Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Anthropological Look at Mad Men

I know this show has been on for some time. I had been intrigued by it in 2007 thinking it looked pretty clever and never minding a nod to a previous era. Finally, thanks to Netflix, I am catching up. I'm just about through Season 3 now so I should be good to go by the time Season 5 broadcasts later this fall/winter.

The show never ceases to amaze me at how dead on it depicts its characters and how true it stays to 60s culture and ideals. Sometimes it is quite unsettling:

Housewives | Trophy Wives
A lot can be said here. Maybe too much for one post. But let me start by saying I actually really like the character of Betty Draper. January Jones nails it as the token trophy housewife. I think of how this is essentially my grandparents' generation (give or take a few years). It was pretty normal for a woman to be marred young and have babies in her early 20s, and be a housewife. There simply weren't tons of opportunities - outside of being a secretary I suppose. I once read an article about women in the 50s marrying young, idealistic, and when things plateaued into boredom, they couldn't understand why their husbands couldn't fix it. A "Don't you know what I want? I thought you were supposed to know? And do it?" expectation that was ultimately met with disillusionment and disappointment.  Because those women sure didn't know what they wanted. It simply wasn't considered/thought of - by women or men - that women could think for themselves, have a choice, make a decision, explore her identity and own it.  You would think the role of housewife would be her identity but it's not really. So I can sympathize with Betty's character and her disappointment, conflicting feelings about marriage, love, life.

This Huffington Post article explores the housewife role in the 60s, particularly Betty's. The commentary that follows is also very interesting.  A lot of people slap the "spoiled brat" title on her - or other women of that time. Perhaps some were.  But that is so superficial and shallow and lacking a true understanding of gender issues in mid-century America. To my next point about the feminist movement a decade later, I'm happy we've made strides here. 

After seeing secretary desk after secretary desk in Mad Men, all I could think was how boring a job that is and why on earth were all those secretaries needed? What a waste of money. I'm grateful to the women before me who paved roads for more equal opportunities - in education, in the work place, in life. My parents generation (Boomers) had tons more opportunities than the previous one - women especially. They may not have been climbing corporate ladders yet but college or vocational training or even just work in general was more normal. Most of all, we have choices now. We can choose to stay at home with our kids or work part time or full time. We can make those choices with our partners. I'm grateful for that progress.

I sympathize with Betty...and I sympathize with Sal...and every other homosexual (men and women) at a time when it was simply unaccepted. When men married because it was the socially acceptable thing to do and suppressed their feelings for life. We have a long way to go in this department, still. But again, I'm grateful that 40 years later it's more socially accepted. My wish is that not only are there better, more fair civil union laws, but that it's accepted and those who struggle with their sexuality find peace.

Smoking | Drinking
WOW. This has been talked about everywhere. I won't get into it much except that WOW, I cannot get over how acceptable it was to smoke. Smoke. Inside. And drink. At work. At 10am. I remember seeing photos of my parents yearbooks (late 60s) and their smoking lounge. Seriously? fast forward 20 years and I get the "SMOKING IS BAD" lecture daily and risk expulsion if caught looking at a pack of cigarettes. How did it go from one extreme to another? And really -- expulsion?

Children | Parenting
This breaks my heart. Again, if Betty and Don are slightly younger versions of my grandparents then Sally and Bobby are like my parents. And this is their upbringing to a T. Children were seen and not heard. I give Betty some credit -- in a time when parents are afraid to crack the proverbial whip, we can stand to pull a few pages from her mid-century disciplinarian handbook. But that's it. Constantly checking out...not dealing...telling her kids to go watch TV...not addressing Sally's feelings when Grandpa Gene passed and the arrival of the new baby? Her line was classic: She's a kid, she'll get over it. Again, the Huffington Post article talks about her parenting...well, both their parenting skills or lack thereof. 

It's awful. We can all sympathize with needing a break. I can even sympathize with her lack of identity and not wanting to deal - to a point. I had the luxury of going through that existential crisis at 23/24 and I waited to get married and have a child until I had a clear sense of who I was as a person - because times had changed and I could. But so many children of this generation grew up never knowing how to express emotions, fight fair, or deal. They had old school parents telling them to put on big boy pants and suck it up. No one treated them like the intelligent beings they were.

I witnessed this first hand in the late 90s when my mom went through her own existential crisis.  Lots of back stories but suffice it to say she took a 5 year hiatus to explore who she was and is.  She was married young, worked for a while, then wanted kids.  20 years and four kids later, one (me) about the fly the coop for college, and she was a wreck.  Moreover, she didn't know how to express what was going on internally.  I have often asked her if she had regretted her choices and she always says no.  I believe her.  I believe we are where we are at a point in time.  Her choices at 21 were very different from my choices at 21.  She really did want to marry, work, then raise a family.  And I'm glad she did :)  But when my siblings didn't understand her (or want to understand her) at the point in her life, I tried.  I still needed a parent - and there was a struggle there - but at 20 years old, I got that she didn't have a clear sense of who she was as woman, wife, mother...and she needed time. 

I have both sadness and admiration for my mom.  I get that it was "normal" and I cannot punish my grandparents for raising their kids the only way they knew how, because it wasn't criminal.  But it saddens me that they - and countless others - saw children as secondary citizens...trophies to show off a marriage and at the expense of my mom (and dad).  It saddens me that their very real feelings were never considered or validated in situations.  That they had to put on a happy face and keep up appearances. But then I admire them because they could have turned around and raised us the same way and they did not.  They chose to raise us differently. We were seen and heard.  We could talk or cry or whatever (within reason!).  We weren't shunned. I also admire their perseverance and resilience - the part that no one really sees because it's easier to slap labels on people and situations than to understand the cultural expectations of the times. But the truth is my mom did persevere.  In her 20s and 30s as a housewife and then later, through the identity crisis and into someone who knows herself, is confident, can communicate better, and found meaningful work. 

Everyone parents differently but I'm glad there is more focus now on the needs of children.

These are just a few of the Mad Men themes that get me. There are bigger ones that tie into these too. I'll save it for another post. In the meantime, here is a great video compiled by the series on the "Rules" on Mad Men.

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