Essay: Treatment of Women in Mad

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[. . .] A lot of feelings are unspoken, so that's kind of been fun to play with" (Hardy). A high concept film is not played largely "in the eyes" of a character. The fact that negotiations -- very public negotiations -- for a third season of Mad Men did not begin until the second season had concluded is telling. The threshold for syndication of a television show is often the attainment of a third season (Hardy). As Kevin Baggs, Lionsgate's president of production and programming, said, typically "the money truck would be backing up" (Hardy). As Hardy points out, "with only 13 episodes a season as opposed to 24 for a typical broadcast-network show, Mad Men still has a ways to go." Baggs' assessment is that it "characterizes a classic situation where you have a certain expectation and certain realities that are headed in different directions" (Hardy). Still, it is safe to conclude that even if Mad Men doesn't have the mass appeal of a high concept story, it does have popular cultural relevance to the extent that it has even influenced common language. In the same way that people use "space age" or "Neanderthal," people can use Mad Men shorthand by referring to a pencil skirt as a Mad Men skirt or a three-martini lunch as a Mad Men lunch (and all that it might imply).

The world of the generation that fought World War II -- with their three-pronged focus on settling down, starting families, and taking advantage of the new prosperity -- devolved into a world filled with anonymous, exploited, and alienated people. The characters in Mad Men display the hallmark uncertainty, ambiguity, and fragmentation of the modern personality. Their social relationships are disembedded and are beginning to show the self-reflexive consciousness that will characterize the newly emergent multiple selves of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nor do those relationships yet exhibit the pin-ball game existence that will characterize the next era where having therapy is de rigueur, divorce approaches normative, and swinging and mate-swapping achieve an embarrassed and marginalized lifestyle status.

The women of Mad Men, especially, are ambivalent and uncertain of their identities. About her character, January Jones says, "Betty's whole life is a facade. If she can't keep up the pretense everything is perfect, she will crumble and die, I think" (Hardy). The women of Mad Men exemplify "the problem that has no name" (Friedan).

Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children's clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rughoolag[footnoteRef:1] class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. [1: A rughoolag is a huge Turkish rug, so Friedan refers to a rug weaving class. ]

The Rashomon Effect

In reviewing the television show Mad Men, it is important to consider the Rashomon effect which helps to explain how different people can have conflicting yet plausible recollections of an event that happened in the past. The influence of the subjectivity of perception has been methodically addressed by science, however, the Rashomon effect derives not from psychology experiments, but from film. In this regard, it is particularly apropos to an exploration of the various recollections about life as an ad-man in a Madison Avenue advertising firm. The Rashomon effect gets its name from the film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa in which a crime is witnessed by four people who give contradictory recollections of the incident.

While the Rashomon effect may not alter a viewer's willingness to suspend disbelief while watching Mad Men, it can help to explain why some people who lived in Chicago during 1990s and early 2000s will not recall ever meeting anyone from the Mafia -- at least of whom they were aware -- but for others, the television show The Sopranos -- created by David Chase of HBO -- is a perfect depiction of their memories. Mad Men was conceptualized by Matthew Weiner who had become enamored of the period through tales told by his parents during his growing up years. While Weiner was writing script for the HBO show Becker, he began to work on Mad Men as a concept that he would find totally engaging. He wrote a pilot script and unsuccessfully shopped it around Hollywood, piling up rejections in the process. But Weiner had faith in the concept, in his writing, and in his capacity to perfectly manifest the period and the advertising business at the time of the story. Weiner told Bruce Harper of Vanity Press, "I knew the script by heart. I carried it in my bag for four years, every day. I would've given it to anyone. If you and I had sat together on an airplane, I would've given it to you, or I would've talked about it" (Harper). Harper found this confession disarming and wrote that "Weiner refused to move on, evincing the kind of stubborn, even touching faith in his work that is usually knocked out of people in Hollywood by that point in their careers" (Harper). The point is that Mad Men is Matthew Weiner latent and constructed memory of Madison Avenue advertising business. As such, it is one truth. But if an inquiry is made of the men who worked at stand-out advertising agencies in New York City during the Mad Men years, the Rashomon effect is neatly demonstrated.

George Lois is a legendary art director whose covers of Esquire magazine were recently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and who co-founded the advertising agency Papert Koenig Lois in 1960. Lois described the Mad Men period as pre-Friedan, pre-Millet, pre-Greer, pre-Steinem, and pre-Abzug. In his telling, "The [women's movement] wanted liberation from women's traditional roles. Like any Greek male, I wondered where it would take us. Was there a point where sexual equality would end and confusion begin?" Given that, when George Lois recalls the Mad Men period, he still projects a picture very different from the cultural message relayed by Mad Men episodes.

When I hear "Mad Men," it's the most irritating thing in the world to me. When you think of the '60s, you think about people like me who changed the advertising and design worlds. The creative revolution was the name of the game. This show gives you the impression it was all three-martini lunches. We worked from 5:30 in the morning until 10 at night. We had three women copywriters. We didn't bed secretaries. I introduced Xerox. It was hard, hard work and no nonsense. "Mad Men" is typical of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," those phone S.O.B.s. I was a Green bigmouth, a Korean War veteran. I used my ethnicity to promote my talent. Before you knew it, most of the great creative talent was Italian, Greek, and Jewish. We broke through the terrible WASO-ness of the business. (Harper)

Lois's view is not shared equally across the industry, and it certainly is not what is depicted in Weiner's personal view of Mad Men.

William Bernbach, a Jewish man who co-founded the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach also remembers a tamer, more seriously-regarded business. Bernbach was the creator of the Volkswagen print ads known as "Think Small" and "Lemon" that became legendary and are, in fact, the object of grudging admiration by the character executives of Mad Men's Sterling Cooper advertising agency. John L. Bernbach, who followed in his father's advertising footsteps to become founder and president of NTM ad agency, offers his recollection of life as a child of an advertising executive great:

What do I think of Man Men? As a soap opera or as an advertising show from the 1960s? I was a teenager then, and our family was very close. My father never took clients out, he didn't travel, didn't entertain. In the show, there's not a scene without somebody smoking and drinking. And it's an overly simplistic view of the process of coming up with ads. You were handling millions of dollars of people's money, and no one took it lightly. Here they're smoking, joking, ogling girls, then they think of a line. (Harper).

Weiner's account is not far from that provided by Jerry Della Femina, age 69, to Bruce Harper of Vanity Fair. Femina has owned six ad agencies -- the most current being Della Femina Rothschild Jeary & Partners -- and wrote a successful account of his 1970s… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Treatment of Women in Mad.  (2012, January 5).  Retrieved June 17, 2019, from

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"Treatment of Women in Mad."  5 January 2012.  Web.  17 June 2019. <>.

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"Treatment of Women in Mad."  January 5, 2012.  Accessed June 17, 2019.