Monday, July 30, 2007

AMC’s “Mad Men” and Gender Bias

AMC’s new series, “Mad Men,” concerns a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1960. That year my own father was early in his career as a copywriter for a humbler but equally cutthroat agency in Milwaukee. I grew up overhearing my parents’ conversations about Life in the Old Ad Game, at least from a man’s point of view.

I’m sure my dad never pulled any of the sexual harassment that is daily fare at the agency on the show, and meanwhile my mom had a part-time but still respectable career as a medical technologist and was no mousy little housewife. As enlightened as my family was, I still grew up in a world with those 50’s-style sensibilities: the man was head of the house, the woman served him dinner whatever time he got home from the office and did all the other housework too. My Ken doll had a doctor outfit and my Barbie played nurse. Although I did work hard to become the first female president in history of Mr. Havlinek’s sixth grade class, I still felt my ultimate goal in life was to be a wife and mother.

But in the interim, four decades have gone by, and things have changed more than you know. It’s amazing to look back on all the stages of society’s transformation, particularly in terms of the workplace.

Eighteen years after 1960, I was out of college and starting my career. I got a job as a legal secretary to one of the most successful trial lawyers in Indiana. He was a mover-and-shaker and richer than God; I was pretty much nothing. When I asked to be moved out of the office I shared with a chain-smoking fellow secretary, my request was denied--even though I was pregnant! And I didn’t dare turn down my boss’s request that I administer eardrops to him. I shudder at the thought to this day...he had really hairy ears. While I was living on food pantry donations (putting my husband through seminary), my boss left stacks of gold Krugerrands on his desk and thought nothing of it. Still, things were better than in 1960; at least no lawyers hit on me as do the ad men in “Mad Men.”

A decade later, in 1990, I was still working as a legal secretary; it’s remarkable how slowly the advancement of women’s issues occurred in that world. The gulf in importance between inner and outer offices remained as broad as the River Styx. We secretaries were treated as little more than office equipment...we still had to call our bosses “Mr.” Though we slaved on closing big investment deals as hard as they did, when the deal was complete, they went out to drink champagne on the company dime and we took the bus home.

I decided I couldn’t take the world of law firms anymore and found a job in finance instead. Sadly, lot of the same problems happened there. Not a one of the vice presidents was female. All the men had offices with windows and doors and the women worked in an area quite like the steno pools of old. But at least we were all on a first name basis, and slowly I worked my way up till I was in charge of both marketing and the office’s computer network. Unfortunately, finance is another of the last bastions of gender bias. I just got tired of working my butt off to help a bunch of white guys get richer.

My current job is at a small, family-owned company in the suburbs that is made up of a lot more down-to-earth, blue collar types. I finally found a place where I could thrive and where my employer would reward me fairly with opportunity, pay, and perks. I have a big office with a window. Everyone respects me. And in 2007, you can’t get a guy to sexually harass you even if you offer to pay him! Only one little detail spoils the idyllic picture of gender equality: our company has only one female manager (it’s not me) and I haven’t been promoted after nine years. But hey, at least they make up for it in other ways.

So that’s my experience over the past four decades, and it’s had quite an impact on how I write romance and erotica.

I cut my teeth on Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and will never shake the idea that “boy meets girl / boy loses girl / boy gets girl back again” is at the heart of all great stories. Part of me will always be that old fashioned girl who goes all mushy when a guy pulls out my chair for me. I definitely go for all the classic heroes: soldiers, pirates, cowboys, astronauts (just like the Ken doll outfits of my childhood). So my heroes are always pretty traditional guys, and my heroines feel about them in a pretty traditional way.

But at the same time, I’ve made the same journey as all my sisters since the sexual revolution of the late 60s. So my heroes are sensitive, respectful guys, and my heroines are spunky, daring, and capable.

Are these two aspects of me at odds? Sometimes. But one thing is sure, and watching “Mad Men” has really brought the point home to me: I’m mighty glad we’re no longer living in 1960.


Constance said...


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