Mad Men and One Sane Jewess
Pretty much since moving to Boston last summer, my friends have been making weekly pleas that we watch Mad Men on AMC. It took until last week, because in spite of critical acclaim and the insistence of friends whose opinions I trust, who wants to watch a television show about an advertising agency? (Of course, by that logic, who wants to watch a show about a paper sales office, NBC corporate headquarters, or a misanthropic doctor?). But I was wrong, wrong, wrong to delay! Why? Because aside from a smart script, good acting, etc. Mad Men's best, smartest and most sympathetic character is a beautiful Jewess named Rachel Mencken.
Mad Men, for those of you who missed the Emmy nominations last week, is a story about the complicated and intertwined lives of the employees of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency. On a larger level, at least to my eyes, it's a meditation on sexism on the cusp of the feminist movement (the show's first season took place in 1960, three years before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique). There are a lot of juicy roles for women on the show (something we unfortunately can't say for most contemporary television), but every one of the secretaries in the office is subject to constant sexual harassment from her co-workers, and every wife is expected to put up with her husband's flagrant philandering. Except for Rachel Mencken.
Mencken (played by Maggie Siff, an NYU trained stage actor), is the daughter of a wealthy Jewish department store owner who comes to Sterling Cooper looking for an image makeover for her company. She is literally the only single woman on the show who is a) business savvy and independently wealthy, b) smart enough to confront the privileged men of Sterling Cooper with their blatant sexism and anti-Semitism, and c) confident and self-aware enough to know when she is being taken advantage of in a romantic relationship and to walk away. She makes me proud to be a Jewess.
Having grown up in the 1980s, I had never fully seen the rampant, overt sexism that my mother's and grandmothers' generations fought against. But there it is, coming to life in my living room. In spite of my education in history and feminism, watching this show was a little "aha" moment for me, a lesson in why we're still fighting the good fight. Because the implication is that though the kinds of insidious sexism that existed on the surface fifty years ago has not disappeared, it has simply gone underground (see Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama, AWP, etc.).