One of the ironies of the series Mad Men, is that while the female characters are openly harassed, have low expectations and work in a sexist environment, their male counterparts who oppress them are also suppressed, beaten down and suffer humiliations in their own way. Mad Men explores this containment with parallel stories showing how each character deals with the confines they live in.
The parallel stories we see plays with two pretty big questions:
- What does it mean to be a man?
- What does it mean to be a woman?
In episode 1, Peggy finds out what it means to be a woman. She is stripped naked verbally by Pete within minutes of starting her job(then later physically) and advised to show off her ‘darling ankles’ by the office manager. In fact, every message she gets is to prostrate herself. Then she does what she doesn’t believe in – she makes a pass at Don because she is now convinced that is what she must do. Don’s response is not what she expects – he refuses. ‘I’m your boss – not your boyfriend’ . Yet when Pete comes to her home later, drunk, she sleeps with him. Despite what Don told her she can see for herself what it means to be a woman.
Don lives the suburban dream, a beautiful blonde wife, picket fence, well behaved kids, a top job in the city and the respect and admiration of his peers. He has created the perfect Norman Rockwell facade. (‘love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons’ ). He knows precisely how to build and maintain this facade but the pressure to do so comes at the expense of his inner life. He is emotionally unfulfilled, his wife is little more than a child, he drinks continuously and is slowly coming apart at the seams. Rachel, sees through him ‘I don’t know what you really believe in, but I know what it feels like to be out of place. To be disconnected. ‘ Just like Peggy, Don lives in a world he does not recognize but must live in and what that means when you are a man.
This theme is nicely summed up by Pete on the phone to his wife ‘I’m giving up my life to be with you , aren’t I?’
To be a grown-up, man or woman , is to be self-determined, self-reliant and inter-dependent but it is not what it means to BE a man, to BE a woman. It is this disconnect that provides a rich, yet subtle blend of stories in Mad Men.