October
18th 2009
It’s not called “Mad Women” now, is it?

Posted under: American history, art, childhood, Gender, women's history

madmen_8I’ve decided to give Mad Men another try–I really can’t stomach the reality TV shows that have dominated this decade, and I like to reward people who are trying to produce quality dramas for television.  But, since so many of you whose opinions I respect took me to task for my skeptical post on this last year, I thought I’d take another look.  I’m just about halfway through season I, and I have to say that I’m pretty much sticking with my original verdict:  it’s OK for a diversion when I’m stuck in the rec room rotating loads and folding laundry (which is exactly what happened here at el rancho Historiann last night), but I’m a little tired of all of the “hey, in 1960, they did all kinds of stupid and dangerous things, didn’t they?” heavy-handed little in-jokes.  (Like the hugely pregnant women constantly smoking and drinking, lots of drunk driving, and even an aside about feeding peanut-butter sandwiches to children while encouraging them to handle BB guns.  Get it?  Nowadays, we know that both peanut butter and BB guns are equally dangerous!)  OK–we get it!  We’re so much more virtuous and careful now, aren’t we?

One thing I appreciate about the show is its relentless exposure of suburban married misery, although it’s so unstinting that it seems over the top.  Unfortunately, the show is guilty of one of the most irritating things about TV and movies today, which is the relentless focus on men’s lives and men’s stories.  TV in the 1970s and even the 1980s was different, and even movies in those decades were much more likely to feature women in leading roles than in the 1990s and beyond.  Mad Menis so much more interested in the men and in their emotional lives that the most moving scenes I’ve seen so far–the ones between Don Draper and his abandoned younger half-brother, Adam Whitman–are entirely between men.  (Oh, and do we really need to know that Pete Campbell might be a tool because his father is a tool, too?  Does that really make him more sympathetic or more interesting?  Boo-freakin’-hoo, Pete:  I wish I had your “problems” as an undeserving member of the American ruling class.) 

I get that the writers are making points about “separate spheres” and the alienation of men and women from each other–but this strategy also means that women actors yet again are marginalized and their characters’ stories are only seen as vehicles to advance the men’s stories.  As I suggested last summer, just because the show goes to some lengths to suggest that this is wrong doesn’t make it all that revolutionary:  men’s stories and male actors still rule.  Just because Mad Men portrays beneficiaries of patriarchy as undeserving stooges who spend all of their time at work drinking scotch or rye and listening to Bob Newhart LPs doesn’t make the show particularly daring, because men are still at the center of the story.  Rachel Menken, the Jewish department store heiress who strangely continues to do business with Sterling Cooper although the WASP jerks who run the firm insult and demean her at every turn, is clearly the most interesting woman on the show–but I fear that she’ll be dropped like a hot rock after her two or three episodes. 

Oh, and for the record, from someone who knows better:  Betty Draper claims in one episode to have gone to Bryn Mawr, and then in a therapy session in another episode says something like, “I know how women can be, I was in a sorority.”  Not at Bryn Mawr she wasn’t–not even in the early 1950s.  (If Betty is 28 in 1960, that would make her about the class of ’53 or ’54, right?)  I have to say, though:  Betty Draper sure seems much more like someone who belonged to a sorority than a Bryn Mawr woman.  As the first dean and second president of the college, M. Carey Thomas, once famously said, “Our failures only marry.”  Sorry, Betty.

Here’s a question for you material culture experts and junkies out there:  I love the degree to which the show tries to recreate the fashion and interior design of the era, but would a Betty Draper still be wearing the “New Look” silhouette in 1960?  I would think that an affluent young woman like her living in a near-suburb of New York would have adopted the sheath dresses of the early 1960s already.  (Or, is this a signal on the part of the show’s writers and directors that Betty is having a hard time adjusting to the new world of the 1960s, by clinging to her 1950s crinolines?  What do you all think?) 

