Mad Men Myth

Monday, April 29, 2013

Drawing on her father's life and career, Susan Jacoby, author of The Last Men on Top, asks if men really had it better in the pre-feminist America of the 1950's and 1960's.

Excerpt: The Last Men on Top


My father’s generation of men was unquestionably defined by work. By that I mean paid work—not the essential but socially invisible unpaid work done by their wives. President Nixon’s exaltation of the work ethic embodies a troubling paradox that affected every man of my father’s generation. Nixon first defines the work ethic by the belief that labor is good in itself but then equates respect for work with America’s “competitive spirit.” Well, which is it? Does doing any job to the best of your ability confer virtue and satisfaction, or do you have to do better in competition with and by comparison with others?

I doubt that the question of whether the very act of work was invested with intrinsic goodness occurred to most of my father’s contemporaries when they were in the prime of their lives. Even if the question did arise, the necessity of working to take care of a family overwhelmed any pointless speculation about whether a job was dignified or undignified, personally fulfilling or barely tolerable.

Feminists have described how women had to suppress worldly ambition as part of the covenant in which they were in charge of the home and men were in charge of paying for the home. The men of the grateful generation, however, were largely silent about the covenant’s cost to them. Many men of my father’s generation struggled with competing demands of home and work just as hard-pressed working mothers do today; the difference is that social convention required the men to keep their mouths shut about whatever they were feeling.

One can only imagine the ridicule that would have greeted a male executive in 1953 if he had written a cri de coeur like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” an essay in The Atlantic on her decision, in the best interest of her family, to leave a top-level policy job in the State Department for a tenured professorship at Princeton University. “I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women,” she acknowledges. “I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.” This litany suggests that the “all” in “having it all” is relative.

While I have little doubt that a top-level government job as Hillary Clinton’s go-to policy adviser interfered with family life more than the duties of an academic, Slaughter—married to another tenured professor at Princeton—is making a luxury choice unavailable to most women or men in this country now or in the past. So is Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who, in her best-selling book Lean In, describes the choice of a “life partner” as “the single most important career decision that a woman makes.” You can have it all, Sandberg says, if you choose a man who wants you to have it all and proves it by sharing responsibility for child-rearing. (Slaughter disagrees; one major point in her essay is that too many women cherish the myth that the right partner will enable them to have it all. This disagreement did not, however, prevent Slaughter from writing a highly favorable review of Sandberg’s book in The New York Times in March. Let no one doubt the potency of the new old-girl network.)

The experience of men from the World War II and Depression-born generations indicates that no one can have it all—however ardently that ideal world is desired by both women and men of vaulting ambition and achievement. The notion that men “had it all” because they made all the money while the children were maintained on the back burner at home by the wife represents an extraordinarily unimaginative view of the emotional satisfaction that can, and cannot, be bought.

Both Tom Brokaw’s idealized and idealistic portrait of the greatest generation and the cynical Mad Men, whose male characters are roughly divided between the World War II generation and the younger generation born during the Depression, are equally obtuse about the conflicted hearts of the men they portray. Brokaw, known as a hardheaded reporter, abandons any objectivity and skepticism when it comes to the war generation. They are, he says, simply the greatest. “While I am periodically challenged on this premise,” he writes, “I believe I have the facts on my side. . . . They love each other, love life and love their country, and they are not ashamed to say just that.” Case closed.

Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, goes to the opposite extreme. Born in 1965, which places him in the post–baby boom cohort known to sociologists as Generation X, Weiner presents male characters who elicit and exhibit little sympathy or empathy. Regardless of their backgrounds, they inhabit an immensely wealthy upper-middle-class universe as adults. Their work is lucrative (at least at the top levels), but it could hardly be seen as intrinsically dignified, since the advertising business is dedicated to selling products that, in many instances, are not only unneeded but in some cases positively harmful.

The show’s antihero, Don Draper, although he is rich by the standards of the decade and leads a glamorous life, may occasionally brood about some issue at the office, but he’s always back the next day at his desk, from which he urges the other members of his team to figure out how to continue to sell more of everything from cigarettes (in the wake of the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report providing the first irrefutable evidence that, yes indeed, smoking does cause lung cancer) to new products like diet soda. Don may occasionally betray misgivings about a product or a client with an ironic twist of his mouth (so well suited to convincing everyone from schoolteachers and aspiring actresses that he’s a sensitive guy), but he’s not about to trade in Madison Avenue to become the public relations director for the American Cancer Society. He grew up dirt poor (literally) in coal country, was once a used-car salesman, has risen to a highly paid position in a highly paid profession, and is concerned mainly about not losing his place on the ladder. Significantly, given the tendency of the American media to ignore class differences, there are no male blue-collar or low-level white-collar characters in the world of Mad Men. The universe of the underpaid and underemployed is represented entirely by women. With the exception of a gay character, who is fired after refusing the advances of a client, the men on this show are rich, powerful white sons of bitches.

