Changing the Conversation

“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

-Don Draper, Mad Men

If you know me, you know that I talk about TV more than bored party goers mumble about the weather. Lately, Mad Men is the focus of my TV talks.

I think Mad Men is brilliant. It boasts beautiful cinematography and skillful editing, accompanied by a strong cast and concrete writing. I feel as though I can slip into life 50 years ago. I see chronic alcoholism spill through the hallways of a Madison Avenue office. My eyes nearly squint over the smoke in every scene, and I can feel the sticky summer air before the days of centralized air conditioning. Still, there is one aspect of the show I don’t understand: the women.

I identify as a woman, but I felt so disconnected from the women on Mad Men. The housewives spend their days gossiping between cigarettes and waiting to polish their husband’s shoes when he gets home. Yet these women feel so overwhelmed by their seemingly monotonous life that they see psychiatrists. There are some women who work—secretaries— but they mostly count calories and babysit their drunken bosses. And as soon as they land a fiancé, they leave the workforce and enter motherhood.

The women in Mad Men are close to my age, but their lives are so different from mine. I went to college. I never had time to sit and chitchat about my neighbor’s dress at the grocery store. I worry about making a life for myself in my twenties, not seeking someone else’s life to give me direction. Specifically, Don’s wife, Betty is a skinny, blonde housewife who spontaneously breaks down on her afternoon errands for no apparent reason. I just assumed January Jones was a poor actress.

And I wasn’t alone. Fans do not sympathize but rather criticize Betty Draper. They call her a little girl and sneer as she drowns in her mundane laundry list and visits a psychiatrist.[1]

A few weeks ago, I found myself bookless on a beach. My friend offered me his “spare” book: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

Friedan wrote this book in 1963, after she surveyed Smith College alumni and discovered many of them were miserable as housewives. She defined The Problem That Has No Name—the term used to explain the stress and angst a housewife experiences when managing the laundry, cooking dinner, while still appearing sexy and devoted to her husband. Housewives across America cracked open this book and peered wide-eyed as Friedan echoed their feelings of emptiness: a “child among her children.”[2]

Blaming advertising and the media, Friedan fueled the protest fire for second-wave feminism in the 60s. Women read her words and found a voice. When Friedan led the Women’s Strike for Equality, 20,000 women advocated for equal pay in the workplace and social equality in marriage.[3]

As I began reading, I found myself catching up with the lives of women I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the woes of Betty Draper in Mad Men seemed real. With every page, I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into the era— imagining the cloth diapers in the laundry, the suds of my child’s bathtub in the evening and the smell of Rye on my husband’s breath when he came home long after the children’s bedtime story. Of course I would be screaming for a way out! I couldn’t imagine working this full-time job confined in the home, my only release being gossip with the neighbors and countless Virginia Slims.

I found myself sympathizing in a way I hadn’t considered before. I wanted these women to have a voice, these women whose vocal cords were clenched, muscles yearning to scream. I could feel my heart racing with every line, every picture Friedan paints of women in those days. Women who are stagnant as “little girls”—confined to the home all day, considered too naive to participate in scholarly discussions and given a weekly allowance. Women who are unknowingly at the beck and call of the media who, “accept the feminine mystique, operate as a kind of youth serum, keeping most women in the state of sexual larvae, preventing them from achieving the maturity of which they are capable.”[4]

I had to buy the book.

I went to a well-known bookstore a few minutes away. I perused the aisles for the non-fiction section, but the non-fiction section was broken down into subgenres. And that’s when it hit me—what is The Feminine Mystique considered?

Well, the book was written over 40 years ago. And I remember hearing about it in a history class one time. It did start second-wave feminism, and that’s usually mentioned in American history courses. I searched in the American History section to no avail.

I convinced myself Friedan was a philosopher. She wrote with all the pomp and prose of those philosophers I studied freshman year, and she invented an oxymoronic term, The Problem That Has No Name. She developed theories about women that no one ever considered, while making universal connections that nearly every American woman could understand. But no luck in philosophy, either.

After about twenty minutes of frantic searching, I broke down and asked an employee. She told me they had three copies in the other room. I followed her directions, and I saw a section tucked away, with a nearly hidden label that read “Gender Studies.” Ah. Atlases and now obsolete roadmaps of every state surrounded this tiny bookshelf. As I skimmed through the titles, the words, “bitch,” “vagina,” and “lesbian” dictated the section. No man would come near this shelf, unless he was looking for a roadmap of Montana.

This microcosm of the bookstore was forgotten. Secluded. It was not easily accessible, and it was easily avoidable. With books ridden with these “taboo” words about women’s identity, why should this shelf be made convenient to the masses?

I eagerly cracked open the book, excited to travel back in time again. But this time, I didn’t feel like I was in an episode of Mad Men. I thought about where this book was displayed. It resided under an exclusionary genre that would make most people look the other way. It was confined to an isolated area, much like the women discussed within its pages.

I read a chapter on feminism and heard myself agreeing with the misconceptions about feminists today; still people stereotype them as “man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters.”[5]  I felt like I was reading about contemporary women. Which got me thinking that our society has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to gender.

Today, women are still not as economically self-sufficient as men. Single mothers are the most likely demographic group to be poor, and their children are 4 times more likely to live in poverty than children of married couples.[6] Most single mothers work, but they earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar.[7] Thus, the fear of being single is still prevalent, not unlike women 60 years ago, who read articles like “An Encyclopedic Approach to Finding a Second Husband.”

Also, Congress is still debating whether women should have access to contraceptives, or if they should be allowed to terminate their pregnancy. These are valid questions, but in a government where over 80% of politicians are men, how much are women making decisions versus being told what they can do?[8] It reminds me of a woman Friedman mentions, whose husband tells her when she can buy herself a new pair of shoes and how she can spend her weekly allowance of $42.[9]

Betty Friedan comments that at the same time as men were trained to travel into space, the same time schools were integrated in the South, women were inside, scrubbing the dishes and trying not to chip their manicures. [10]

Today, we’re successfully transplanting hearts to save lives. We type noiselessly on our gadgets to communicate instantly with people on the other side of the world. We’ve been to space 168 times.[11] Still, women are trying to move up the corporate ladder and participate in political discussions about their own bodies.

After catching up with my favorite show, I inadvertently caught up with the history of my gender. While women have come a long way from earning an M.R.S. degree, we still have a lot to catch up on. We all should be reading more, talking more, and following Friedan’s lead to advocate for our rights as human beings. Even if you begin to view the women in Mad Men differently, I hope you’ll tell someone. We can all change the conversation together.

[1] It’s noteworthy that Betty’s psychiatrist does not adhere to modern patient confidentiality laws; Betty’s husband, Don calls the doctor regularly to hear updates on his wife’s “issues.”

[2] Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. Pp.138.

[3] Gourley, Catherine. Ms. and the Material Girl: Perceptions of Women from the 1970s to the 1990s. 1st. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008. 5-20.

[4] Friedan, 133.

[5] Friedan 138.

[9] Friedan 94.

[10] Friedan 83.


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