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.

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The Search for Advice and Why I Won’t (Can’t) Abandon It Entirely

Before even getting to the meat of this post, I must confess: I have an extremely troubled relationship with prescriptive (aka advice) literature. Friends who’ve heard me go on about this before: sorry to repeat (but you had to know that one day I’d try to write this out of my system). Others: here we go.

In my scholarship, I often go to town on advice lit from the past, analyzing, dissecting, critiquing, figuring out what, exactly, any given “expert” believed as hard fact for the “correct” behaviors of a person in any given role – usually, for my most recent purposes, husband or wife, man or woman on the prowl, bride-to-be or groom-to-be. I don’t believe that there is one way to be a spouse, one way to snag a partner, one way to host a wedding. Nor has there ever been. But an “expert,” looking to prey upon those who did and looking to move his/her product, insisted that his/her way was the best, the only way. Come on. No way. How could people have taken these texts seriously?

And yet, when a baby came to live with us, I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for advice lit designed for new parents. Not as any kind of cerebral, objective observer, but as a total desperado in need of answers. I dog-eared pages and used tabs to remind me of passages that included the best, most essential advice. I timed “awake time” so that I wouldn’t be a minute too soon or too late in moving baby into nap mode. I scoured the approved list of activities so that I wouldn’t accidentally overstimulate this child and prevent her from sleeping. There was a terrible morning where my husband and I, inspired by a baby advice book, mapped out a multi-week schedule – on a LEGAL PAD, no less – to transition her from 3-hour to 4-hour feedings. If you see a sleep theme here, you’re on the right track.

Some of the information in some of these books was sometimes very helpful. Some of it was crazy. And sometimes the tone of the author was terrible. One book, in particular, chastised parents for “accidental parenting” – cases in which they’d allowed difficult behaviors or patterns to develop in their infants. Back when baby was weeks old, I would sometimes weep thinking about my accidental parenting practices (HORMONES). Eventually, I wanted a face-to-face meeting with said author so I could explain just how fng deliberate I’d been. But even when I was reeling from giving birth, nursing, realizing the weight of what we’d just committed to, and feeling pregnancy hormones wash out and nursing hormones take their place, I *knew* the many problems with prescriptive literature. Even as I turned to it time after time. As noted above, I’ve made a practice of taking these kinds of texts down. But in the craziness of new baby, when my husband and I were grappling for answers, prescriptive literature seemed a better alternative to the anecdotal world of what you find when you google “6 weeks baby nap trouble.” I knew these books were so flawed and yet I COULDN’T STOP LOOKING TO THESE BOOKS FOR ANSWERS. It was a terrible vortex.

Have I learned anything from this? Sadly, no. Case in point: I recently checked out Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. With this text, I explicitly was looking for advice. On the one hand, we’ve established a pretty good balance in this house; on the other hand, seeing what others have done to this end seemed like a good idea. I realize this isn’t exactly intended as an advice text and is formatted as a study, but it still sort of is advice-related, providing evidence from people who’ve already traveled the path I’m on, reflecting and identifying what good or bad decisions they’d made, all of which, theoretically, could be of use to me. The premise: the authors, having heard all about the many challenges women face when it comes to managing an academic career – and specifically, one that advances to tenure status – and a family, wanted to present a more optimistic view, one that suggests that the academy is a good place to be a professional and a parent, to find the all-to-elusive “balance.” I agree with the impulse behind this study in many ways. The kind of flexibility an academic post affords is incredible, and for that, I am grateful. But from the get go, my relationship with this text was flawed.

My immediate beef: the authors’ descriptions of their own experiences. One author delivered a baby mid-semester. Her solution to work/life balance: skip ONE CLASS (for delivery) and then return to teaching, often with baby in tow. And if class time intersected with when she needed to nurse said baby, she’d do so. In class. RECORD SCRATCH. If one of the persons collecting and evaluating evidence considers *this* to be an example of balance, or even of reasonable professional expectations, I need go no further (even though I did [and in all fairness, the author admitted that she should have pushed for better accommodation]). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just because you *can* multitask doesn’t mean you should. So many things have to go so right for that kind of solution to even be an option, I sort of don’t know where to begin. Not to mention the fact that everyone in that scenario – mom, baby, students – deserves better. And if mom is too nervous to advocate her right to a better situation or, even worse, fails to imagine that a better one could exist (and this when she’d already been awarded tenure), then this book is a case in point about how the academy is often a very uncompromising place for working mothers hoping to advance. The other author, you ask? Her partner stayed home, full-time. Good for her. These starting points did little to assure me that I’d come to the right place. As I read on, too many stories were too much like this.

Maybe I’d begun with hopes too high. I know of too many instances where even a “good” setup isn’t great. I can’t fault a text for not being exactly what I wanted it to be. I will say, even with my reaction to these stories, I appreciate the fact that these people are recognizing the privileged position academics hold, contributing to a conversation very worth having, and coming up with recommendations for how to improve very important (and too often ignored) workplace issues. Additionally, there’s something valuable to draw from this text – and even from my disappointment in said text. Work-life “balance,” the “right” way of raising up a child, the “only” way to host a wedding – all of these are so wildly individualized, there’s no way that one text is ever going to do everything for everyone. But in this instance, in propelling me toward a visceral reaction to what others term “balance,” I came away with a better sense of my own vision of what that means. And I felt more confident about the choices my husband and I have made on our eleven-month journey with our tiny human. That said, our practices wouldn’t be perfect for everyone, just as the authors’ practices would not have been realistic for me or my family. So be it. Throughout the text, that was the common thread: individuals working out scenarios that worked best for them in their individual circumstances. Of course as I think about this, I think how nice it would be if there were a some kind of structural change, an attempt by our leadership and institutions to guarantee a smoother effort toward the blend of work and home through actual policy. Alas. You may say I’m a dreamer (or a socialist), but that would alleviate so much of the tension women – and men – feel in their efforts to do and be all that they wish to do and be. (As an aside: it was staggering to see how many women had to come up with “solutions” to their pregnancies on their own; very few institutions had policies in place.)

Am I offering solutions here? No way. After all, I’m no Kim Kardashian (http://jezebel.com/kim-kardashian-knows-all-about-being-a-working-mom-1601998628). I would never presume to speak for everyone, and I’m still looking for advice. As a person who wants answers to my questions and solutions to my problems and who has long looked to books for knowledge and direction, I’m not about to go cold turkey. Upon reconsideration, it’s possible that I have learned something during my last few months of advice seeking. As I move forward, I’ll aim to remember to be savvier in my reading: taking what fits, disregarding the rest, and looking beyond the written word to the experiences and counsel of friends who are willing to share. In so doing, maybe I’ll be able to empathize more with my historical subjects who looked to prescriptive texts for answers, and practice in my personal life will yield professional results.