Mad Men, Madder Women

The other day I saw a guy, a kid really, wearing artfully paint-spattered pants, a black T-shirt, and a pout, crossing the street while I waited in my car for the light to change. At first I smiled to myself, thinking how predictable it is to see the next generation go through its rebellious stage. But then as he passed by I saw the back of his shirt, which read “Kill All The Hippies.”

The light changed and I drove on, but I have to say that kid’s shirt harshed my mellow. I mean, come on, dude, what did we ever do to you?

Well, perhaps if I had grown up in a world which seemed to be overflowing with casual fun-loving peaceniks I might have yearned for a darker future. And I can certainly respect that the endless playlist of “classic rock” could be viewed as a sort of psychological torture. Later that same day I saw another guy, also wearing a black T-shirt, only his slogan was on the front: “Who the F**k is Mick Jagger?”

And I thought to myself, is this a trend? Has the next generation had enough of the Woodstock alumni? And, if so, will they remain content to express themselves through fashion?

Rebellion is a rite of passage, of course. But if the kids today want to get a sense of what the hippies were up against, they should tune in to the AMC original series “Mad Men.” Set in an advertising agency in New York City in the very early ‘60s, the show presents a remarkably nuanced and accurate portrait of the way things were before I became a hippie.

The first thing that struck me about the show was how everyone on it smokes. Cigarettes. All the time. Doctors, pregnant women, in the office, on the plane. The rumors about tobacco’s dark side were effectively buried by the power of advertising. Everyone on the show also drinks alcohol as if it were water. Pregnant women, doctors, in the office, etc. And the women in the show wear clothes that dramatically accentuate their physical differences from men, as if to underscore the validity of the social and professional barriers which loomed large before anyone ever thought of burning a bra.

The show is brilliant in its depiction of the era. But what makes it great is how it explores the anger and discontent brewing beneath the surface of all that slick style.

These days we’re so acclimated to living in a world where advertising is a part of life that it’s hard to imagine there was a time before people watched the Super Bowl and voted on the best ads. Modern advertising has become so seamlessly embedded in our lives that we walk about in logo-emblazoned clothing without a thought. With pride, even. We’ve all become enchanted by the power of the slogan. Slogan-speak is so pervasive it shapes the way news is delivered, in easily swallowed nuggets of “fact” which go down so quickly there’s no way to judge whether or not they have any value or truth.

In a way, all of this advertising bears a parallel with medieval magic. It’s all about belief. If you believe you will succeed if you wear the right shoes, maybe you will. And if you don’t, you can always blame the shoes.

My favorite character on “Mad Men” is Peggy Olson, the spunky copy writer played by Elisabeth Moss. Peggy isn’t content to play the hand she was dealt, to dress like the other secretaries and to engage in the kind of self-defeating back-biting over men that keeps most of the women in the office in their “place.” Peggy is smart and creative and unwilling to let others define her. When the men try to diminish her work, she smiles and surpasses them.

She doesn’t waste time worrying about her shoes. She understands how the advertising magic works. And she has the power. You can see it in her face. She’s not interested in getting mad. She’s going to get even.

Write on, sister.

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