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for the love of betty friedan

November 3, 2009

like any good urban elite, I am obsessed with Mad Men. this week, the show tackled the Kennedy assassination. there are a million and one write-ups and analyses of the episode out there in blogland, but this one (from over at EotAW) is the one that really struck me:

But the story of Betty’s gradual awakening was integrated with the narrative of the assassination in a way that brought home to me why so many women like this show.  …  Many women…understand and empathize with how the female characters are objectified and mistreated.  But at the same time, we know that, while sexism has hardly disappeared, women have a lot more options and, yes, a lot more power than they did in 1963.  As the show moves through the early 1960s, the anger builds, but the opportunities unfold.  We know where this story is going, and we like the ending.

what I like the most about this particular interpretation is that it’s something that was in the back of my mind, but which I had never put into words, not even just in my own head. for those of us who grew up after the feminist revolution, watching Mad Men is a bit like watching a horror movie: it scares the crap out of you, turns your stomach, and sends a chill down your spine, but at the end of the episode you get to go back to your world, where there are no killer clowns waiting to eat you and no lawyers to tell you that, despite the fact that your husband lies and cheats, he’s a good provider and you shouldn’t leave him.

more importantly, the women of Mad Men help younger women connect to their own maternal ancestors and to gain a better idea of what life was like for them.  my own mother was born in 1956, the eldest in a family of five, a typical baby boomer. she came of age in the 1970s; she went to college and served in the military (although not in combat). her life, even the life she had before I was born, never seemed very far from my own, and certainly not too far for understanding.

but when I talk to her mother, it’s a completely different situation. several years ago, after reading Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound in graduate school, I asked my grandmother about her own experiences with working in the 1950s. she told me that she didn’t work after she had children, because my grandfather was adamant that “no wife of his was going to work.”  and she went along with it.

to understand why this is shocking to me, you’d have to know my grandmother. when I was growing up, my grandmother was the matriarch of a largely man-less clan, a woman who was feared and respected. she’s bitter, sometimes mean, and occasionally crazy, but she’s not stupid and she’s not weak. before my mother was born, my grandmother attended a secretarial school and did some office work; after her divorce in the mid-1970s, she worked as a payroll accountant for twenty years.  in essence, on the Mad Men scale, my grandmother was a less fabulous Joan Holloway.

so to hear my grandmother telling me about her life in the 50s, and to try to reconcile it with the woman I had grown up with, I never could make it connect. there are things you know intellectually: logically, I knew that these things had happened. I knew it because I was a historian and I understood what Cold War America was like, and I knew it because my grandmother was flat telling me. but it still seemed so unreal, somehow more distant and unbelievable than the marvels of Ancient Rome.

and so this is what Mad Men gives me, and perhaps other women of my generation: a window into the past, a tangible and vivid recreation of a world we cannot understand. we see the casual misogyny, the everyday realities of being a woman of that time, and we understand how hard it would be to think past that society, to make the sacrifices that would have been required to break out of those molds. but we also see the changes, we know the end of the story. I can watch Mad Men, I can watch Betty and Joan and Peggy, and I can see why my grandmother made the choices she did. but I can also see how and why she would make other choices in the future: to leave her husband, to raise her children herself, to make her own way in the world. and in these small ways, her life is less distant now, and closer to my own.

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One comment

  1. As one who was sent off to typing class “because you never know what might happen to your [hypothetical] husband,” I commend you. I guess I’ll have to take a look at that show.



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