For over four years, the AMC series Mad Men has been a ticket to a world of bygone pleasures. The show is so iconic, at this point, that hashing out its plot points—ad agency, early-60s setting, Don Draper's secret identity, blah blah blah—is pointless. It's famous for a look and a mood, not a story; the real draw of the series is the way that its characters revel in things that we find unthinkable in 2010. They drink on the job; they smoke at restaurants; they eat various gourmet dishes comprised primarily of butter. And then, there's the sexism.
Misogyny has been an integral part of Mad Men since its first episode. We see sexist jokes, chronic philandering, and office parties in which executives tackle secretaries in order to see what color their panties are. Don Draper, the show's central character, kicks things off in the premiere by announcing to a dissatisfied female client that he "won't let a woman talk to him this way," shortly before storming out of the room. To be fair, Mad Men doesn't hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they're not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We're encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it's just one more of those things that We Don't Do Any More.
Consider Peggy Olson. In this week's episode, we learn that she's been delaying sex with her boyfriend and pretending to be a virgin, so that he'll take their relationship seriously. Of course, it probably also has something to do with the fact that the first man she had sex with got her pregnant, in spite of the birth control she obtained from a gynecologist who threatened to withhold his services if she became a "strumpet." She had to give up the baby for adoption in order to continue to work as Sterling Cooper's only female copywriter, a position which was not as glamorous as it sounded, by the way, because men always asked her to make the coffee, and the office manager stuck her next to the Xerox machine instead of giving her an office, and her bosses paid her less than the pompous stoner whose job she was perpetually saving, even after she brought up the fact that this was illegal, and, and, and... phew. The point is, Peggy has gone through a lot of torment in order to convince viewers that the 1960s were a bad time to be a lady. And she's the luckiest, most outwardly emancipated female character on the show.
Of course the 1960s were sexist. But something about the show's Grand Guignol presentation of discrimination and contempt for women makes it feel unfamiliar: Our own lives, after all, are nowhere near this dramatic. And the fact that it's all being undergone by people in funny, old-fashioned outfits makes it feel comfortably distant. We root for Peggy, but it's hard to imagine being Peggy.