My first awareness of the Mad Men television series, about a decade ago now, came in my daughters’ outraged question – “Was there really that much sexual abuse in the workplace back then? They’re making that up, aren’t they?”
They were incredulous at the blatant sexism and racism of the time I grew up in, even after I confirmed it was there.
What they described was confirmed and more in my recent binge viewing of the series. Let’s just say I was quickly emotionally engaged in the show.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was repeatedly told I belonged in New York rather than in my hometown. Advertising was, in fact, one of the career paths I was considering, and like journalism and publishing in general, Manhattan was still the center of the universe.
Watching the presentations reminded me, to some extent, of the first offices I worked in, even in Ohio. And Don Draper, the advertising creative director at the core of the story (I started to say “heart” but he is rather heartless), reminded me of some of my livelier bosses as well as a kind of ideal of what I was aspiring to or perhaps was being groomed for, at least before the hippie influence kicked in.
Yes, there was cigarette smoking everywhere, and liquor – and functioning alcoholics. (Should I say “functioning alcoholics who smoked”? Or is that too redundant?)
There were also some incredible secretaries, who were far more than typists. The best held the office together, far more than the corner office they reported to.
Let’s just say that the workplace changed drastically in the years since, in part through the digital revolution.
The show also hit close to home through the father of my best friend in high school, who was a vice president in a boutique advertising agency, one titled with the initials of the three of the partners’ surnames. Not that he was anything like the ad men in the show. Through him, though, I learned of the intricacies of billing, production challenges, deadline crunches, marketing analysis, and purchasing print, broadcast, billboard, and direct mail access – things that were touched lightly on, if at all, in the plots but still a factor.
And during college and the first year after, I was exposed to families that could well have mingled with the Drapers – executives, attorneys, and politicians, plus their wives and children of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
My daughters were swept up in the show’s fashion mindfulness of the ‘50s and early ‘60s but unhappy with the styles as the chronology moved on in the final seasons. We can argue there.
My biggest criticism is of the cheap shots taken at hippies, falling into stereotypes rather than the more carefully crafted type studies up to that point. In doing so, the writers and producers lost an opportunity to more sharply critique the cynical, superficial world Draper and his colleagues inhabited. The tone of these segments, quite simply, was out of line with the rest of the production.
Even so, I was devastated by the final episode.
Could that have actually been me? Thank God, I escaped.