Finding Feminism in Mad Men

As a grad student, I find myself falling behind the times of pop culture, with short school breaks being my only opportunity for brief catch-ups. Recently I caught up on the AMC series Mad Men, and found myself fascinated with the world of straightforward, overt sexism (and racism, and heterosexism, etc., etc.) and how the women portrayed on the show dealt with it. When I first started watching, I realized I became angry and frustrated throughout every episode. These women were so oppressed! And yes, there has been improvement in American society since then, but there is still so much more to overcome.

With Mad Men being about advertising, I thought of commercials, billboards, and prints that are advertised throughout American media. There are still blatant visions of hyper-sexualized women, the “good moms,” and little girl “princesses” selling their products. But even commercials that seem innocent upon first look still have an oppressive message.  For example, I remember a commercial for tampons boasting that the brand now had quiet wrappers. This allows women privacy in the bathroom, right? Or perhaps it suggests that women’s menstruation is still hush-hush, so much so that products for this naturally occurring phenomenon should be kept a secret.

Mad Men addressed this issue through the character Sally Draper, Don and Betty’s daughter, who is depicted as a more adventurous type – she smokes one of her mother’s cigarettes, spends time with a neighborhood boy alone, and even takes the initiative to kiss a boy. (For those of you who haven’t seen the show) It is when she sneaks out to the American Museum of Natural History, with a boy that her mother forbid her to see, that she gets her first period and runs home to her mom. And it is this next moment that I appreciate so much on the show – Betty comforts Sally with a positive message about her body, telling her that it means when she’s ready she can one day have a baby, and getting her period is just a sign that “everything is working.” How empowering! While it stereotypically promotes childrearing as a woman’s duty, this mother was able to show her child how to love something (menstruation) patriarchal society deemed (and still deems) as shameful or dirty.

This inspired me; motivated me to look for the positivity, strength, perseverance, resiliency, and power in women. And not just women, but all underprivileged, oppressed, and disempowered people and communities. It has become a fun game watching Mad Men to find as many instances of empowerment within an episode.

And I take this to my everyday life – as a therapist-in-training, I work to help my clients feel empowered to make a change, not only for their own lives, but also for the neighborhoods, communities, and society that they live in. It can be frustrating and seemingly hopeless at times to find sources of strength within oppression. Which I experience daily, but especially noticed during my Mad Men time. But challenging myself to seek out the good, the messages of hope and power, the search for social justice has helped me see the variety of ways people can fight for their human rights of respect, dignity, worth, and love. It has helped me come to value and love my fellow humans more – especially in our constant struggle against “mad men.”

Written by Elisabeth Knauer-Turner

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