I’ll keep watching seasons I and II–famille Historiann apparently lives to generate dirty clothes to keep me busy on long autumn and winter evenings.  Mad Men is better than what I’d be able to find on the broadcast networks most nights–but that really ain’t saying much now, is it?

32 Comments »

32 Responses to “It’s not called “Mad Women” now, is it?”

  1. Indyanna on 18 Oct 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    I think the official line of the culture is that Jacqueline Kennedy “changed everything” (as we now describe it) in the fashion way, and in the fall of 1960 she would have only been glimpsed traveling around in outer coats, I think. (This show is set IN 1960?). Us historians know that nothing changes on that sharp an edge of a temporal knife blade, though. Oh, wait a minute, this is a call for material culture experts, right? Sorry. I just vaguely remember that time.

    For the record, there is a generally appreciative review in the Sunday _Times_ BR today of Gail Collins’ “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present,” so maybe the answer is in there somewhere. The review has some fascinating anecdotes and an edgy b&w picture of the eye-opening quality we’re used to seeing on this blog. I guess the old media are racing to stay even in production values!

  2. Historiann on 18 Oct 2009 at 12:16 pm #

    Indyanna–I think Jackie Kennedy was hugely pregnant in the fall of 1960, with the baby who was born prematurely and died, right? I’d have to take a look at her pregnancy couture, and see how the media covered her and her pregnancy, but that sounds too much like work, and my area of expertise is at least 200 years before Jackie.

  3. Indyanna on 18 Oct 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    Um, totally winging it here, but for John, Jr., to be standing up and making that famous funeral salute in the photo in November, 1963, I think he would have had to have been the one she was carrying three years before, but this I’m sure is pretty easily recoverable. I wonder if Betty Draper is using “sorority” in an ironic sort of a way? But then, I’ve never seen this show.

  4. John Warren on 18 Oct 2009 at 1:17 pm #

    I believe the show is pointing to the shift in attitudes between the 1950s and 1960s – the Drapers, Cooper, Joan, et al, are hopelessly uncool and clinging to the 1950s – hence Betty Draper’s fashion sense. Their support for Nixon over Kennedy is another way to make the point, albeit ham-handedly, as was the ad guys derision of the humorous VW bug ad.

  5. Susan on 18 Oct 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    While my expertise lies 300 years before the show, I remember 1960 (even saw Kennedy during the campaign). The baby she was pregnant with was John jr.; the baby she lost was born in the summer of 1963.
    Never seen the show, so. . .

  6. John S. on 18 Oct 2009 at 1:22 pm #

    Well, my quick search of WorldCat tells me that Betty might have just missed overlapping with Mary Maples Dunn at Bryn Mawr, Dunn having received her Ph.D. in 1959. Or did they have graduate instructors then, serving as TAs or in some other capacity? Maybe they might have run into each other. I wonder what that classroom encounter would have been like.

    (As an aside: Mary is officially in our digital age more famous than her husband Richard–she got a wikipedia page first! The source of all the info on that page is a familiar one, a certain blog that deals with “History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present.)

  7. Historiann on 18 Oct 2009 at 1:32 pm #

    John S.–how interesting! (I didn’t make her Wikipedia page, FWIW.)

    Mary is about as un-Betty as you can get–MUCH more un-Betty than I am, that’s for sure.

    And, Indyanna and Susan: I’m sure you’re correct–sorry for the misinformation. (Word to the wise, in case anyone else wants to use my blog in Wikipedia citations: this is still the world-wide timewasting non peer-reviewed internets!)

  8. rootlesscosmo on 18 Oct 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    My recollection, FWIW, is that the “New Look” was on its way out by around 1956 or ’57. (I think there were major differences, not only in clothing styles, between 1950-54 and 1955-59, but that’s another discussion.) There were briefly dress styles known as “the sack” (yes) and “the chemise;” a faint memory trace suggests these were promoted as not the New Look and (in spite of the French name) not Paris-inspired but home-grown. If this is accurate, that Jacqueline Kennedy’s Chanel wardrobe came later still. (Also worth remembering that she was a distinctly upper-class, rich, Northeastern Establishment woman–Radcliffe? no time to check Wiki now–who would have been sort of ex officio ahead of the fashion curve.

  9. Notorious Ph.D. on 18 Oct 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    Thanks for this. I watched the first season, a bit, and while I was interested in some of the characters, and some of the interactions, I just found most of them, both male and female, to be deeply irritating. I have a lot of friends who are obsessed with the show, but I just don’t see why.

  10. Historiann on 18 Oct 2009 at 2:06 pm #

    rootlesscosmo: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a Vassar girl, although I think she graduated from George Washington University (class of 1951?) after transferring to Smith to take advantage of their study abroad programs. (Information here.)

    Here’s an image of a “the sack look” from this era!

    Notorious: you can come over and do your laundry with me, if you want, and we can watch something totally different.

  11. Indyanna on 18 Oct 2009 at 2:36 pm #

    Historiann, I’m getting more and more out of my depth by the comment here, (although it’s more fun than what I’m working on now) but I think the ’50s “sack” was a different thing than those Depression-evocative grain-sack themed things you posted on last fall. According to a quick google images scope, I learn that…

    //In The Sack
    More and varying designs followed, each with a subtle step away from the feminine. The most influential was Givenchy’s Sack dress of 1957. As the name hints, the dress was formless and, most noticably, waistless. While women could retain their polish with gloves, hats, and other adornments, this freed them from the restrictive look and feel of 1947.

    Givenchy declared that the Sack dress was “More than a fashion, it’s actually a way of dressing.” (1, p. 40) Vogue praised it for its sense of mystery. “No gentleman is ever going to puzzle his brain over the form of a girl in a Bikini bathing suit.” -Anita Loos for Vogue (1, p. 40) It is easy to see that while appearance and impressing the oppossite sex was still quite important in a young woman’s mind, its place at the top of the list was perhaps being challenged by other things.

    Givenchy’s design had a lasting influence and was a main source of inspiration for the bombshell fashions of designers like Mary Quant, who barged onto the scene and took command during the sixties. //

    ….I don’t know from *any* of this stuff, but much older, Presley-loving cousin from Connecticut was very into all of these shifts, I mean transitions, and when she spent a summer with us, her rebel-rebel schemes clashed with my mother’s much more retro-Catholic sensibilities, and I guess that’s why I remember any of this… Anyway, a contribution to the historiography of this thread…

  12. mandor on 18 Oct 2009 at 3:03 pm #

    The first season of Mad Men didn’t really interest me for the reasons you outline above. Oh poor Don, so sexy and tortured. Yawn. The funny thing is that the show’s writing staff is predominantly female (though note how when Kater Gordon won an Emmy for writing on the show with Matthew Weiner, he basically snatched the microphone from her and didn’t let her speak). The third (current season) is the most interesting to me so far because it does seem to be delving more into the character development of Betty, Joan and Peggy–they no longer seem to exist for the sake of the male characters on the show.

  13. Notorious Ph.D. on 18 Oct 2009 at 3:34 pm #

    Historiann: okay, I hereby cast my vote for Deadwood as our laundry-time entertainment. I’ll also bring popcorn and ice cream.

  14. Historiann on 18 Oct 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    Mandor: good to know. Others have told me that the women get better the more you get into the series. (BTW, nice touch, Matthew Weiner! An awesome microphone-hogging display of male dominance.)

    This is why I’m suspicious of the show’s conformity not to 1960s gender politics, but also to 2009′s . . .

    Indyanna: yes, the “sack look” was a high-style innovation–thanks for the details. The styles shown in the link I provided were a downmarket imitation thereof. I provided the link so that people would know what a “sack” silhouette was versus a Dior “New Look” crinoline.

  15. Historiann on 18 Oct 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    And, Notorious: sounds good. I’ve never seen Deadwood, but for obvious reasons it’s a no-brainer for me to check out.

    Make it that new dark chocolate with salted caramels kind of ice cream, wouldja? (I think it’s a Haagen-Dazs flavor.)

