Mad Men, Season 4 arrives Sunday night, and like so many of us I can hardly wait. When I watch that show (and when I read Silkstone/Nell’s recap on Mondays), I get a powerful flash of recognition.
For me, it’s not just the style and mystery and details of the Mad Men era. The show is a dream of the past, its metaphors and historical references set within a time-frame that I remember well.
I lived it. I may not have worked in an ad agency, but in some ways I was Peggy Olson and in some ways, Betty Draper.
"I’m Peggy Olson. I want to smoke some marijuana.” Season 3, Episode 3
I was the same age as Peggy is in Mad Men. Peggy’s struggles were similar to mine, becoming a young woman when men dominated and when mores were changing from white gloves and necking to sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Like Peggy, I was a conflicted girl from a dysfunctional family. When we first saw her bringing coffee to Don Draper in a high-necked blouse -- her cone-shaped breasts poking provocatively, her waist cinched tight and her skirt below the knee – Peggy was awkward, hiding her intelligence beneath the padded bras and crinolines.
I remember that feeling. I remember letting the guys do the talking and make the decisions. I cleaned up the messes they left. I masked my sense of humor and let the boys win at tennis.
But that world didn't last. Changes precipitated by a slew of assassinations, civil rights legislations and a war in Vietnam rocked our world. And women's rights and the pill pushed it even more.
Like Peggy, later in my life I was an unmarried career woman dealing with sexism in a pre-harassment-legislation age. I slept with my bosses, and moved into relationships with them. I was afraid of losing my job.
And when I did get the courage to leave the relationships, I did lose the jobs.
Peggy has already started getting attention for her creative ideas. It will be interesting to see how her character develops this season: using men, using her brain, probably both.
“As far as I’m concerned, as long as men look at me that way, I’ve earned my keep.” Season 1, Episode 7.
“You don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss you.” Season 3, Episode 8
Like Betty Draper, in 1964 -- the year this Mad Men season begins -- I was a newlywed. Marriage to a successful man was what most women of that era aspired to, as fast as possible. If you weren't married by say, 25 you were becoming an "old maid."
I lived in Westchester County New York, ten minutes from Don and Betty's fictional home in Ossining, in a place called Pocantico Hills, next door to the Rockefeller estate where Betty’s new husband, Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) an aide to then Governor Nelson Rockefeller would have worked.
I know that neck of the woods north of Manhattan where the fictional Drapers and Francises live. Betty's perfect dinner parties and gardens mimicked mine and so many of my friends'. The maids, the involvement in local clubs, the primping to look just right, the loneliness when your husband commutes to the city and returns home just in time to kiss the kids good night, grab some dinner and walk the dog.
And like Betty, I went from my first early marriage to an age-appropriate, successful alpha-male like Draper to a second marriage with an older man with older children, who said he would take care of me, like Francis told Betty.
Peggy Olson and Betty Draper. Their evolution on Mad Men is the story of women of my generation. By the end of the series will Peggy wind up in an executive suite or a become a burned-out bitter addict? Will Betty find happiness in her new marriage, or eventually find her own identity running her own yoga studio? Whatever. We will see.
Some of us who were becoming adults back then got through the mid-20th-century better than others. Some of us changed with the times, and some stayed locked in the past. Some improved, some regressed. Some blog, some never learned how to use a computer.
I do know that my choices helped me grow as a person, well beyond the Mad Men era. And I’m still making them.