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Mad Men, the American Women’s Movement, and the Rest of History

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mad men

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once offered eight tips for writing. My favourite was the last one:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This is pretty much how I feel about tonight’s final episode of AMC’s Mad Men. There is no cliffhanger. We are not hanging on the edge of our seats. We want to see what “happens” to the characters, but we sort of already know. And that’s ok. Because it doesn’t really matter. And that’s because the protagonist of Mad Men is not any one character, but American history itself.

Mad Men began as a show about Don Draper, creative director of a NYC advertising firm, and the people around him. Draper represented both sides of the American dream/nightmare, a con artist and an adulterer, but handsome and smart and charismatic enough to succeed in New York’s world of advertising in the 1960s. The best thing about Don was how he never succumbed to the racism and antisemitism he saw around him. He could be a sleazeball, but he seemed to conclude that those sorts of prejudices would only get in the way of his ambition.

After a few seasons, however, Don became boring, almost insufferably so. His former secretary, Peggy, became far more compelling, the real embodiment of the American dream, of feminist success in a man’s world world she made her own. Very quickly, the women of the show, Peggy, Joan, and Betty, became more interesting than the men, who stayed on almost as comic relief. That’s because the story of the 1960s belonged to them.

In the world that Matt Weiner and his writers created, women’s struggles in the workforce represented the driving force of the narrative. Other important events occurred: JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War. As viewers, we always asked ourselves: how is Mad Men going to incorporate this or that moment in history? Because in the final analysis, though we learned to love and care about the characters, what we were really watching was American history unfold through the lens of the white-collar working woman’s struggle. That struggle is not over, but we know the way it progresses, even if we don’t know specifically how it will go for Joan, Betty, Peggy, and the others. And this lack of a cliffhanger is an achievement of the show, not a flaw.

Written by Jenny Carlson

May 17th, 2015 at 9:14 pm

Posted in Main