Neither the sentimentalization nor the demonization of my father’s generation by today’s media captures the constrained reality of life for blue-collar and ordinary white-collar men of the grateful generation. For that reality, we must turn to works by men closer in age and experience to the heart of the matter.

In 1971, the genius interviewer Studs Terkel, who died in 2008 at ninety-six, captured the real voices of laboring men—and by that I mean white-collar and blue-collar men—in his oral history Working. (Unusually, given that the feminist movement had only recently begun to impinge on the consciousness of Americans in the early 1970s, Terkel also included women in his book, and his interviews underline the fact that in working-class families, the stay-at-home mom was often an economically unrealizable ideal even in the days when Father was thought to know best. The indulgent and somewhat dim-witted dads in Father of the Bride and Father Knows Best represented not a middle-class but an upper-middle-class family ideal.) Terkel focuses on men like Steve Dubi, born in 1913 and an inspector for forty years in the steel mills that once clogged the South Side of Chicago. He says, “I got nothin’ to show for it. I live in a home the bank has a mortgage on. . . . I own a car the finance people have the title to.” Speaking about his son, a well-known priest and social activist in Chicago, he emphasizes that he “had nothin’ to do with makin’ him what he is. I told you I am nothing. After forty years of workin’ at the steel mill, I am just a number. I think I’ve been a pretty good worker. That job was just right for me. I had a minimum amount of education and a job using a micrometer and just a steel tape and your eyes—that’s a job that was just made for me.”

Whether they lived in the world of Don Draper or Steve Dubi, the last men on top were united by their determination to keep what they had precisely because most of them did not grow up anywhere near the top. Those who went to college on the GI Bill—having emerged from the war in their early twenties—were often the first in their families to obtain a higher education. Dad, who was born in 1914, dropped out of college in 1932, after his father died and left his mother penniless. By the end of the war, he had too many responsibilities to take advantage of the government education subsidy. Discharged from the army at thirty-one with a wife and year-old daughter, he did not have, and would never have, the luxury of thinking about whether he was happy in his work.

From the e-book: The Last Men on Top by Susan Jacoby. Excerpted by arrangement with Pantheon. Copyright © 2013. 


Susan Jacoby

Comments [32]

Growing up in the 50s, I'll never forget being told at a job interview by a white middle-aged man "Women don't need as much money as men". I could only watch one episode of Mad Men. All those bad feelings and memories came flooding back. I have not watched again.

Apr. 30 2013 07:32 PM
clive betters

to the final caller: if the men's issues were mostly in their head according to you,why is that not still a viable problem? why could you not have sympathy, for some of them at least, on a per case basis. i think it's sad, that you want to dismiss them in totto,because you perceived that they didn't understand their wives predicament. where were the men that would even have ventured to talk about that back then? and finally,what's to be gained by going form one pole of belief to the other,and generalizing as you did?

Apr. 30 2013 05:29 PM
clive betters

susan jacoby-

is brilliant,wise,and honest.

Apr. 30 2013 05:04 PM
Keira from Manhattan

Ms. Jacoby was terrific--wonderful segment!

Apr. 29 2013 04:10 PM
Bob from Woodside

My dad was a WWII vet although he was in his 30's when he was drafted. My father was a blue color union worker as most men in the middle class blue collar NJ town I grew up in. I remember most of my friends fathers worked six days a week. In many instances Saturdays were a half day of work. All the mothers were house wives. Economic class made a huge difference. We had no Don Drappers as far as I knew as a kid in the 50's. By the mid-60's my mother was frustrated with staying at home and cleaning and laundry etc. and she started to work low level retail positions. My parents were first and second generation immigrants with only six and eight grade educations. Their efforts allowed their son to obtain a comfortable upper middle class life style. The harsh positions taken by the current conservative politicians will bury the poor in this nation.

Apr. 29 2013 04:04 PM
sallybegood from New York City

I (a woman) was born in 1953 into just the social milieu depicted in Mad Men. My father was a hard-drinking, hard-working, selfish and self-centered executive and my mother lived a life of quiet suburban desperation. Mad Men creeps me out so much that I can't watch it; it cuts too close to the bone.

Apr. 29 2013 03:57 PM

Those interested in this period, and male/female relationships of the time, may find interest in this book on "Li'l Abner" artist Al Capp, reviewed in the Times today:

Capp invented "Sadie Hawkins Day," and his incredibly creative strips were full of dumb men like Abner and voluptuous women like "Moonbeam McSwine," "Stupefyin' Jones," etc.

