The saying goes, “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider. Girls go to college to get more knowledge. ” In the 1960’s, the irony of this phrase was obvious, besides the fact that the group claiming to be more intelligent is calling the boys “stupider,” which isn’t a word, but because boys went to college to get more knowledge and girls went to college to find a husband. Many men suppressed women rights during this time period, especially occupational opportunities in the work place.
Men believed themselves to be superior to women in all aspects of life according to their genetics. Few women challenged this idea that was accepted by past their mothers, grandmothers, and all who preceded them. Some women defied this expected standard to be submissive and not to yearn to be anything more than a housewife. Even more progressive, a handful of men treated people with respect based on their work ethic rather than race or gender both inside the workplace and in their personal life. The Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency in the television show Mad Men represents many stereotypical attitudes of men and women in the 1960’s in America, but also several anomalous viewpoints for the time period.
Predictably, the male executives of Sterling Cooper Advertising are no exceptions from the theme of belittling women through their patronizing actions toward them in their office setting. This condescending demeanor is exemplified in multiple situations throughout the series. After a brainstorming session involving mostly women to help advertise a lipstick for Belle Jolie which is a client of Sterling Cooper, one executive named Freddy Rumsen was frustrated with the women’s apparent lack of maturity. He said to his colleagues that they “should have put a man in there so they’d take it seriously” (Weiner, The Hobo Code).
After he makes that comment, Peggy Olson, a secretary at Sterling Cooper, entered his office and gave him an idea for the campaign and compared her to a dog playing the piano (Weiner, The Hobo Code). Their total lack of respect toward women is shown when Paul Kinsey attempts to seduce Peggy Olson in his office. When she declines his offer, his first reaction is that she must “belong to someone else” (Weiner, Ladies Room). At first she tries to explain that this wasn’t the case but he didn’t understand the possibility that she had a choice in whom she dates, so she eventually tells him that she is in fact taken.
It is a sad fact that Peggy’s only male friend in the office, even if only for a few minutes, also had intentions to sleep with her. In response to the dominant role the men play, the women in the office accept their inferiority to the men. It seems to be an unspoken agreement that if a man bought lunch for a female colleague, sexual intercourse would ensue. Peggy Olsen, as a new and naive employee, questions Joan about this custom by asking, “why is it that every time a man takes you out to lunch around here, you’re the dessert? ” (Weiner, Ladies Room). Whenever the men insult the women, the women retreat to their bathroom to cry instead of confronting the transgressor.
This clearly represents that they themselves don’t view themselves as equals to males. Joan Holloway describes the role of being an assistant to that of a mix between being a mother and a maid (Weiner, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes). They don’t make any important decisions but they look after the superficial needs of the people who do, including getting coffee, placing phone calls, and Joan alluded that they also have sex with their employers if requested. Depending on whether they were a man or women, life on Madison Avenue could have been a dream come true or a means to support oneself before finding a husband to do it for them.
Contrary to normalcy of a gender hierarchy, Joan Holloway’s attitude toward the higher-level executives such as Roger Sterling and Don Draper is openly confident. She carries herself with an air of pride in herself. Pride and self-esteem were highly uncommon traits for women at this time, especially given the dysfunctional working conditions. Joan is always shown straightening her posture and sticking out her chest around Don Draper and Roger Sterling (Weiner, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes).
She eventually rises up in the company over the years, until she becomes a partner later in the series in Season 5 episode 11 (Chellas and Weiner, The Other Woman). As much as she believed in herself and getting to the top through her sometimes-brutal honesty as she puts it, even Joan wasn’t exempt from being subjected to sexual acts for the sake of her job. In order to gain partnership in her company, she is encouraged by her higher-ups to sleep with a perspective client (Chellas and Weiner, The Other Woman). During an interview with the Hollywood Reporter Magazine, Christina Hendricks said of her role on the show that “‘[she] thought Joan was such a bitch, and [she] struggled sometimes trying to make her as real as possible because [she] thought, who would be so mean’she says, recalling how surprised she was that viewers found Joan to be empowered rather than cruel” (Hollywood Reporter Staff, The Arc of Joan). The writer of the show, Matthew Weiner, actually intended for Joan’s role to be a small detail to introduce Peggy for first few episodes before being inspired to characterize her as a women of “all of this power, sexuality and confidence” (Hollywood Reporter Staff, The Arc of Joan). Even more foreign to the psyche of the typical American man, Don Draper’s attitude toward Midge Daniels is one of mutual respect.
The concept of a man treating women with respect was even more rare than a woman asking for equality. When Don is stuck on a pitch for an important tobacco client, Lucky Strike, he ends up at his apartment asking her for advice and help (Weiner, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes). She finds this to be humorous and jokes about Don’s supposed superior brain size and definite ego (Weiner, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes). He clearly values her thoughts and creative talent so much so that he can take playful insults from her because he knows the social norm is the opposite. Instead of trying to control her, Don goes with Midge to a concert being performed by her friend even though he didn’t want to go. This may have been due to her promise of sex but he could have had sex with any other women, so this shows her power in the relationship is at least equal if not leaning slightly more in her favor.
While the characters of Mad Men are fictional, their experiences are very real for both the men and women that lived in the 1960’s corporate world of America. For the most part, the established sexism was a daily reality. Just as I am sure it was in real life, Mad Men also features a few deviations from the norm through Don Draper and Joan Holloway and occasionally Peggy Olsen, although she doesn’t discover her freedom until much later in the series than Joan. While the show might be called Mad Men, their disrespect eventually led to plenty of “mad” women, which resulted in the American feminist movement of the late 1960’s and ‘70s, only a few years after the show takes place.
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