Image Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
After a wait of more than a year, AMC’s smash hit Mad Men finally returns to our screens next month. Set in 1960s New York, and detailing the lives and loves of those who work for advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the show has won countless awards, and made stars of actors Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, and January Jones.
Mad Men is a stylish, expensive piece of escapism, but perhaps its success is down to its unflinching portrayal of the era’s sexual inequalities. The male characters cheat on their wives and girlfriends, seemingly as a matter of course. The agency employs many women, but in a distinctly second-class capacity: SCDP secretaries pour drinks, take their bosses’ coats, and are frequently subject to behaviour that would almost certainly qualify as sexual harassment today.
Office manager Joan Harris (née Holloway) is intelligent and efficient, but uses her sexuality to her advantage because she can’t get ahead any other way. Although she enjoys her job, she is forced to give it up after getting married, because her husband doesn’t want her to work. Peggy Olson wins Don’s respect, and is promoted from secretary to copy writer; however, her male colleagues underestimate her, and her female coworkers speculate that she must have slept with the boss in order to get ahead. She is forced to prove herself by working on ‘women’s products’ such as lipstick and sanitary towels, whilst the prime accounts go to the men. Secretaries are summarily dismissed if they displease the men of the office, without notice or apology: Joan is often told to ‘get another girl’ as if they are completely interchangeable. Betty Draper is lonely and unhappy at the lack of purpose in her life: when she seeks therapy for these issues, her psychiatrist reports back to her husband.
What’s incredible, and uncomfortable, is that this was all happening only 50 years ago: although complete equality in business is (arguably) yet to be achieved, it’s undeniable that modern women are in a far better position than those featured in the show. The show is compulsive viewing, and I for one am hooked. However, whilst we’re getting lost in the melodrama of television’s most famous advertising agency, it’s important not to forget these serious issues, and to remember how lucky we are.
You can read an interesting critical analysis of Mad Men here.
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