Whenever I watch Mad Men I find myself feeling incredibly grateful that I was born when I was, and that second wave feminism came along in the 1960s and 70s to improve opportunities for women, and to improve gender relations more generally.
When I marvel at the period depicted in Mad Men, all retro and cool in its whisky-slugging, cigar-smoking, no-such-thing-as-sexual-harrassment-laws way, sometimes it’s easy to forget how recent that era was. I sometimes have to remind myself that this level of sexism (and racism and homophobia) is not something from back in the dark ages. Sure, it was last century, but it really wasn’t that long ago. My thought process often goes something like this: “Oh yeah, my mum lived through this. She was a teenager in the 60s. Wow, I’m so glad things have changed!”.
For me, one of the best things about Mad Men is that reminder. But I don’t mean to set up a distinction between the bad old days of the sixties and some sort of feminist utopia of the present. I’m certainly not suggesting that sexism, racism, homophobia are things of the past.
In fact, some of the most powerful moments in the series – the ones that turn up the dial on my melancholia or my rage – are the reminders that, actually, things have not changed as much as they could have. As much as they should have.
One theme that came through quite strongly in the interviews that I did with young women for my PhD, was the idea that women had more to fight for in previous generations; that the inequalities were much more stark, more obvious, more urgent. And I suppose this is what Mad Men helps to highlight for me. That is, the sheer awfulness of the misogyny depicted in the program gives me a hint of what it was like ‘back then’, and helps me understand what second-wave feminists were battling against.
But my interviews with young women also uncovered a sense among this generation that although lots of things have been achieved for women, there is still a long way to go. This sentiment was summed up really well by one of my participants, who I nicknamed Katrina. She said:
But I don’t know, it’s not really an equality that’s you know, “I’m not allowed to do this but he is”, kind of thing. I think it’s more an inequality in that women get raped more than men, and women are in domestic violence situations more than men. And women report sexual harassment more than men. So in that way we’re not equal because there’s still this divide in what’s acceptable to do to a woman and what is acceptable to do to a man. And so that’s unequal. But in terms of, kind of, yes we get paid equally. However women experience the glass ceiling. So yeah, it’s kind of an unequal equality, if that kind of makes sense.
Katrina, and a number of other participants, recognised that issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and barriers to women in the workplace are still important and worthy of our attention. In my thesis I used Katrina’s phrase “unequal equality” to unpack the complex relationship that young women have with feminism, and also to discuss the idea that equality discourses alone cannot adequately deal with the issues and pressures they are experiencing.
But having said all that, I was recently, hilariously, reminded of how attitudes to gender have changed in recent decades. At my mother’s house a little while ago, we were flicking through her copy of the The Commonsense Cookery Book, an Australian classic that was first published in 1914. My mum’s edition is from the 1960s and is filled with all manner of weird-sounding delights, such as Apple Snow – a recipe involving stewed apple, sugar, beaten egg-whites and red food colouring. Mmm, delicious!
Besides being grateful for advances in gastronomy, looking through that cookbook made me think about the generational aspects of gender relations. My mother and her sister were both given copies of The Commonsense Cookery Book when they started high school in the early 1960s. My grandmother told us that she too was handed a copy of the book when she began high school!! In the 1930s!
If my grade-seven classmates had been handed a recipe book on our first day at big school in the early 1990s, we would have laughed in the teachers’ faces. In the years between my mum’s first year at high school and my first year, something shifted. No longer was it a woman’s primary role to be a housekeeper, a wife and a mother.
The image at the top is a photograph of a page from the Commonsense Cookery Book with a recipe for “toasted sandwiches”. I had to take a photo because I found it so amusing. The text reads:
1. Make the sandwiches.
2. Toast on both sides and cut into small triangles
3. Serve on a hot plate and doily
4. Garnish suitably
I laughed for minutes when I first came across this recipe. I particularly love how there are no actual instructions or ingredients for the sandwich, but there is detailed information about doilies, garnishes, and the shape that the sandwiches should be cut into.Thank goodness we’ve moved on from teaching school girls how to make toasties!