“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” That’s the advice that Mad Men’s mysterious, charismatic, self-destructive leading man Don Draper gives to his copywriting protégée Peggy Olsen on pitching ad copy to clients. And that’s what Matthew Weiner’s prestige drama did itself – it changed the conversation. Right from the off, it was as recklessly ambitious and languidly paced as Don Draper serving up genius from his office sofa, half-cut on single malt.
An American friend pitched it to me in 2007 before it arrived on British screens. “It’s full of chauvinist men being unspeakably sexist to the women in their office while chain smoking and cheating on their wives,” she explained. “You’re gonna love it.” It sounded less than adorable, but I went in out of curiosity and soon understood it entirely and became fascinated by its toxins.
Mad Men exposes the sleazy, abusive practices beneath the “Hi, honey, I’m home!” lie we’d been sold by the men of that generation who made television shows like The Brady Bunch, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie on advertising money brought in by companies like the fictional Sterling Cooper. This show explores the birth of the sort of advertising that creates in us a thirst for status and gaslights us into thinking that women, like our hair, should be soft and manageable to be attractive to men – and that being attractive to men is the most noble purpose a woman can fulfil.
Season One is set in 1960 and Season Seven ends on the cusp of 1970. A full decade of sexual politics is explored through Peggy and Joan, who are the real heroes of the piece because they are changed the most. Don comes to terms with very little, while the power structures accommodate the worst excesses of his drunken, selfish, absent, lascivious behaviour in exchange for what they perceive as his genius.
Peggy begins as a secretary hoping she can work the “technology they’ve made so simple even a woman can use it,” as explained to her by her boss Joan. These women have bought the lie that they are less capable than their male counterparts and their best hope is to find a husband who can pay the bills. Peggy’s talent for copywriting is discovered accidentally by a creative who describes seeing a woman come up with good slogans as “like watching a dog play the piano”.
By 1970, Peggy and Joan have understood their value and proved it relentlessly in brutal circumstances. In season 7, Joan is “an account man” who starts her own business making corporate films. When she can’t get Peggy to partner with her, she uses her maiden and married names to form an official-sounding company name – Holloway Harris – acknowledging that it’s going to take all the woman she was and is to make this work, and she will die with respect even if she’s often lived without it.
Peggy insists on staying at the huge corporate advertising agency because she wants to prove that she can make it inside the system, even if she has to beat every individual man at his own game to get where she’s going.
The show is a measuring stick that shows us how far we’ve come in six decades and the impossibly steep incline up which women scrambled in high heels without breaking a nail. It touches, far too briefly, on how Black women were squeezed into far narrower margins than white women, if they were allowed into the building at all. The show was the beginning of the end of the gaslighting that things were and are “not so bad for women”.
Mad Men forced us to admit that none of this is harmless and that the toxicity is eating men up from the inside and women from the outside. Without it, I am not at all sure that Time would ever have been Up.
And yet, such is the complexity of this terrain, there are times when I cannot escape the uncomfortable feeling that Mad Men is a love letter from Matthew Weiner to an age of mini skirts, chain-smoking and zero accountability that he was too young to enjoy. Perhaps if I proposed that to the man himself, he might just change the conversation.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill