Mad Men is over and I, for one, am relieved. It was painful for me to watch. In fact, I never could fully engage, but rather had to watch facing away from the screen and doing something else (like Solitaire). You see, I experienced much of the crap that the women of Mad Men dealt with. I am an engineer. I was the only woman in my graduating class and, for nearly the first decade of my career, the only technical woman amongst all my male colleagues. The challenges the women of Mad Men faced may seem exaggerated to today’s viewers, but they are not. Women who entered the male worlds of business or technology were either treated as girls or sexualized, or sadly both, all to diminish their significance and deny them of their personal power. But this essay is not about women’s liberation, and ultimately neither was Mad Men. It is rather about the equally important, and largely neglected, subject of men’s liberation.
There is a plethora of analysis and commentary on the meaning of Mad Men, and particularly of its ending. Most of the commentary swirls around the ambiguity in playing the Coke commercial at the end as Don chants om on the hilltop by the sea. They ask if that alludes to Don returning to advertising and creating a seminal anthem of the era, “It’s the Real Thing”. But I find the scene and the conclusion of the series completely unambiguous.
Throughout my career I had to face the constant labeling as a “women’s libber” (though I don’t know why that should be considered pejorative). From the start I met those remarks with the response, “No, in fact, I am a person’s libber.” In the midst of the challenges I was facing as a woman in a man’s world, I saw that the men needed liberating as much as the women did. The 60s and 70s were not just about liberating women and about civil rights. They were about challenging all the hard-wired social expectations and social beliefs. And among the most deeply held beliefs were that a man must marry and have a family and that he then was solely responsible for the health and success of that family. In treating women as children, men became the only adult in the marriage relationship and in fact in society in general. It was entirely up to them to meet the demands of ever-increasing expectations. (In Mad Men this traditional approach is depicted in the relationship between Peter Campbell and his wife.)
One of the fallacies in all discussions of equal rights is the underlying assumption (fear perhaps) that we are in a zero-sum game. And perhaps that is one reason I did not buy on fully to the rhetoric of women’s lib. Much of it was fueled by angry women who were as intent on retribution as they were on opening the doors of opportunity for women. But it’s not a zero-sum game. Increasing women’s power doesn’t necessitate decreasing men’s power. When we diminish others, we diminish ourselves.
We stand only to deepen the richness of the human experience by allowing all to participate fully. With each alternate perspective that we include, we enrich our mutual understanding of life and its mysteries.
The Social Upheaval of the 60s and 70s
The Disillusionment of the Late 70s