Mad Men and Strong Women

In these, the final days before Mad Men is done and gone forever, I have been LOVING the post-game analysis. In our world of market fragmentation and DVR’d viewing, I’m so happy to have a number of tried and true locations where I can go to get other people’s assessment of fashion, plot lines, character arcs and conclusions, writing triumphs and failings. I don’t agree with all points put forward, but as a person who fully believes and regularly proselytizes about the importance of media and popular culture as so much more than *just* entertainment, I love the seriousness with which authors approach their celebrations and critiques.

The last two episodes leading up to the series finale (“The Lost Horizon” and “The Milk and Honey Route”) have had these writers (and many viewers) losing their minds – and for good reason. I basically did not breathe for the entirety of Joan’s meeting with vile Jim Hobart and then breathed fire until the episode’s conclusion; I rewound and rewound to rewatch and rewatch Peggy 1) roller skate through her abandoned workplace while Roger played the electronic organ and then 2) walk into McCann like the baddest bad ass on planet Earth (or any other planet); I reeled at Betty’s terminal cancer diagnosis; and I wept at her matter-of-fact “when I die” letter to Sally. I could write forever and a day about all of these things.

But I’m trying to focus. The work I’m doing right now (in the world of research and writing) is about how the radical ideas of Second Wave feminism – primarily women’s rights to compete freely and fairly in the public and professional world, to manage their sexuality without consequence, to make decisions based on personal preference rather than cultural expectations and social standards, and to see themselves and be seen by others as equal to men – became mainstream. And very clearly non-feminist Betty Francis, in the last conversation we may ever see her have with her girl, rang just about every bell for me as I thought about this show and what it does to tell the history of a time and place to which I’ve committed much of my professional life.

Despite Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis, New York GOP big wig, the person she expects to take charge after her death and to whom she gives her list of instructions for burial is her teenage daughter. Henry, Betty tells Sally, won’t be able to handle it. Having seen him turn to Sally to convince Betty to receive treatment (a task at which he’d failed), having seen him weep in Sally’s dorm room on her twin bed, and having seen teenage Sally awkwardly comfort this grown man, that seems true. Don Draper, off in the hinterlands, seems not even a thought in anyone’s mind. Betty is right: Sally is the logical choice to see everything through.

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Betty, of that forgotten fifties generation, too young for World War II glory and too late for “the Sixties,” had done what she was supposed to do and ended up knee-deep in the Feminine Mystique. Even when she was finally happy, maybe she wasn’t. Baby Boomer Sally had watched her mother with a keen eye, vowing since little girlhood to avoid all the traps into which Betty fell. But of course there’s little escape from parental influence, for better or worse (we’ve seen Don tell Sally this directly), and it may be a long time from 1970 until Sally finally sees her mother as more than her mother and as a person caught in a larger web of cultural expectation and social limits. For me, Betty’s letter to Sally is one of the spots to which Sally can return, their conversation and Betty’s approach to her death as evidence of a more complicated woman than Betty likely ever appeared in her daughter’s eyes.

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In telling Sally she appreciates her independence, that she’d worried because Sally “marched to the beat of [her] own drum” but now saw what an adventure her life would be, Betty reveals something of how she’s changed over the course of the sixties. But make no mistake: she’s still old-fashioned. In asking Sally to be responsible once she’s dead, Betty is working on an old trope: women can handle things men can’t. They have a reserve of strength men do not. For Betty, this is not about empowerment; it’s about nature. This is an idea with a long history, the underlying message being something along the lines of men enjoy status as the public face of the operation, but privately women are the backbone of the enterprise.

But where all of this may be obvious to Betty, a matter-of-fact way of the world, my sense is that Sally, coming of age alongside Women’s Liberation, and again, looking at the world with that keen eye, is likely to call bullshit on this idea. Or at least on the fact that women are “stronger” but simultaneously subjugated to a secondary status, a behind-the-scenes pat on the back. Before the 1960s, what was known in “women’s culture” about women’s abilities, about what they endured and what they sacrificed, would, by the 1970s, become much more visible in American culture more broadly. As public conversation shed light on what had been assumed as “private” issues, many women, young and old, began reconsidering the assumed way of the world. And being the unsung hero, the known (but largely uncelebrated) support for American men wouldn’t cut it for the Sallys of the world.