I always had mixed feelings about Mad Men, although I was a faithful viewer. Having lived through that period in the 60s and 70s when it seemed like the whole world was exploding, I appreciated being able to view that time from a distance so I could reconsider the period without having to live through it again.
“Change” was not a big word in the neighborhood where I grew up: stability was the goal. World War II had ended a few years earlier. The veterans came home to get married, start a family, and not talk about what they had seen.
The houses on our street were built especially for the returning veterans, so the families were approximately the same age. The homes were nearly identical, save for a different front door or the bathroom tile and no one seemed to have a problem with that.
Neighbors became friends; the neighborhood became their social club. There were summer picnics for the families and winter holiday parties for the adults. Weather permitting, we children played outside all day–sometimes into the night with games of Flashlight Tag (otherwise known as Hide-and-Seek during the daylight hours).
It was difficult to see some families move away, less so others. But then we had new neighbors to meet, so we busied ourselves waiting for the moving van and getting our first look at the new family.
The Sullivans–Bill, Maggie, and their 3-year-old daughter–moved in early 1960. The Sullivans were about 15 years younger than my parents. I think my mother and I both thought of Maggie as our personal friend. She was tall and almost beautiful. She was an artist and vocalist, but she mostly set those talents aside to be a wife and mother.
You would see her in the morning wearing a tattered bathrobe and a pair of Bill’s socks. That evening, when I came to babysit, she’d changed into a black sheath dress and pearls and reminded me of Jackie Kennedy.
I’d arrive before they went out for dinner with two other couples. They’d met at their house for hors d’oeuvres and martinis and would return for a nightcap after dinner.
After they left, I’d wash the martini glasses and line them up on the counter. I’d wrap the cheese and return it to the refrigerator until about a half-hour before they all returned from dinner. Then, I pulled out the cheese and crackers, made sure there was ice, and brought out fresh napkins ahead of their return.
My mother was a wise and wonderful woman who taught me countless, invaluable things. Maggie taught me a few more: how to be a gracious hostess, how to make everyone feel that they truly were the most important person in the room.
What I rejected was the desire to be the corporate wife.
She was fortunate enough to have parents who could send her to college but, despite her obvious intelligence and creative gifts, she left school after one year to marry Bill. Her career was to be his wife and raise his children. My mother and I both agreed that she had married down.
After she left the inner circle of her family and friends, Maggie had no first name. Whether it was an article about her work with the Junior Women’s’ Club or her own book club, she was always “Mrs. Robert Sullivan” in the newspaper articles in the “Women’s pages” in those days–weddings, club notes, but nothing truly important to the men.
I remember one summer morning when my mother and I were sitting in Maggie’s back yard. She sat in a lawn chair with a mixing bowl balanced on her lap as she snapped the ends off of some green beans.
My mother and Maggie were talking and laughing. I was mostly observing them, so I may have been the first one to see Maggie’s body tense and her eyes cloud over. Her body stiffened and, as we called her name, she fell to the ground.
Years later, when I read about catatonia in my college psychology classes, the image of her stiffened body returned to me.
Maggie recovered quickly that morning. She laughed and returned to her green beans, but my mother knew there was something seriously wrong. Mom told her that she was trying too hard to be the perfect wife and mother, that perfection was an impossible goal.
I saw it differently. Here was this highly intelligent, talented, and wonderful woman who denied her own talents to become a corporate wife and mother.
I suspect the truth lie somewhere between our generations, which brings me back to Mad Men.
In the first episode, Betty Draper is driving her children in the Ford station wagon when her hands stiffen and she loses control of the car. There is a minor crash on a neighbor’s lawn. To her credit, Betty’s first instinct is to rush to check on her children, who are both fine and giggling over the adventure.
Her concerns, however, tell us much about Betty: it would be all right if her son had sustained a scar from the accident: scars on men are OK, but not so her daughter Sally.
Here was a woman who was certainly better educated than Maggie. She spoke fluent Italian and had a degree in Anthropology from Barnard College. She was prettier than Maggie, but probably not as intelligent. I suspect she was the most important woman in her neighborhood, though.
More importantly, Betty lacked two important things that Maggie had:
- Loving parents
- A sense of humor
We never meet Betty’s mother but we learn that she recently died before this fictional first episode. Don grudgingly agrees to pay for Betty’s sessions with a psychologist but then he and the doctor collude about her sessions over the telephone.
Granted, she is married to a deeply damaged husband. But the most important thing we learn about Betty we learn in this first episode and it’s almost a throwaway line: “My mother died a few weeks ago,” she tells the psychologist.
I know how the death of my mother affected me and the time it took for me to recover, but Betty is afforded none on that. She is a grieving woman who is deemed not worthy of consolation.
And so it goes for Betty, arguably the best-educated woman in the neighborhood, but also the unhappiest.
She cannot give love, for she has never known it.
Maggie, however, did know love. I do not pretend to understand her frustrations, although I know that she was capable of so much more, and she knew it as well.
Perhaps it is fine to truncate your goals, to never realize your potential. Maggie knew love and therefore knew how to love. Betty Draper knew that her beauty was her best asset but she failed at love.
In her final letter to Sally, she tells her that she knows her life will be an adventure. Then she spends more time telling Sally what she wants to wear for her final appearance at her funeral. The chiffon dress is in the closet; the lipstick is in her purse.
If Mad Men does nothing else, I hope it gives us an accurate picture of the well-defined misogyny of the era. I lived through much of it.
On our street, however, Maggie was my role model growing up. I would rather be her than Betty, but in truth, I’d rather be myself.