“Well, aren’t you lucky to have decisions?” This line is a defining moment in the cult television dramaMad Men, which is approaching its final episode.
The series follows the changing society of the 1960s and 1970s through the lens of the advertising industry, which epitomises the emergence of consumerism and the power of youth.
But the cleverest thing about Mad Men is how it has mapped the macrocosmic shift in gender status and relations onto the microcosm of the lives of its protagonists. The title refers to the men of Madison Avenue, but the story arc over 10 years tells us how women broke out of the home and advanced in the world by making their own decisions.
Its central female character is Peggy Olson, who makes the sarcastic yet insightful statement about decisions belonging to men. She begins work at the ad agency in 1960 as a 20-year-old secretary and works her way up to copy chief. On the way, she gives up a child for adoption and loses out on several long-term relationships. At the end of the series, she is a successful career woman with her own property – but alone in the world.
Peggy nails the gender struggle perfectly: it’s about the price women have to pay to be able to make their own decisions. Creating social change comes at a personal cost.
Over the 10 years that the programme spans, the female characters develop from sycophantic secretaries who enjoy nothing more than being admired for their looks, to women with power and position. They are still banging their heads on the glass ceiling, but they don’t yet know what’s causing the headache.
There are some who will say that these changes were for the worse, that families broke down, that it was the beginning in the truest sense of the rise of individualism rather than the nuclear unit. And the focus of the series on the advertising world in the 1960s is no coincidence, because it captures a pivotal moment when life became about what we have, what we show, what we buy to reflect who we are – a facade rather than a depth.
But that’s nonsense, because, as Peggy says, the price paid has been to gain autonomy. Without self-determination there is no life worth living. Ultimately, despite the misery that being at the vanguard of change entails, the challenges these women face will be resolved in the next iteration of society.
For the women of this era, their gains came at a price – but one that I’ve no doubt they were happy to pay, for their own freedom, and for ours.
It’s easy to look back at a whole decade or even a century and feel proud of the social change that occurred. But to reach such transformation means individual women, one by one, paying a price – whether they be the characters of Mad Men or the real-life suffragettes of a hundred years ago.
When we fight for changes in society now, we must remember that there will be a personal cost. But women are where we are because of the price women before us paid, and our daughters will benefit from the sacrifices we made.