Why 'Mad Men' is TV's most feminist show

By Stephanie Coontz
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Historians are notorious for savaging historical fiction. We're quick to complain that writers project modern values onto their characters, get the surroundings wrong, cover up the seamy side of an era or exaggerate its evils -- and usually, we're right. But AMC's hit show "Mad Men," which ends its fourth season next Sunday, is a stunning exception. Every historian I know loves the show; it is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced. And despite the rampant chauvinism of virtually all its male characters (and some of its female ones), it is also one of the most sympathetic to women.

"Mad Men's" authentic portrait of women's lives in the early 1960s makes it hard for some women to watch. Over the course of its first three seasons, I interviewed almost 200 women from the same era for a new book on the Greatest Generation's wives and daughters. Many had suffered from the same numbness that plagued Betty Draper in the first season. They had seen psychiatrists who were as unhelpful and patronizing as the one Don Draper hired for his wife, or they had been married to men who displayed a sense of male entitlement similar to Don's. Those who had worked, whether before or after marriage, had experienced the same discrimination and sexual harassment as the female employees at the show's ad agency.

Yet to my surprise, most of these women refused to watch "Mad Men." Not because they found its portrayal of male-female relations unrealistic -- in fact, many recounted treatment in real life that was even more dramatic and horrifying than that on the show. It was precisely because "Mad Men" portrayed the sexism of that era so unflinchingly, they told me, that they could not bear to watch.

The rest of us, however, should tune in for a much-needed lesson on the devastating costs of a way of life that still evokes misplaced nostalgia. We should be glad that the writers are resisting the temptation to transform their female characters into contemporary heroines. They're not, and they cannot be. That is the brilliance of the show's script.

"Mad Men's" writers are not sexist. The time period was.

Betty Draper won most viewers' sympathy in the first season because of her husband's infidelities and lies. But since then, many have come to hate her for displaying the traits of the dependent housewife that Betty Friedan critiqued so vividly in her 1963 bestseller, "The Feminine Mystique." She is a woman who thinks a redecorated living room, a brief affair or a new husband might fill the emptiness inside her, and her attempts to appear the perfect wife render her incapable of fully knowing her children or even her successive husbands.

Other viewers fault "Mad Men" for its portrayal of working women. They complain that, except for Joan, the ad agency's secretaries are depicted as passive victims of male bullying and harassment, while characters such as Peggy and Faye perpetuate stereotypes of career women as uninterested in children and concerned only with their own advancement. Writing for Salon, for example, Nelle Engoran has objected that the show's writers have made feminism "optional" for the agency's women.

Joan is the only secretary who seems to hold her own in the office, and her sexual self-confidence is impressive -- but many viewers remain outraged that she married her fiance after he raped her and that she allows him to make life-changing decisions without consulting her. "After all," Don Hazen wrote recently on Alternet, "this year's show takes place in 1965, not the Stone Age."

But in 1965, feminism wasn't a cultural option for most women. It would be another year before the National Organization for Women, the group that gave so many women the legal tools to fight discrimination, would be founded. Newspapers still ran separate want ads with separate pay scales for female jobs, seeking "poised, attractive" secretaries and "peppy gal Fridays."

In those days there wasn't even a term for sexual harassment, much less any law against it. In North Carolina, only a virgin or a married woman could bring rape charges, and many other states required two witnesses for a rape to be prosecuted. Everywhere, the concept of marital rape would have been laughed out of court. Like the characters in "Mad Men," real-life single women seeking birth control in the early 1960s had difficulty finding a doctor willing to prescribe it. (Indeed, in some states, not even married women were allowed access to birth control.) Most states still had "head and master" laws that gave husbands final say over family decisions, including those concerning joint property.

To the extent that postwar women were controlling mothers or sought solace in shopping sprees and meaningless infidelities, this was a product of the perfect-homemaker mystique so accurately diagnosed by Friedan -- not an invention of "Mad Men's" creators and writers. When Betty Draper plops her children in front of the TV or slaps her daughter, it isn't part of a writer's effort to demonize her. It is an accurate reflection of 1960s parenting. Surveys show that mothers in 1965 spent less time interacting with their children than today's mothers, despite the fact that very few worked outside the home.

At the end of Season 3, when Betty Draper exchanged one husband and provider for another, some critics complained that she did not experience any "personal growth" as a result; she didn't even demand a divorce settlement. Here, again, homemakers of the early 1960s had few options: Only eight states gave a wife a legal right to a share of the earnings her husband had accumulated during their marriage.

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