Mad Men: 1960’s America and the Misogyny That Coupled It

Beyond Cold War binaries of ‘with us or against us,’ since 9/11, American popular culture has adopted a newly retrospective lens. If one looks to numerous films and series that have surfaced in the last decade, it is evident that a fascination with America’s Cold War history has been reborn. Set in the early 1960’s, AMC’s Mad Men takes place during the height of the Cold War. While the series does not focus particularly on Soviet-American relations or international politics, its staging and period details pay notable attention to American cultural mores during the Cold War.

The era’s sexism and stark, gender binary are present throughout Mad Men –  in both the home and the workplace. Don Draper, the show’s protagonist – a smooth, tall, handsome man working in advertising – is the emblem of this misogyny. He resides in a professional environment in which men hold the corner offices – with closed doors and walls, and the women – secretaries and assistants – sit together in a large room with desks side-by-side. The image of male copywriters shutting their office doors to the women that sit beyond them reveals an interesting paradox: while these women have technically permeated the workforce, they still face a physical and literal gender barrier. Furthermore, in the series’ first episode Don Draper’s colleagues’ eye Peggy – the office’s newest secretary – as they share an elevator ride. While ogling at Peggy and peering over her shoulder, one of the men remarks “I’m really enjoying the view from here.” As he objectifies and preys on her, the office dynamic of men using female employees as entertainment is displayed. Finally, after meeting with a female business owner who challenges his presentation, Don Draper retorts that he “won’t let a woman talk to… (him)…this way.”


Like many men raised in this era, Draper is not accustomed to strong women who dare dispute his ideas. The women who matter to him – be they his wife or mistress – are limited to the social and domestic spheres. His lovely wife Betty, his two children, and their perfect house in the suburbs are far from the world of NYC business. Throughout the series a repeating event highlights this imbalance: that is, Don Draper returning to suburbia late at night, drunk and just having slept with a mistress. While Don tip toes up the stairs, checks in on his sleeping children, and finds his blonde Sleeping-Beauty-esque wife alone in bed, the hypocrisy of this era is noted. Don Draper lives in a man’s world. Betty and the children are confined in model suburbia and are unwelcome in the city. His mistresses are only seen in bars or apartments that Draper lures them back to. The secretaries in his office are kept in the outside room. Don, however, gets the corner office, the whiskey, the car, the cigarettes, the secretary, the mistress, the wife, the perfect house, the job and a purpose. In essence, he gets it all.

And yet, Draper & co.’s actions, that would today be considered purely misogynistic and even harassing, leave some viewers unfazed. Why don’t the sexist jokes, the philandering, and predatory employers bother us? Is it because we dismiss these apparently antiquated attitudes as things we just ‘don’t do’? Does our confusion on how to react mean that we have advanced passed Cold War misogyny or does it reflect us still normalizing such abhorrent and seemingly outdated behavior?

Photo from Peggy elevator. Photograph. Accessed October 2, 2016. wiki/File:Peggy_elevator.jpg.

Episode 1 Season 1 of Mad Men can be viewed here.


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