Abner was HUGE in the 50s, in all the daily papers.

Apr. 29 2013 12:34 PM
Richard from Levittown

I read many of these "interpretations" of what it was or was not living in the "great generation" era. Most of the time I am stunned by what people remember about that past. I am 83 yrs.old, last child of a family of 12 (not that rare in the 20's & 30's. My father was 57 yr. old when I was born, my mother was 40 yrs. old (in that day older men marrying older men was common). I have watched Mad Men, and generally enjoyed it, but it has little relationship to those of us who still "vividly" (with some distortion!) remember 1965 I was 35 at the time and had pursued my education through the GI Bill. The first of my family to ever complete college. I, like Don Draper served in the Korean War. My brothers had served in WW 2, in the Pacific, North Africa, Sicily, Italy. When I was drafted in 1951 I had been married only 3 weeks. "My" generation (post WW 2) came home from Korea (after serving under officers who had served in WW 2 and were recalled to serve in Korea). Don Draper may have "appeared" to be a post -War guy, but most of us who came home didn't quite have his "advertising" flare. The drinking and smoking were valid, but some of the scenes and the characterizations are quite estranged from the real post-war years. The 30's and 40's were extremely difficult years and it is almost impossible to separate those experiences from how the Korean Vets lived their lives.
When one generalizes about"women" and "men" and their life experiences in that day it is a pretty big stretch. As far as the "greatest generation" such a label is too ambiguous to describe those decades, and the people who lived them.

Apr. 29 2013 12:22 PM
jgarbuz from Queens


The day is coming where neither men nor women will "have to" do anything. They will not have to get pregnant, nor bear nor raise children at all. A world where no one "belongs" to anyone else. No one is obligated to anyone else. No one has to "care for" anyone else but themselves. Thanks to birth control, the destruction of patriarchy and family, and the new technologies making it soon possible to create babies outside the womb make these ancient relics called "family" absurdly out of place and utterly irrelevant. And this is not science fiction, but science fact predicted 80 years ago in "Brave New World."

Apr. 29 2013 12:19 PM

@jgarbuz from Queens
"...the newly authorized power of women to control the demographic future of our species, or its collapse, must drive our species, for its own survival, to start giving serious consideration to make babies outside the womb and outside the "family.""

Are you serious? Women esp. women who must stay home to be care providers ALWAYS HAVE HAD tyrannical control of the development of their children.

Sociologists and radio hosts like to pretend that before the pill there was no reliable birth control and that abortions were NOT readily available. What a fantasy. Failures in method were more common and abortions were less safe but both were around.

Apr. 29 2013 12:08 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Anyhow, it's ancient history with no relevance to today ,and certainly not to the future. Nostalgia for a dubious dead past.

Apr. 29 2013 12:05 PM
The Truth from Becky

Silly Nostalgia indeed.

Apr. 29 2013 11:55 AM
Joe from nearby

Not one of the Mad Men characters are shown going to church. The only time there's a priest is because of Peggy's out of wedlock pregnancy (scandalous, back then at least)- he's portrayed an obstacle for her to get around.
My father was nothing like these characters. He worked incredibly hard for us (still works in his 80s) and took us to church every Sunday. He's always been completely devoted to our mom.
I don't recognize the Mad Men type characters as anyone who lived in my childhood. They are just that- a bunch of 'characters,' and annoying at too.
The only reason I even sit in the same room when it's on is because my wife enjoys it- and I'm devoted to her. It's just a big, racy soap opera.

Apr. 29 2013 11:52 AM

Jacoby's world was not the one I grew up in. My mother not only worked full time, she was also the principal breadwinner. Her career in medicine, though unusual even in the DC area, was not unheard of. We grew up among similar families with two working parents, and I knew many women doctors. If there was a negative stigma attached to being a working woman, I was not aware of it.

Apr. 29 2013 11:49 AM
John A

"men of Draper's generation"
But there was no such generation. Draper is such a fantasy that isn't it even true that Draper himself is supposed to be a person named 'Richard Whitman'? Now that's nuts.

Apr. 29 2013 11:47 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Yes, "birth control" or the newly authorized power of women to control the demographic future of our species, or its collapse, must drive our species, for its own survival, to start giving serious consideration to make babies outside the womb and outside the "family." There are no checks and balances on feminist power over the future of our species today.
The womb is the source of feminist tyranny.

Apr. 29 2013 11:45 AM

Thanks for telling this story. Class is, as always, the key factor to these issues. Susan Jacoby is great for calling out this silly nostalgia.

