Judging by the blogosphere buzz, it seems like everyone is eagerly awaiting the sixth season premiere of “Mad Men,” the award-winning 1960s drama revolving around the dapper Don Draper and his advertising agency cohorts. That is, everyone but me.
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The show's legions of addicted fans want to know: Will Don’s new marriage last? How will he respond to that blonde at the bar? Will Peggy come back begging for her job even though she quit the agency?
But I don't. When the new season hits the small screen on April 7, I’ll be doing anything else that night – washing my hair, Feng Shui-ing my sock drawer, hell, even reading Sarah Palin’s biography – anything not to have to watch “Mad Men.”
Why, you ask? Why don’t I like a show the women are mostly depressed, gossipy housewives or sycophantic secretaries and the men control everything? Why don’t I enjoy Don Draper's romantic escapades, like the time he mistook client Rachel Menken (his only Jewish paramour) as an assistant and then yelled, “I will not let a woman talk to me this way!” as he stormed out of the office in Season 1. (He later starts an affair with her – admitting that he knew he wanted her from the start. Really? That was a come-on?).
I’ll tell you why. Because “Mad Men” is too reminiscent of my childhood. I grew up Orthodox. We were “modern,” which meant were allowed to dress how we liked – although not at school or synagogue – and we had co-ed education and watched TV and movies (PG-rated, of course).
I didn’t know any blonde, WASP-y Betty Draper types, but I witnessed women cooking, serving and cleaning up as the men sat around eating countless Shabbat tables. A “nice” husband would wait until his wife sat down before he started slurping his soup. (More often, though, the women self-effacingly call out from the kitchen, “start without me, it’s hot!”) Guys often referred to their girlfriends and wives as the “old ball and chain,” feeling, perhaps like Don Draper, that they were trapped by their golden handcuffs. Women were encouraged to go into mommy-track careers like speech therapy so they could be good homemakers – just like the secretaries at the show's Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency.
Now, before you have a knee-jerk reaction because you love/hate religion or totally agree/disagree with me, I am not attacking religion. I think there are some wonderful aspects to being religious: having a great sense of life purpose, a helping community, a seasonal structure around which to build a life, warm family living (often harder to come by without religion). I miss many of those things.
What I don’t miss is the patriarchy. I don’t miss the contortions women twist themselves into trying to reconcile feminism and Orthodoxy. I don’t miss the apologetics: “Women are equal to men, just different,” our female teachers explained, noting that we are on a higher spiritual plane than men, which is why we can’t perform as many mitzvot. But they never explained why we couldn’t be rabbis or shul presidents or sing in public. “K’voda shel bat melech pnima,” was the catch-all reason: the beauty of the king’s daughter is within. In other words, women should be seen, not heard.
Maybe if I were a man, I’d have liked Orthodoxy – and “Mad Men” – better. Watching the series sporadically, I cringe seeing women serve men as they lie, cheat and philander their way to the top. I know that some men probably cringe at the old boys’ club, too, but I can’t help but wonder if there are guys who like the show because they yearn for the past, when things were simpler, when men could be “men” – i.e., smoke and booze, drive drunk and womanize – and “girls” knew their place: barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. I bet some women yearn for those days, too, when gender roles were more defined.
There are those who defend the show, saying, “Mad Men” is an “authentic” portrayal of history. I see. Well, “Gone with the Wind” was an “authentic” portrayal of the antebellum South, but I don’t see many African-Americans sitting down with a bowl of popcorn to watch the glory days of slavery. (They’re certainly not having “GWTW” parties the way some people do with “Mad Men.”)
Then there are those who say it’s really a “feminist” show: That Peggy shoots up from her position as a lowly, naive secretary to become a contender at Sterling Cooper. That the buxom Joan Harris really gets what she wants. That all these women rise above the hardships of their era, making them tragic heroines.
Tragic, indeed. By the end of Season 5 (I checked), despite it already being 1966-67, Peggy does gain a foothold at the agency but is forced to leave after hitting the glass ceiling there. Meanwhile, the ad execs sell a night of sex with Joan to win an account for the agency. So much for female role models.
Maybe you think I’m exaggerating – that I need to go with the flow or develop a sense of humor. That I need to appreciate Matthew Weiner’s masterpiece for its stylized look, its dramatic – but not melodramatic – storylines, its complex portrayal of multi-faceted characters. (Weiner clearly is a genius, because part of me can’t help but like the narcissistic Don Draper.) Maybe you think that since I was born in the '70s, grew up in the '80s – and wasn’t even around in the '60s when all this takes place – that I should just get over it.
But because of my background, I can’t. Sure, some things have changed in Orthodoxy since I grew up, since I left it a decade ago. Women have made inroads in the system, finding ways to be both feminists and religious in ways I was never able to. If I were still religious, I would owe these women a debt of gratitude, the same debt of gratitude I owe all the feminists before me, like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and other real-life women like the fictional characters on “Mad Men” – the working women, wives, and secretaries who faced less-than-equal circumstances.
But I don’t want to watch that struggle on Sunday nights on TV, with all the other hooked “Mad Men” fans. I’d rather remain in 2013, keeping in mind the famous ad for Virginia Slims (whose campaign, ironically, Draper's agency failed to land): “You’ve come a long way, baby.”