by Adam Gasperoni Riddle
For as dated and politically incorrect the time of Mad Men is set in, the show also takes place in the perfect time for change. The 1960s were the time of JFK, MLK, the Vietnam War, Stonewall riots, the formation of the Weathermen, etc. The 60s were a time when change scared many people to hold onto their roots even tighter, while others sought out change as a necessary tool for American survival. Many movements were at the forefront of this notion, and they are dissected in the characters and story lines of Mad Men.
The show is known for its serious and strong depiction of women, and the reasons and reactions of the women’s civil rights movement has always been apparent in the series. From the second episode, “Ladies Room,” Matthew Weiner lets the audience into the world of the women behind the men. Aptly titled, the episode features many instances where the women excuse themselves to the restroom for a break from the outside world. Betty and Mona excuse themselves to the bathroom where Betty completely loses control of her hands and must ask for help to apply lipstick; Joan and Peggy exit to the office restrooms where Peggy is concerned to see a female coworker crying, to which Joan brushes it off; Peggy later returns to the bathroom to possibly cry herself but sees another woman already doing so, and instead regains her composure. (The depressing confines of the ladies room can be seen yet again in “The Suitcase,” where Peggy is no longer able to remain stoic.)
The ladies room is a cage for women. Disguised as a discreet getaway for women from any stressful or convivial situation, it is really a designated place for them to put their emotions. Should they lose grip on any sense of composure, they excuse themselves to the ladies room, and “break down” there, until they are ready to go back out into the world with a smile on their faces. The naturalness and ridiculousness of this is seen in the way Mad Men’s women need so much more in life – so much more happiness, stability, comfort, help, friendship, respect. But they don’t get any of this so they have to find a secluded space to deal with it on their own.
The entire series is a hotbed of reasons why the women’s civil rights movement is so necessary and so important to talk about. One of the most painful but accurate lines of this season is in “The Good News” when Greg seems unfazed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, and while trying to calm Joan, she says to him, “Because it’s not your problem too?” Men were the active gender of their time, and the women were the bearers of burdens. Most recently seen in season four’s “The Beautiful Girls,” the show finally turned the tables and looked at what it means when a woman defines a man. With Peggy’s reaction to Abe when he patronizes her desire for attention on women’s civil rights, or Faye’s testimonial on how it wasn’t a failure to choose a career over children, or Sally’s uneasy growing up into an abrasive womanhood, (even this season’s unapologetic lesbian character, Joyce), the women’s civil rights movement can be seen in every nook and cranny of the show. These women, these beautiful girls, are seen as rebels to the mold of society and force the men around them to do a second take; when in actuality, they simply represent the unending spectrum of what it means to be a woman.
The women of Mad Men are not rebels. They are women.
Adam Gasperoni Riddle is a sophomore film student at Columbia College Chicago. He spends all his free time watching Mad Men and wondering how he can grow up to be Joan Harris.