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 We're encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it's just one more of those things that We Don't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.
Or maybe not. If we blame Peggy's distress entirely on her era, we risk missing the ways in which her situation is familiar. Girls may not have to withhold sex forever in order to get married, but dating guides still tell them not to give it up too early, lest their gentleman callers lose all respect for them. Fake virginity may be less common, but girls are still warned that participating in the "hook-up culture" will damage their prospects of finding love, and "virginity pledges" and "born-again virgins are not at all unheard of. Last season, Peggy complained that a diet product for women was being sold using a male sexual fantasy—specifically, the sexual fantasy of being semi-melodically hollered at by Ann-Margret—and was told that women want to be whatever men want. We could tsk-tsk this old-fashioned attitude, or we could wonder how many female copywriters worked on this gem, if any, and what they thought of their assignment:
Audience reactions to the show often point out how little has changed. In the show's third season, Joan Holloway was raped by her fiance—a crime that almost certainly wouldn't have been recognized as such in 1963. (It was legal for a man to rape his wife anywhere in America until 1975; marital rape wasn't a criminal offense in all fifty states until 1993.) "What's astounding is when people say things like, 'Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?' Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers," said Christina Hendricks, of fan reactions. Later in the season, Pete Campbell coerced an au pair into having sex with him, and several show recappers didn't know whether to call it rape—which, given that Campbell forced his way into the girl's house, trapped her in her bedroom, and reduced her to hysterical tears, is disturbing.
But our inability to identify misogyny, even on a show that presents it so melodramatically, points to the truth behind sexism, and oppression at large. To people who actually lived through the 1960s, the sexism of their culture didn't seem dramatic; the men who objectified and infantilized women probably bore no specific malice, and the vast majority of the women who found their lives constrained by those men didn't imagine that things could be different. Their oppression was invisible, because it was normal. In other words, they were like us. Sexism is still around, and in the vast majority of instances it doesn't present itself as some portentous, shocking occurrence. It's just the fabric of daily life, a little ugliness that we take for granted.
That is, until it's served back to us with the trappings of the unfamiliar. "The truth is that a lot of these moments that seem period and horrible for women come directly from experiences that I and the other women writers have had in our lifetimes," said Robin Veith, the executive story editor of Mad Men. Which may be yet another truth about sexism: We can't face it directly unless we're assured that it's behind us. In order to admit that it's awful, we may have to feel that we've been absolved.