Mad Men changed my life
Maybe it’s because free-to-air TV programming in this country is ludicrous, but I have only just gotten around to watching the first two seasons of a critically acclaimed US TV series I had been longing to scratch off my ‘To Watch’ list.
Ironically, Mad Men - the show set in the un-pc world of Madison Avenue circa 1960 - did more for my own personal consciousness raising than Gloria Steinem ever did.
Falling into this fictional world really rocked mine.
Okay, so I rarely have cause to use the term ‘mise en scene’ without sounding like some kind of film school wanker, but after watching just one season of Mad Men I was throwing the phrase ‘lush production design’ around with abandon. I was seduced by the glamour of Sterling Cooper and the cleverness of the writing.
But the seduction had a flip side.
As I reveled in all things Mad Men I went about my own life – regional Australia, circa 2009.
Part of my daily routine is a bike ride to the beach near where I live.
But now, along with my bicycle helmet, I was wearing my very own pair of Mad Men goggles which imbued everything with something less than a rosy glow.
As I rode into the sunrise I encountered hordes of women alighting at the train station and heading city-wards.
I raged inside as I pondered their destination at low level admin positions where they would slog away until they were ‘relieved’ by the dubious saviours of marriage and kids and the quiet desperation of a Betty Draper life.
Similarly, I journeyed past a luxury hotel where, through the glass fronted exterior which afforded sparkling water views of the harbour, I glimpsed rows of business-suited gentlemen being served their all-you-can-eat buffet breakfasts by girls barely out of their teens. (Granted, these girls may have been working their way through uni but hey, I was wearing my goggles).
I seethed away, wondering if, for all of Mad Men’s irony and satire, things have really changed as much as we think.
Friends agreed it could be possible that some of the things we thought were past - misogyny, racism, sexism, smoking - were simply hidden beneath the veil of political correctness.
Has inequality gone underground? Has the feminist backlash kept us quiet?
Finding myself in the not-too-familiar world of feminist thinking I wondered why I had never really been here before.
I pondered my youth and came to the conclusion that the 80’s were, quite possibly, The Decade Feminism Forgot.
Growing up in the tragic era which seemed to be marked by feminine power in the form of shoulder pads, I was led to believe that fighting the fight was somehow unnecessary, and possibly a little unsavoury.
As one of four daughters in a single parent, working class family, talk around the dinner table was more about survival than the finer points of First Wave versus Second Wave.
And feminism definitely wasn’t on the curriculum in 1981 at the Catholic all girls’ school I attended.
Back then I found my feminism where I could - in pop culture.
Madonna was the loudest voice telling us we could have it all and we could have it in whatever position we wanted and with whomever we wanted and we could photograph it and sing about it and dance about it all at the same time.
We could be an object of desire and still be a ‘powerful woman’. The fact that Madonna has become a cultural oddity rather than a cultural icon with her cheek implants and sinewy body has kind of lost me to her cause.
She could have made such a difference.
And so this recent mid-life, Mad Men inspired, feminist crisis grew so that I came to despise the strait jacket, patriarchal conspiracy masquerading as a pencil skirt.
And watching the episode which ends, as Bruce Handy says in his Vanity Fair piece, with “a single shot of a woman at the end of her day, rubbing the sore shoulder where a bra strap has been digging in,” I finally - finally! - got the whole point of bra burning.
My burgeoning awareness was enhanced by a report about the opening of a new gender research centre at Adelaide University.
Christine Beasley, co-director of The Centre for Research on Gender says gender discrimination remains rife in society: “You can’t assume that it’s the case that there are no gender issues, no forms of gender discrimination or gender stereotyping that aren’t in play in the media, in work, in home life and that they aren’t still restricting people’s options.”
By now I was dangerously close to becoming strident.
Unfortunately my knowledge and understanding of the issues was still limited. Not a good match for strident.
So it was kind of lucky that I stumbled across Benjamin Schwarz’s piece in the November edition of The Atlantic - a voice of reason to rescue me from my obsession.
Schwarz acknowledges all that is wonderful about Mad Men but accuses it of having a, “mushy ideology” which is sometimes evident in the representation of, “whatever Important Points it wants to make.” Ouch.
With this understanding some measure of common sense returned.
I had fallen into the old trap of borrowing my social, cultural and ideological theory from pop culture.
So, reluctantly, I took off my Mad Men goggles.
I won’t need them to read The Female Eunuch.
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