September 18, 2008
What a Difference a Few Decades Make
By JODY FEINBERG
As they watched the television drama "Mad Men," Carolyn Cowen and her 16-year-old daughter, Melissa Wilpers, got a peek into the early 1960s before the massive social change that followed. And though they are from different generations, the Marshfield mother and daughter were both fascinated and aghast at the behavior of that time and grateful to be women today.
"The stuff that was accepted is shocking," said Wilpers, a junior at Emma Willard School in New York. "It makes you realize how far we've come in actually a pretty short amount of time."
"Mad Men" is the American Movie Channel (AMC) series that debuted last year and won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series Drama and Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series Drama. It's up for 16 Emmy Awards at the ceremony this Sunday.
Set in a Madison Avenue advertising firm, it follows the professional and personal lives of ambitious young advertising men and their secretaries, wives and mistresses. It turns upside down the image of the ideal family life portrayed in the popular television shows of the early 1960s, like "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best."
The men, and women, in "Mad Men" smoke and drink incessantly in the office and at home. The men talk about the attractiveness of secretaries and enter into affairs with them as easily as they ask them to get coffee. The secretaries seek status from their association with men, and the wives either are clueless or keep quiet. Like the slick ads where image trumps substance, the ad men dress well and tip their hats to women, but behave terribly.
"They had gentlemanly ways, but they treated women so badly," Wilpers said.
To the sensibilities of a young woman today, the flagrant sexism of the early 1960s is jarring and sobering. But to a generation older, it's a reminder of how the women's movement opened career opportunities to women and identified workplace sexual innuendos and advances as harassment.
"We were really pushing the envelope and now that's taken for granted," said Cowen, 56, executive director of Carroll School Center for Innovative Education in Lincoln. "I transitioned through it and my daughter's on the other side."
Both Cowen and Wilpers, who said she hopes to study screen writing and film, admire "Mad Men" for its impressive acting, intelligent writing and detailed authentic portrayal of the look of that era - from the tight-belted sweaters women wore that accentuated their chests to the room-size office copier.
"It's a really smart show," Cowen said. "There's a lot to analyze, but you can miss some of it because you get caught up in the plot."
Cowen finds it fascinating to see the bubbling up of issues that came to dominate the '60s and '70s - the influence of the youth culture, the growth of the civil rights movement, feminism and the sexual revolution.
"As a baby boomer, I find it a really an interesting representation of an era," she said. "It's a supposedly placid era, but it's on the cusp of major change."
Michelle Campbell, 44, said the show is like watching a train wreck - what happens is awful, but it's hard to look away.
"The women fascinate me for how they put up with so much and the men disgust me," said Campbell, a Weymouth mother of two who is a financial counselor at South Shore Hospital. "Some of it is similar to what I went through when I worked in offices."
Campbell recalled her horror when she worked in an insurance company in her early 20s and her boss inappropriately touched her while ostensibly showing her how to use a new piece of office equipment. That's what came to mind when a character on "Mad Men" plays Mozart on his zipper in front of a secretary.
"He saw nothing wrong in that, but men would be afraid to do something like that now," Campbell said. "I'm always talking to my son and daughter about how far women have come. I'm grateful my daughter won't have to deal with the things I did when I was younger and the women on the show deal with."
Nancy Van Leuven, assistant professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State College, said she loves the show for its "creepy- funny" depictions of gender and the perspective it provides on today.
"At first, wasn't it almost offensive, how non-PC it is to think of women as secretaries or housewives, down to the belted dresses and tons of cocktails and cigarettes?" she said. "But it quickly becomes apparent that this is pre-feminist and sexist TV show is actually holding up a mirror to us."
As evident from the passions excited by the presidential campaign, plenty of women today feel restricted by societal views about how women should behave and by a glass ceiling that - as Hillary Clinton said and Sarah Palin echoed - has been cracked, but not broken.
"It exposes much of what's still under the surface: the hierarchies of class and gender, all that which can still divide us today," said Van Leuven, 56. "I have lived through this period, so I remember how the work world has changed, as well as how women have or haven't cracked glass ceilings."
In the world of "Mad Men," women not only are fair game sexually, but are second-class citizens. As an ad man said while discussing an airline account, "Air travel is too expensive to waste on women."
And when the creative director, Don Draper, bought a Cadillac, his new possession gave him not just status, but sexual access.
"Wait 'til she finds out about your Cadillac," a fellow ad man encouraged. "She'll be waiting naked outside your window."
In the male and female worlds, a clear divide exists. Loyalty, for example, is feminine. When Drapper wanted to retain an account instead of dumping it for a better one, he was criticized: "Oh, take off your dress."
And the sole woman who rose out of the secretarial rank to become a copy writer remains defined by her gender.
"Watch how they treat her like she's a secretary, even though she came up with the ad campaign they use," Cowen pointed out to her daughter.
In the copy writer, Peggy Olsen, there are hints of the coming empowerment of women and talents to be released. Rebuffing an unwanted sexual advance, she wittily chides, "I'm in the persuasion business and frankly I'm disappointed by your persuasiveness."
The come-back, an example of the smart dialogue by the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, caused Wilpers to laugh out loud and root her on.
"Good for her," Wilpers exclaimed. "Just because they're men, they think they're so much better. We know a lot more now. With boys my age, everything for a girl is fair game. There are even shows about really powerful women."
Reach Jody Feinberg at [email protected]
Originally published by By JODY FEINBERG, The Patriot Ledger.
(c) 2008 Patriot Ledger, The; Quincy, Mass.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.