  16. Mother of ALL on 18 Oct 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    I believe somewhere in my archives I have a picture of me in my one and only sack/chemise dress. I was so excited that my mother would allow me to have a “fashionable” dress. There wasn’t much money for extras like that.

    As you know, I am a devotee of Mad Men. I guess mostly because I grew up in that era. Last year you complained of the slow pace of the show. That’s one of the things I like best about it. All the other shows on TV seem to be so fast-paced (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).

    As for Deadwood, I’m in! One of my favorite genres is the old time westerns. Deadwood has to be one of the best series ever made. Totally compelling.

  17. Indyanna on 18 Oct 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    Upon further review, I retract my quibble. The Cotton Council of America designs from last year’s post are clearly related in time and form to the illustrations that I couldn’t drag-and-drop from the Givenchy, and pitched to people who weren’t made of money, or of time to get to 5th Ave., one block over from Mad! Like I say, I don’t know from this stuff, but for my ‘cuz.

  18. Flavia on 18 Oct 2009 at 4:21 pm #

    As several others have said, I think the series gets better. My enjoyment of the early-60s aesthetic means I gave Season One more leeway than I might otherwise have been inclined to (and my partner was pretty consistently irritated for the first half or two-thirds of that season), but Season Two is much richer and more compelling.

  19. Notorious Ph.D. on 18 Oct 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    H: sounds like a good ice cream choice. I’ll add in my favorite Ben & Jerry’s “Half Baked” (chocolate & vanilla with brownie & chocolate chip cookie dough).

    And diet soda. Because we wouldn’t want to get too carried away. ;-)

  20. Historiann on 18 Oct 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    Actually, let’s just smoke and drink like fiends, a la Betty and her pals in suburbia! (That’s pretty much what I do anyway while I’m watching TV and folding laundry–except for the smoking part…)

  21. Dr. Crazy on 18 Oct 2009 at 7:08 pm #

    Historiann, it does get better, but seriously, I will have An Authoritative Essay on the Phenomenon that is Mad Men coming out in 2010! (Well, maybe it won’t be “authoritative” but I am proud of it, and it will be in probably the first essay collection to come out on the series.) My essay is specifically about how the nostalgia of the show (although critics/creator alike like to pretend it’s not nostalgic, or to admit nostalgia and then to deny it in the same breath) intersects with the representations of the female characters’ gendered subjectivity. For me, the show is definitely *interesting* – most notably because of what it indicates about our *current* cultural moment. While the show’s setting is “historical” I don’t think the show is actually “about” history. I think it’s about the desires and anxieties of our current cultural moment. Which of course, if what I think is true, makes the show *totally diabolical* as a pop culture document. And yet, I love the fashions and the smoking and the drinking and the totally historically accurate props. *Even though I know better.*

    (As for Betty’s – and Peggy’s – style of dress in the first season, they talk about that in the dvd commentary – about how fashion trends take a while to take hold, blah blah blah. I will say, Betty gets more sixties-licious by seasion 3.)

  22. widgeon on 18 Oct 2009 at 7:15 pm #

    Like many, I’m not entirely happy with the female characters. But at least they exist…and can be debated and discussed. How many interior kitchen scenes do you see in “Deadwood” and “The Wire.” How many sex scenes where issues of rape and female pleasure are central? And even the idea of not finding total pleasure in mothering is liberating. I believe the level of guilty pleasure in watching “Mad Men” vs. HBO-series like “The Sopranos” etc. has to do with discomfort with the centrality of domesticity. But, of course, I may be justifying my own guilty pleasure.. .

  23. Dr. Crazy on 18 Oct 2009 at 7:34 pm #

    Widgeon – YES on the discomfort with the centrality of domesticity (or, to take it even further, with femininity constrained by domesticity). Is this an alibi for our guilty pleasure in the series? No. But it is one of the things that makes it so totally and *seriously* interesting and worthy of watching.

