I’m a Mad Men junkie. That said, the season 6 premiere was a welcome fix. The previous season ended in the spring of 1967 with the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency barely acknowledging that era’s political and social dynamics.
We saw Joan’s husband deployed to Vietnam, President Kennedy’s assassination and Freedom Riders in the South on as positioning plot points with no teeth. For the agency’s creative team several stories above Manhattan’s changing streets, the baffling popularity of the Beatles, Bye Bye Birdie and Cool Whip held far more import. But, 1968 was a year among years. How much of it can the writers of Mad Men ignore?
For women, 1968 proved to be a pivotal catalyst. Can the women of Mad Men — Joan, Peggy, various wives, one-night stands and budding teen Sally Draper — remain basically untouched by events sparking shifts in gender roles and responsibilities from the cities to the suburbs? Take note, NotMoms: the nation’s increase in women without children, one in 10 in 1976 to one in 5 now, is a result of a fire that started in the late ’60s.
A history professor recently told CNN that Mad Men “shows us that American capitalism rolls on regardless of the era that it is in,” That’s certainly true, but must its characters be unscathed as well? I’ll be fascinated to see how 1968 plays out for the WASP-y cast:
The brutal Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese army convinced many Americans that the war was unwinnable. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated and TV viewers became accustomed to, and unsettled by U.S. streets on fire during race riots, antiwar protests and violence near the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Change was tangible. Was it inescapable?
I was 13 in 1968, and one of millions of females who giggled at Tammy Wynette’s #1 good-girl classic Stand By Your Man, choosing instead to adore “the first female superstar of rock”, Janis Joplin and her kick-ass debut album, Cheap Thrills.
In September of that year, about 400 women protested outside the Miss America pageant ceremony, throwing false eyelashes, pornography, girdles, bras, mops and hair curlers into a trash can on the Atlantic City boardwalk. (On the same day, a few blocks away, the first Miss Black America event was held, which was in itself a protest of the larger pageant’s lack of diversity.)
Only 45% of U.S. families had two-income earners in 1968, but divorce was becoming less rare. Little Sally Draper’s experience was mirrored by kids nationwide (I was one of them.)
With seven different brands of birth control pills on the market, sales hit the $150 million mark. Pope Paul VI chose to ignore recommendations of the Papal commission on birth control and announced the Church’s opposition to all forms of birth control except the rhythm method.
(Two years later, the state of New York legalized abortion. There’s only one season left in Mad Men‘s planned lifespan. I’d love to see how the drama’s women handle that.)
Historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg described 1968’s impact on women’s history in the U.S. this way:
“Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect…was our refusal to accept gender-role divisions as natural. Gender, we insisted, was man-made, the product of cultural definitions. No universal femaleness or maleness existed. Rather, economic, demographic, and ideational factors came together within specific societies to determine which rights, privileges, and personalities women and men would possess.”
Part of the appeal of Mad Men is the shock of seeing how much the world has changed since then, and much of our current environment began to develop after 1968 shook everything upside down. Today, women are not only voicing their right to decide when to have children, but whether they should have them at all. Here’s hoping the Mad Men and women get shaken up, too.