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|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Tuesday, 30 September 2008 19:00|
AMC’s dramatic hit show Mad Men has been one of the few bright spots during a fairly dismal summer in the world of television. As the major networks took their usual summer hiatus, viewers seeking new content were given painfully few options. In accordance with recent practice, channels were filled with trial-run specials, sports extravaganzas (I already miss the Olympics), and the usual frightening array of new reality shows (if it wasn’t for the redemptive power of Project Runway, I might have just abandoned the genre all together). But, as I said, an off-network production called Mad Men has given some viewers a welcome ray of light.
Created by Matthew Weiner, the show takes a dark look at life in a 1960s era Madison Avenue advertising agency and focuses particularly on the relationship between the sexes. The womanizing men of the office are sometimes difficult to watch; they behave as slickly with their big-time clients (cigarette companies, presidential candidates, and major department stores) as they do with their female coworkers. According to the show’s website [http://www.amctv.com/originals/madmen/], the series "depicts authentically the roles of men and women in this era while exploring the true human nature beneath the guise of 1960s traditional values." The plot is a little slow-moving, but the world created by the cast and crew is an incredibly rich one that should appeal to anyone interested in the time period and many who are not.
The narrative focuses on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) personal and professional struggles. His wife Betty (January Jones) is the typical idealized wife of the time period. The house that Betty keeps for her often-unfaithful husband is picture perfect. The immaculate home disguises the less-than-perfect relationships functioning within. Like the houses they keep, the suburban wives on the show are also disguised characters.
Betty is almost always carefully groomed with perfectly curled hair, flawless make-up, and crisply ironed dresses. One first season storyline touches upon her past work as a professional model, and another storyline addresses psychological problems she is experiencing. Betty’s hands often go numb, so she is referred to a psychiatrist. The flawless veneer that the character portrays begins to crack, as she looks more deeply at her life, and particularly at her role as a wife. She is the ultimate 1960’s wife and mother, but she is also a woman living with some extremely difficult anxieties and psychological problems.
In one particularly irksome example of 60s era gender roles, Don brings his boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery), home for dinner at the last minute. When Betty is forced to prepare dinner for all three of them, she protests that she does not have enough food to do so. In the next scene, Don and Roger eat steaks while Betty eats a salad. She has given her steak to the boss, and, when he asks her where her steak is, she pretends that she prefers salad. The disguise that she puts on for the guest, and for her husband, is one of control, restraint, and self-sacrifice.
The characterization of women as seemingly perfect wives is not uncommon in popular culture. The 1975 film The Stepford Wives (re-made in 2004) depicts a suburban world where all the imperfect wives have been replaced with perfect robots. The 1998 film The Truman Show also presents an idealized wife in Laura Linney’s Meryl Burbank. It is easy to see these fictionalized representations as so far removed from the reality that they are laughable, but to what extent have we moved past the false perfection portrayed by these actresses?
The beauty industry is a prime example of the disguises that women continue to use today. I recently indulged in a manicure and pedicure, and as I was sitting in the wonderful massage chair, spending $50 for an afternoon of pampering, I began to think about these kinds of disguises.
Ok, the secret is out … my nails don’t usually look this nice.
I don’t get spa treatments very often, but when I do, I certainly enjoy them. There is something wonderful about glancing down at your freshly done nails and seeing them look so … well … perfect. Getting my nails done always makes me feel great. It isn’t about what they look like to the rest of the world, so much as it is about how I feel spending some time on something frivolous just for myself.
The difference between Mad Men-era woman and women today is choice. I think (and hope) that most women today don’t wear a disguise because they have to but rather because they choose to. Suburban wives on Mad Men are trapped by the lives they are born into and bred to lead. Betty Draper disguises her tastes in food because it would be unthinkable for her to provide her husband’s boss with an inferior meal. She does what is expected of her as defined by her gender and cultural position as a wife.
To some extent, we all wear some sort of disguise at various points in any given day. Are these the limiting, constricting disguises that the women of Mad Men wear? I don’t think they are. We do things that make us feel good about ourselves. As much as it might be part of a social role we play, most women today are able to choose to live in a way that works for them.
I am not advocating the psychologically-damaging level of layered disguises (both physical and mental) that Betty Draper exhibits. But it is important not to dismiss the idea of disguise outright. Trying a different look, or getting your nails done, is a great way to discover a new side of yourself. Is it really a disguise if it brings out some other part of who you are?
Women today are increasingly able to live an infinite number of lifestyles and enact an infinite number of roles. The traditional limits to who we are and what we can be are growing more and more indistinct and malleable. Choose whatever disguise you wish to wear and make it your own.