  24. Tenured Radical on 18 Oct 2009 at 8:09 pm #

    OK:

    Jackie had one miscarriage (prior to Caroline) and one premature birth, Patrick, who lived for a few days in the early spring of 1963 and then died.

    Would Betty still have been sporting the new look in 1960? Perhaps: Pat Nixon certainly was. Remember that Betty is living in the old money Republican suburbs of New York, in Ossining. My mother — until she got pregnant again a matter of months after having delivered the Radical wore similar dresses quite regularly. I don’t remember this but I’ve seen the pictures. Once she had two children twenty months apart, however, it was all over in more ways than one. She also did not have Carla full time, as Betty Draper does.

    Historiann, if you hang in there Peggy and Joan step up to the plate a little bit more. And you have to finish out season I for Peggy’s big turning point.

    Betty Draper wouldn’t have been in a sorority at Bryn Mawr, but she might have been in a fraternity, a peculiarity of women’s colleges. What is stranger about the Bryn Mawr thing is that Betty met Don because she was a model. But I think what Weiner, the producer (a graduate of Zenith) is trying to tell us is that she is a smart woman who has been tamped down, first by Daddy and then by Don, and she is going to break loose in a big way. By season 3 we are beginning to see it, but it may. be. too. late.

    In a final irrelevant connection, Mary Maples Dunn did receive her Ph.D. in 1959. More importantly, in 1958 she and Richard became the god parents of the newborn Tenured Radical, as Mary had lived with the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR)–also in graduate school at Bryn Mawr in English Lit. — between 1954 and 1957 in a house on Ardmore Avenue. In 1957 MOTheR left school to marry, and although she did not intend to be ABD, she became pregnant immediately, and it was left to the Radical to fulfill the family destiny.

    Any other questions?

  25. tanya on 18 Oct 2009 at 9:07 pm #

    I have no memories of the 1960s, since I was born in 1979. I do love Mad Men for many reasons, but I will echo the sentiments that the women get more time these days than in season 1. Plus, there’s that awesome turning point when Betty….oops, no, I won’t spoil it for you.

    Still, although I’m very pleased that the wmoen get more focus these days, I’m often dissatisfied at the end of the current episodes (only 3 episodes left in this season!).

    I’d argue that the show is *most* interesting when it focuses on the women (particularly Betty and Peggy). And yet, they’re still not as significant as they could be.

    And these days, all the characters are locked in relentless cycles and I’m damn sick of the repetition with Don Draper. Although, maybe I should just be reassured that his character is so…steady.

  26. Historiann on 19 Oct 2009 at 6:10 am #

    Dr. Crazy–I can’t WAIT to read your article. It sounds exactly what I need to make me smarter about Mad Men. Widgeon makes some great points–I didn’t know (but am not surprised) that women in The Wire and Deadwood are marginal.

    Sorry to have been checked out of the discussion last night–but I was watching Desperate Housewives and Brothers and Sisters–two TV shows on a hopelessly uncool broadcast network, but they’re two shows in which women’s lives and stories are central. (Why am I tempted to apologize for watching such campy/soapy shows? Mad Men sure as heck feels like a soap opera to me, but that’s not the first term that comes to mind…) I don’t think there are too many more out there like DH and B&S–and isn’t it interesting that it’s Mad Men, Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood, etc., on cable or even premium cable networks that get all of the praise and critical attention?

    Thanks for all of the historical info, TR–I never heard of fraternities at Bryn Mawr, and my guess is that they were 50 years ahead of even Betty Draper’s time, if they ever existed there, and were of the old-fashioned literary society kind, like the origins of male fraternities in the 19th C. (Helen Horowitz mentions their existence at Vassar, and says that Barnard had sororities and fraternities, but not Bryn Mawr.) My sense was that Betty’s clothes signaled that she was out-of-it, unlike her hip new divorced neighbor. Betty looks like one or both of the little Nixons, doesn’t she?

