Smarmy Alligator

Politics, pop culture, and self-deprecation

In which I blather on about Mad Men

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This season of Mad Men is getting verrrry interesting, from a feminist perspective (or at least from this feminist’s perspective). And this week, the talk on the lady blogs has been focusing on Peggy’s conversation with political writer Abe about the civil rights movement. Every one seems very disappointed in Peggy for comparing the struggles of blacks in America to her own struggles as a white woman. And no doubt, there is race fail all around. Modern feminists struggle to bring intersectionality to the front of our dialogue and activism,  and to work through the feminist movement’s history of blindness to the problems of women who weren’t privileged and white. Peggy’s comments feel like a huge blunder, in the context of the contemporary feminist movement and the work we’re trying to do.

But Peggy’s comments make complete sense in the context of the show, and I keep being surprised that other feminist writers are ignoring that. In 1965, the feminist movement didn’t exist. Women were working in the civil rights movement, and being told to fetch coffee and clean up after the people doing the “real work,” the men. The civil rights movement was, at this point, actually fairly racist. This was still a time when privileged white men thought they could fix the problems of less privileged non-white men, that it was their responsibility and in their control.

Peggy, as has been pointed out, is not a political being. It doesn’t seem like she even really knows very many black people. A lot of the ideas circulating in this time period seem pretty darn new to her. And I think the writers crafted an accurate, and even forward-thinking for its time, reaction. At this point, people weren’t talking about women’s oppression, which is made abundantly clear when Abe scoffs at the idea of a civil rights march for women. It’s true, women weren’t being shot for trying to vote (although only 60 years previously, they were beaten and arrested for trying to do the same). But I think Peggy’s reaction is exactly what I would have expected it to be, in 1965, for a person with her background and experiences.

In fact, I think it shows a very interesting foreshadowing of the early feminist movement, and I’m just surprised people aren’t seeing it that way. I guess it points up one of my frustrations with the way people sometimes talk about television. Mad Men isn’t a show that’s about trying to show us good people doing good things in a way that makes sense within our historical context. None of these characters is supposed to be a role model. This show is showing us the way it was, and Peggy’s comments are the way it was. If she’d reacted differently it would have been false.

I do think this gives us a way to talk about intersectionality, and the problems with the early feminist movement (and yes, the continuing problems within the feminist movement). I think it’s good to point out why what Peggy is saying is problematic. But it seems silly to wish this character, in this time and place, had said something else.

I, personally, am curious to see more of how Peggy’s political consciousness develops. And I think this aspect of this show can be a very useful way to talk about the beginnings of the feminist movement, and to highlight what’s still wrong with the feminist movement. This bit of dialogue in this show is a pretty good way of showing how the feminist  movement came to be what it was.  Because what it was was very much a product of its time. Just as the current feminist movement is a product of our time, and of all the things that have happened between 1965 and now. Our movement now is still far from perfect, but we can use these moments of pop culture gold to talk about those imperfections and work to change them.

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Written by laura k

September 26, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Posted in television

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