused cancer and alcohol was a tolerated addition that caused fetal alcohol syndrome, unknown to everyone, including the doctors. The audience will even be treated to the introduction of the mini-skirt this season –a fashion development that in some ways did free women in retrospect, but also surely led to more sexual harassment in the workplace, everything from openly uttered denigrating comments to outright physical harassment.
But the open, sexed up straight coupledom depicted on Mad Men emerged because in real life medical researchers produced the first birth control pill in the history of human life in May 1960, catapulting a sexual revolution enabling women for the first time, and their lovers to enjoy sex, without worrying about unplanned pregnancies. Think about it, every woman in history, up until this seminal moment, were compelled to worry endlessly about unwanted pregnancies, straining her psyche with incredible anxiety when her menstrual period did not arrive at that special time of the month. And if she did become accidentally pregnant, she either sought out a dangerous back-alley abortion or suddenly “went away,” a quick disappearance from school, when society compelled young women to enter homes for “wayward” girls that also included the option of entering Roman Catholic convents to have the baby, surely shamed into giving up the child for adoption. Yes, nice, white girls did not keep their babies. This was the roaring 1960s.
And now the contemporary Republican Party wants to take away not only that sexual freedom, so eagerly displayed by the Mad Men series on the small celluloid television screen, but also Republicans have asserted they want to eliminate women’s access to birth control and obstruct their prerogative to plan and space out pregnancies in consultation with their intimate partner and doctor. They even think a single mother is actually engaging in child abuse if she does not a have a husband and a Wisconsin state representative has asserted if she is not married, it is unquestionably her fault. They want to send women back to this “glorious” time, when women had very little to hang onto, besides her children’s presence in her life and a husband who returned home each evening for dinner with a pay check that supported their lives. So don’t mind me while I avoid the glorification of the early 1960s during Mad Men’s overrated return. I’ll be rooting for Peggy, who wants more responsibility and a job promotion in the Draper firm, but I won’t be tuning in.
Mad Men logo image provided by Wikipedia.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.
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