Mad Men: the monumental revolution

Mad Men: the monumental revolution

by digby

I was late to the Mad Men phenomenon and haven't yet completely caught up so I missed last night's season premier on purpose. But even without seeing it --- maybe because I'm still watching the earlier seasons, I relate very much to what Amanda Marcotte observes in this piece for the American Prospect:

Feminist viewers take delight in watching Peggy and some of the other female characters endure and overcome sexist treatment in no small part because we don’t have to put up with that kind of overt misogyny anymore. We cringe when a male character tells Joan to her face that he thinks of her as a “madam from a Shanghai whorehouse” who is “walking around like you’re trying to get raped.” Then we get to revel when Peggy stands up to the offender, and feel gratitude for the real life women like her that gave name to sexual harassment and shifted the power balance so men couldn’t just say things like that anymore. We weep for Peggy’s loss in having to give birth and give a baby up for adoption in a pre-Roe era, but feel better knowing that sort of thing can’t happen to us anymore. We pity Betty for feeling trapped in her marriage because she’s had a series of pregnancies she couldn’t effectively prevent while knowing that bright young college women like her now have the pill.

Or, at least, it seemed that simple a year and a half ago, when Mad Men aired the final episode of season four. In the extended break caused by budget negotiations, the real world outside of fictionalized 1960s New York changed rapidly when it came to women’s rights. The last episode, “Tomorrowland”, aired in October 2010. Since then, we’ve seen a midterm election sweep Republicans into power in both Congress and across state governments, and their number one priority has been to return us to the social structures oppressing Joan, Betty, and Peggy. We’ve seen unprecedented attacks on abortion rights, some of which would, if successful, make abortion harder and more dangerous to get than it was in the 60s. Republicans have declared war on hormonal birth control, even trying to make it legal for your employer to fire you for using it as contraception. Even on Mad Men, Peggy was able to get a birth control prescription with only a lecture from the doctor, but not from her employer. While Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have the rhetorical chops to call a woman a Shanghai madam, it turns out that he does know his way around the word “slut” pretty well, and has widespread social support for using it to describe the 99 percent of American women who have used birth control.
This morning at the Supreme Court this was among the messages:

So, I've been watching the show unfold as this latest assault on women's freedom has gotten up to speed and I've had the feeling Amanda describes all the way along -- a growing feeling of dread.

And anyway, for me, that show doesn't feel like ancient history. After all, those women were my mother and her friends. It's the world in which I grew up, where women were very much a part of everything, but in a secondary position and most definitely not in charge, at least in any overt way. (Women made things happen through artful manipulation while always, always, ensuring that the man's superior position wasn't threatened.)

Most interestingly, Man Men shows the same strange relationship with sex that I'm seeing re-emerge now --- a constant undercurrent of sexual energy everywhere, but a mixed message so dissonant (saying that women had to be sexy but pure) that everybody seemed nearly dizzy with it. I've always thought of my parents boozy parties as the "ring-a-ding-ding" years: "did you see Harold making a pass at Martha in the kitchen? She's such a tease ..."

By the time I was an adult, I'd read "Our Bodies Ourselves" and "The Joy of Sex" and had participated in any number of youthful events where everyone was half naked and nobody shaved anything and it was all very, very different. The change seemed to be total and it felt to me as if it was a sociological earthquake so monumental that the world could never possibly go back to the way it had been for women in my mother's time.

And I assumed that for most of my adult life. It's only been in recent years, as I've gotten that weird sense of time you get as you age where you realize that everything you thought was permanent isn't permanent at all and that reality itself is elastic and ephemeral, that I understood how very possible it is that this time I've lived could turn out to be an historical anomaly. The sociological changes I witnessed, particularly the changes for women, were revolutionary on a scale I hadn't understood. And those sorts of revolutions rarely happen without backlash and at least some periods of backsliding.

It could happen. Mad Men wasn't that long ago in the great scheme of things.

And look how young these people are. Revolutions can go the other way too: