Mad Men: then and now

The show Mad Men depicts the way world worked in the 1960s. Things have changed. Or have they?

I don’t watch a lot of TV but one show I am hooked on is Mad Men. Set in the world of New York’s Madison Avenue advertising agencies in the early 1960s, the story line comes from a world that’s long gone but uncomfortably familiar to those of us who could remember that distinctive sound of an IBM typewriter or a ringing dial telephone. But the strength of the show is the office politics and the smart writing. As advertising executive Don Draper tells one client: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”

It’s fascinating to see all the show's period furnishings, the historical references to people like John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the way women are treated and lifestyle habits like smoking in offices and elevators. But it does leave me wondering how far we have come and whether it still mirrors life in the office today, particularly when it comes to the role of women and the power of political games in the office.

VOTE: How much has the workplace changed since the 1960s?

One example is sexual harassment. The Mad Men days of chasing secretaries and women in the typing pool around the desk have faded but have they disappeared completely?  As Kiri Blakely writes in Forbes, sexual harassment is more subtle these days and therefore harder to confront. Confronted with harassment claims, people can say it’s misconstrued, or it's just a mild flirtation. You don’t see those ads for Girl Fridays any more but it’s still out there.

Consider some of the ads that have appeared on TV lately that have sent us into some kind of time warp. One example is the backlash against the smutty Toyota “she can take a good pounding” video, detailed in Mumbrella. Full of schoolyard innuendo, it’s quite embarrassing and offensive. 

Or the Lad ads for Brut deodorant, as talked about here. Over in America, KFC has landed itself in hot water by recruiting attractive female college students to hand out customer coupons while wearing tracksuit bottoms bearing the product’s logo on their backside. And then there are those classic Foster’s ads for “speaking woman” that basically depict women as a bunch of killjoys.

And then there is the old problem of choices facing career women. There are the tensions you see in the show between two women, both on very different career trajectories. There’s Joan, the voluptuous secretary and Peggy, the smart creative director who came out of nowhere to create her own distinctive career path. As psychologist Vivian Diller writes in the Huffington Post, the sexual harassment landscape might be different but women continue to struggle with issues about identity and career ambitions. “They struggle with one another  - like Joan and Peggy did  - and within themselves. They worry if their looks will interfere with their climb up the ladder. They are not sure if overt femininity displays power or weakness. The dilemma still remains; which side to take? Should the Joans of today minimise their beauty in the service of establishing themselves as smart, clever women? Should today's Peggys let themselves enjoy being a girl and embellish their femininity or will that put them at risk of losing out in their race to the top?”

It’s captured in one episode where Peggy fires a young freelancer for sexual harassment after he did a degrading cartoon. Joan turns to Peggy and says: “Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.”

So female solidarity is swept aside and Joan maintains her place and role in the office hierarchy.

Now, think of the portrayal of Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton. Some things endure.

While I think some attitudes have changed quite markedly since then there is still a resonance. Sometimes you might see and hear things that make you wonder whether we've changed much at all.

Have we changed that much from the Mad Men days? What’s different to how things were 50 years ago? If, in 50 years time, you did a version of Mad Men set today, what would you focus on?