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Sheila Weller Headshot

Mad Hopes for the Mad Men Women

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Having spent much of the last six years re-conjuring what it was like to have come of age during the second half of the 1960s -- when girls were newly, defiantly sexual while America was still numbly, dumbly sexist -- DVD-ing the whole first season of Mad Men (which presents the years just before ours) in one night was like getting socked with an ice-cream headache: too sweet! too much! too true! That brilliant series (as smart as Robert Redford's Quiz Show, while flirting with camp) -- which has started its second season on AMC with a Sopranos-like buzz-bang -- delivered gorgeously grotesque memories of how life seemed to be for young women ten to twenty years older than me. Never had a generation of American girls so not wanted to slip into the shoes of the one before it as mine did, and watching Mad Men reminded me of why. Despite some irresistible liberties taken with hairdos and, of course, passes on accents (is cleaned-up ValleyGirl that hard to suppress?), it was all there with a cruel gleam: the frantic perkiness, the forced obeisance to idiots, the insta-matronliness and smugness that came with marriage. It was as if the dregs of Truman-to-Eisenhower-era social mandates were being rotely lived out by these older sisters and young aunts of ours; and if you were a middle-class teenage girl in 1960, you peeked across the thin curtain to that desultory looming young-adulthood with dread. We were helplessly preparing for such a life -- wearing suits and gloves to Sweet Sixteen luncheons; signing our "married" names (those of the varsity football captains we had crushes on) in our best friends' yearbooks -- while simultaneously resisting it: clicking our orthodontic retainers rudely, making our "sarcastic" jokes, pinning JFK buttons to our rich-Beatnik-girl Geistex sweaters, singing like the Shirelles. The Ray Charles and Joan Baez albums we played After Homework hazily suggested what ship we wanted to jump to (though we couldn't see its prow yet). Mad Men shows us the ship we were jumping from.

And a lot of it was like the high school world we knew. When, in the middle of the the first season, callow account exec Pete Campbell walks past striving-to-be-a-copywriter secretary Peggy Olson's desk without acknowledging her, Peggy's incremental comprehension of her powerlessness with this guy she's had sex with is documented in her face's shift from anticipation to abashment to acceptance. Later tells him, "I don't know if you like me or you don't" -- but to my '60s generation ears, that sequence rang untrue: No girl, adult or teen, then would have made such an earnest, whining plea for something as then-nonexistent as communication and not been laughed at by the boy-- or mocked by her cooler girlfriends. (And the show's uber cool girlfriend is, of course, office manager -- and Man's Woman, from the tip of her red French Twist to the soles of her round-toed pumps -- Joan Holloway, who struts around-- breasts out, needs in -- with Jill St. John-on-hormone-enhancement applomb). Those were buyer-beware years in the mating game, and girls who sexually braved them then were like Bear Stearns shareholders now. Try to change the template, and you both gloried and suffered -- hoisted on your own petard. As one Mad Men-generation Bohemian woman, Betsy Minot Siggins, told me. "Sometimes it felt like we were both the creators of and the victims of the Sexual Revolution."

But -- victims and creators: that's just it. For, as much as I love Mad Men, I also want to correct its saccharin, overly credulous portrayal of its women. In trying to be p.c. sympathetic with the plight of early '60s women, Mad Men's young creator Matthew Weiner is not giving these chicks their due. Plight does not equal consciousness. We high school girls, looking with veiled horror at those perky secretaries and those pregnant young wives in Christmas-bow maternity get-ups, knew they were wearing Kabuki masks. My research, and my memory, has led me to believe that few women took that happy-housewife ideal without spoon-gagging, and of course, the second-wave feminism that would fully bloom a decade later (powered by Betty Draper contemporary Betty Friedan) had its roots in the internal rebellion of these Silent Generation women whose obedience was skin-deep, at best.

Here's what I think: The real Peggy Olson would be flintier and snarkier. (She chose advertising to try to make her mark in -- not Alfred A. Knopf.) Far from being shocked that the passive-exercise device she is asked to try out is a orgasm-stimulator, she would have already practiced her craft by writing dirty lyrics to Pat Boone's "April Love." Don Draper's ex-model wife Betty wouldn't be a naif to her husband's boss or the rival executive's overtures (she'd have used her beauty to slyly play both men) or a mournful doormat to Don. Way too foxy to have to make do with being tempted by the door-to-door air conditioner salesman (huh?) in the first season -- or to flirt with the auto mechanic in the second (double huh?), she'd have a hot hipster boy on the side; the Drapers' his-and-hers affairs would be as poised to launch as Krushchev and Kennedy missiles. Draper's Jewish department-store-heiress? Instead of cadging comfort from her minority-conferred sensitivity, he'd find her sophistication sexy and challenging. She wouldn't have to be sent on that three-month cruise to resist him -- that's male self-flattery. Instead, her friends from Ethical Culture (I can't imagine she didn't go to that school...) would return from a Civil Rights trip to the South and talk about going again -- her crowd of penthouse activists taking on a glamorous moral adventurousness that secret-Dust-Bowl-bastard Draper would be intrigued by and hard put to match. As for Joan Holloway -- whose marriage marketability Peggy Olson primly assesses (as a real Peggy wouldn't) as fatally compromised: She'd quit her loser married lover Roger Sterling and his Sterling Cooper Agency. Far from obsessing about marrying The Doctor, as she does at the beginning of season two (she's too hip for that), she'd take her vinegary emotional intelligence and her room-working charisma, and open a -- wildly successful -- Elaine's-type bar.

You see, what saved those of us girls who were next at-bat was our hunch that these older sisters had the power all along. Like the crafters of a slick ad campaign, they were simply waiting for the right time-buy. Let's hope that, in this new season of Mad Men, we see Peggy, Joan, and Betty more as they really felt in their seditious hearts (and trash-talked to their girlfriends) than as they had to act. Since we're moving forward from 1962, I'm hopeful this will happen. And, fyi: the sedative Don Draper's doctor prescribes in the first new episode? It would have been Miltown, not phenobarbitol. Any '60s girl with a parent's medicine cabinet could tell you that.