    Thanks to all of you who have said that the show gets better, and gives up on Don. When is that guy going to go into rehab? The show so far reminds me of Goodfellas, towards the end when Henry Hill is trying to flush massive quantities of drugs down the toilet, destroy evidence of all of the bodies he’s helped bury, keep an eye on the Feds in helicopters above his house, and prepare a huge family dinner–”stir the sausage!” The lies and double-dealing are all about to fall in on him, right?

  27. Indyanna on 19 Oct 2009 at 9:43 am #

    (As a curious non-watcher), is the popular late 1950s anti-anxiety drug “Miltown” a prop on this show? I don’t remember this, but in an obituary last year of the English scientist who discovered it (while trying to develop a preservative for penicillin!!), it was said to have been the cultural as well as the pharmaceutical predecessor of drugs like Valium and Prozac. Especially big in the cultural enclaves of the creative classes on both coasts. There’s a scene in a movie somewhere, probably a Woody Allen film, at a Hollywood party, where somebody on the verge of freaking out shouts “anybody got a Miltown?” and the conversations all stop and every guest holds out a little bottle. The commedian Milton Berle apparently renamed himself “Miltown” Berle. Then in 1959 its reputed dependency-forming traits for some people began to outweigh its reputation as a magic drug, and I guess the use of it fell off. If it’s not in the show, probably they ought to write it in. Maybe I’ll even buy a flatscreen if they option this suggestion!

    Great story last night by TR about the Dunns!

  28. quixote on 19 Oct 2009 at 9:48 am #

    My family arrived in the US in 1956, and I was a kid with zero fashion sense or interest, so my recollection is very personal and “snapshot.” I grew up pretty much across the street from Harvard, so very much Northeast and Bryn Mawr-ish.

    With that intro: no I never saw a single “New Look” get-up that I remember. Cliffies, and I’d be willing to bet Mawr-ites (or whatever their term of affection was), were anti-fashion unless they were in business school. It was a sign of stupidity to be worrying about that stuff.

    (On the guys’ side that was echoed in a snooty attitude to football. It was only when I moved away from my Harvard neighborhood that I realized there really were people who not only admitted to being caught up in it, they gloried in it.)

    I do remember a lot of beehive hairdos, and some shifts from the 1958-1962 era. Lots of narrow skirts on the secretaries and such that interfered with walking. (Materials science hadn’t invented some of the new elastic fabrics yet.) So it sounds to me like the TV writers got it wrong. Although if they’re trying to make it “believable” by fitting people’s preconceived notions, maybe they got it right.

  29. Bookbag on 19 Oct 2009 at 11:40 am #

    Like Dr. Crazy, I find Mad Men interesting. Historical accuracy aside, the writing is sharp, so it’s a really enjoyable show to watch. And some of the story lines involving women, particular my favorite character, Peggy, are excellent. Peggy’s success at the agency and her efforts to be feminine and one of the guys are really well done, in my opinion. As for the depictions of 1960s marriage as deeply unhappy, I don’t read that as a condemnation of the decade, per se, nor a celebration of our time. I read it as a (very welcome!) reminder that marriage and parenthood are not always enough, which is still a controversial point to make in many circles. Given the fact that my in-laws are seriously baby-crazed and keep pressuring me to have a baby (they’ve even made a bassinet, it’s crazy), I think Mad Men is doing good cultural work in that specific case. Could the writers highlight the women more? Of course. Do I think it’s the most egregious example of male-oriented plotlines on TV? Definitely not.

  30. The Bittersweet Girl on 21 Oct 2009 at 6:44 am #

    I’m on precisely the same Mad Men watching schedule as you are, Historiann: mid-point in season 1. I’m watching because all my colleagues are watching and endlessly talking about it. But, like many here, I’m pretty disenchanted with what I’ve seen so far. The characters are all despicable. The 60s fetish gets old really fast (for me anyways). And enough with the “Don Draper is so moody and sexy … and yet brilliant!” And yet, I’m going to keep watching because I want to be in-the-know. I hope you’ll keep blogging about your viewing experiences.

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