Watching Mad Men makes me marvel at the variety of opportunities women have today, but it also makes me wonder if living in a world of limitless possibilities makes it hard for women to "have their cake and eat it too." Or enjoy it, anyway.
Season one invites viewers into the characters’ homes, offices, and private affairs in the early 1960s.
It seems that for each behavior or cultural norm that initially appeals to me in the show, I have an equal and opposite adverse reaction to it. I’m charmed by the flawless dinner parties Betty throws but repulsed by the fact that choosing a menu is one of the most taxing decisions she’ll be challenged to make as an adult.
Sexy in the 60s
Season 2, episode six features Don (John Hamm) and Betty Draper (January Jones) at a swimsuit fashion show in a country club. The women modeling the swimsuits aren’t stick-thin, but it’s apparent that they’re seen as sexy and curvy (in today’s view, they’d probably be seen as plump and/or plus-size).
But as soon as I appreciate the fuller-figured models and their buxom beauty, I have an immediate follow-up thought: “She would look better in that suit if she didn’t have love handles.” And then I feel frustrated with myself for subscribing to today’s beauty standards.
Looking the part
Looking the part
I love how most of the women on the show - even the ones who aren’t remarkably attractive - seem to have pride in their appearance. But just as I revel at how far makeup and hair rollers can go in elevating a woman’s attractiveness, I feel exhausted by the effort they must have put into looking so well-groomed. I wouldn’t want to be bothered with pinning my hair in rollers and wearing a corseted dress just to serve my husband pot roast on a weeknight.
While I’m liberated by the fact that business casual is now the norm at work and frumpy casual is the norm at home, I can’t help but wonder if these relaxed standards can work against me, too. If you are what you eat, are you also what you wear?
It's a bad habit
The constant cigarette smoking on the show looks glamorous and appealing - the perfect complement to cocktails and bright red lipstick. When Betty lights up, striking the lighter with her manicured hands in times of stress, I can almost feel the inhalation of the smoke calming my nerves, too. And when I see Joan (Christina Hendricks) or Betty on screen, I immediately envy the feminine power they command with their dainty drags, perfectly coiffed hair, and implied sexual prowess.
But before I get too carried away in my desire to emulate all of their actions in an effort to bolster my own desirability, I have to consciously remind myself that their breath and clothes must smell like smoke. And even in my Mad Men trance, I know that’s not hot.
More than a secretary
Perhaps what piques my interest most is the dichotomy between men and women in the workplace. Betty is educated, which is applauded, but she’s never expected to use her degree for anything other than displaying good manners. And I’ll admit that sometimes the limited parameters within which women in Mad Men are encouraged to flourish looks appealing.
But just before the show can fully paint the picture of a woman’s place, along comes Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). In season 2, episode 12, she even gets her own office (my husband and I are still catching up to the current season).
My initial reaction to Sterling’s approval of her request for her own space is, “You go girl!” But then a little part of me sighs, knowing that women like Peggy blazed the way for women to be equally valued in the workplace - a privilege I take advantage of (free from grudge, for the most part) Monday through Friday.
Owning what's on your plate
The endless opportunities for women today are similar to the endless food choices at a buffet - you’ve paid your way and it’s within your right to just enjoy a simple fruit cup, but in comparison to all of the other choices you have, a fruit cup suddenly seems lacking and inadequate.
And whether or not you chose to eat the fruit cup or load your plate with mounds of mashed potatoes and meatloaf, you still feel the need to defend your selection to others, and probably even more so to yourself.