03/26/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated May 26, 2012

Mad Men 's Scarlet Women

We are finally about to get some relief from the endless media-marathon of Republican primaries and caucuses. The long-delayed fifth season of Mad Men started on Sunday, March 25. But Mad Men is not a break from the politics of 2012. This show is a sharply critical voice in the larger social debate that uses the early 1960s as a reference point for understanding how gender roles and economic prosperity intersect. While Republican politicians invoke nostalgia for a by-gone era of male breadwinners and so-called family values, Mad Men reminds us that the "good old days" weren't all that good, especially not for that half of the population that is female. Mad Men tempers the utopian nostalgia of contemporary Republican politics with a deeply dystopian view of the past. The show retells the history of economic prosperity as one of gender conflict, and makes a woman, Joanie, the paradigm of an evolving and besieged middle class. As historical fiction, Mad Men's method of storytelling harkens back to the nineteenth-century novel, which used stories about ordinary people to debate how national communities come into being. By creating a range of interpretative possibilities, Mad Men makes the past an object of debate rather than a mold for consensus. It provides the nuance that has been lost from much of the public discourse.

The nostalgia for tying American prosperity to the nuclear family is being defined by one minority -- white men -- loudly proclaiming itself to be the moral majority. Attacking reproductive rights and women's political participation resurrects an antiquated economic model of the male breadwinner. Removed from economic as well as social realities, this nostalgia sets aside the fact that women are emerging, as Liza Mundy has argued, as The Richer Sex, even though they still earn 81 cents to the dollar.

Today's Mad Men, the would-be Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings, are not the only ones who participate in this retrospective, as the broader trend and popularity of 1960s-themed historical fictions such as The Help and My Week with Marilyn demonstrate. The popular success of these stories set in the early 1960s forces us to ask why women participate in a retrospective that would seem to hurt them.

The figure that interests me most in Mad Men is that of the scarlet woman, Joanie (Christina Hendricks), who is caught between the fictional Hester Prynne and the real-life Sandra Fluke. In The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne probes into the way society shames women and exposes their reproductive bodies. His inquiry into the conflict between individual choices and community mores haunts Mad Men as much as it does that other show, the Republican primary season. Barred from access to any kind of birth control, Hester has her baby and suffers the consequences. Yet the source of her shame also becomes her means of rewriting history: Embroidering the letter "A" in ornate defiance of sartorial laws, she turns her needlework from a punishment into an advertisement that enables her to earn a livelihood as a seamstress. In Mad Men, Joanie is impregnated by her boss, who cavalierly offers to pay for an abortion. Her reproductive choices are limited in an age when the pill was a novelty, and the marital rape she experienced was not. Joanie is a victim, but she refuses to let her victimization deny her all agency. Caught between the sexual violence of the home and the sexual harassment of the workplace, she demonstrates the difficulties and perseverance with which women carved out new social roles. In her attempts to navigate through this Scylla and Charybdis, Joanie inhabits the role often reserved for men in historical fiction, namely that of the "middling hero." Georg Lukacs argued in his groundbreaking study of 1937 that The Historical Novel is a distinctly middle class genre in which the "middling" male hero finds himself caught between competing historical forces. Joanie's position in the middle -- at the nexus between home and work -- retells the story of the middle class as one of women's hard-fought gains.

As Caryl Rivers recently argued in the Huffington Post, Hawthorne's novel provides an important reference point for understanding the figure of another woman branded scarlet. Sandra Fluke was exposed to public shame when Rush Limbaugh attacked her for testifying about the economic inequalities of reproductive health services. But the communal response on both sides of the political divide turned against Limbaugh, shaming him rather than his intended victim. Is this a mark of social change? In discussing how gender slurs enter public discourse, Peggy Noonan wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal that we are witnessing a "war on women." Important as it is to recognize the hostility towards women in the current social climate, that assessment casts women as victims and archetypes defined by their sexuality, thus obscuring the powerful roles they play across all sectors of society. Noonan sees an attack on women's public voices as the core of the problem. In fact, Limbaugh's attacks and the broader social response they elicited might speak to a crisis of masculinity whose hallmark is an impoverishment of narrative nuance. Casting himself in the role of the evil ogre, Limbaugh vilified Sandra Fluke, but was foiled by President Obama's intervention as Prince Charming. The remarkable thing about Ms Fluke is that she is not the damsel-in-distress the media would make her out to be. She is reclaiming her voice and the authority to speak for her own body. She is an advocate for women's rights who appears on talk shows and grants interviews and refuses to be silenced. The arc from Hester Prynne to Joanie to Sandra Fluke provides a powerful historical narrative of women's relationship to the past, which through ongoing defiance of the silences imposed on them they have actively shaped.

Mad Men reflects and complicates the current zeitgeist, in which many social conservatives long for a return to the past and most social progressives insist that we move away from the early 1960s. Both desires demonstrate what is at stake: Gender is important, and especially in regard to Sandra Fluke, we cannot overlook its impact on the public debate. But the narrative forms we have for shaping the present by retelling the past are shifting under the pressure of current social realities. Those of us who will watch the new season of Mad Men should pay particularly close attention: where we fall in our interpretations of the past always reveals where we are in our relation to the present. Fiction has the power to shape reality; with our individual and collective futures at stake, we need to be careful to see which accounts of the past win out. The answer might be more nuanced than the current polarization of the political landscape would indicate. Joanie blurs this partisan divide in that her character not only resists nostalgic views of the past but also reminds us not to overlook the sacrifices of previous generations. There is a good chance that Joanie will not join forces with Gloria Steinem in episodes to come, but that is part of the complication we see in a character whose scarlet trail-blazing is often reluctant.