Apr. 29 2013 11:45 AM
Christine from Westchester

Oh those poor put upon men. Birth control is rarely if ever there problem. Women then had to quit work as soon as they found themselves pregnant. Women couldn't get credit. We're still battling for leadership roles.

Okay, sure, I'd like to have my husband be responsible for all the decision and financials and I just tidy up around the house. Sweet ride. But seriously, that's not a win for anyone.

Apr. 29 2013 11:45 AM
Jeanne Kirchner from Hawthorne, NJ

My Dad served in WW11 and my parents had 8 children, from 1946 - 1964. My Mom worked for the Morning Call/Bergen Record and when she got pregnant in 1963/64, she was no longer allowed to work, until after my brother was born....this was a directive from the newspaper. As soon as she "showed", she had to stop working.

Apr. 29 2013 11:44 AM
The Truth from Becky

The middle class was NOT entirely white nor immigrant.

Apr. 29 2013 11:41 AM
Henry from Manhattan

Well, Mad Men is specifically about men (and women) who worked in advertising on Madison Ave in New York City.

It’s fairly specific.

Apr. 29 2013 11:41 AM

The man as sole breadwinner ended in our household in 1961. After 16 years of being a homemaker, my mother got a job as a primary school teacher in NYC - and I, the last of three children that they raised was enrolled in school full time.

Mom had to be on a bus to NYC by 6:45am EVERY MORNING. Many vacations were cut short because the NYC and Hackensack school districts were on different calendars. But there were more resources for the household. Both my sisters went off to college, we got our second car, first color TV and better cuts of meat at the grocery store. After five years in NYC, mom got a job in Hackensack. I was starting fifth grade when she finally got a job in our hometown.

As more women have entered the workplace, wages (for everyone) have been depressed. How else can we explain that the average income is in the low 40's but median household income is only $51K. And raising a family - which was entirely possible on a single income - is now out of reach for most households.

Apr. 29 2013 11:40 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

This guest is great! Again, FINALLY true perspective, instead of the usual narrow, navel-gazing ones, by so-called experts with myopia.

Apr. 29 2013 11:39 AM
Brock from Manhattan

Please ask if this notion of "forgetting about class" is merely a denial of the apex fallacy by many feminists

Apr. 29 2013 11:38 AM
John A

Nice having a feminist voice against Rosin. Still a bit bigoted, though. More centrist progress needed.

Apr. 29 2013 11:38 AM

Most refreshing to hear. As a progressive male of the boomer generation (who now struggles with age discrimination in the work force), I bristle when women and minorities paint a picture of all white males having it so easy.

Apr. 29 2013 11:35 AM
Fred from Bushwick Brooklyn

Let's remember that the "men" being mentioned here, are White middle-class men.

Apr. 29 2013 11:35 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Send the woman in for the next "great war." Let the men stay home and worry about their young daughters dying on the battlefields in defense of the country, and the men can stay and build the ships, airplanes and UAVs.

Apr. 29 2013 11:34 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Hooray! FINALLY, the other, completely untold side of the story comes out!

It is intellectually dishonest for our media and society to have been discussing the experience of women without the context of what the male experience has been.

I often think about the agrarian society, when the father/husband spent all day in the field or in the barn or... and the mother/wife was in the house doing domestic chores.

Which one had it better? It's a nonsensical question. They needed to work as a TEAM, and each was totally dependent upon the other. This was the truth for the vast majority of married couples that lived on farms.

It is this type of perspective that is rarely spoken of or given voice to.

Apr. 29 2013 11:34 AM
Gerald Fnord from Palis Verdes, Ca

The smarter, or at least more careful, feminists always noted that though Patriarchy was bad for women, it was no great deal for most men. Even non-feminist men of Draper's generation understood that the Rat Race would turn them into rats if they weren't careful, and possibly even if they were...but because it wasn't a nakedly winner-take-all society it was possible to (in effect) drop out by not trying for more than a factory job. But back then, at least if you were white or white enough, it wasn't accounted necessary to be a high-flier to be comfortable, a financial wizard to be able to retire, or a gun expert to be safe---to be exceptional was to be rewarded, but it wasn't accepted that it, by definition rare, would be necessary to a normal life.

Two notes:
1.) My father, a World War II combat veteran, thought Brokaw's schtick ridiculous, saying that if my generation had been presented with the same circumstances we would have behaved similarly, and that many men of his time were arrogant and/or idiotic cowards...
2.)In my middle-class neighborhood, the one-breadwinner family was universal, a nearby widow excepting; it was only in the upper-middle-class area nearby that women worked outside the home, and almost all of them were teachers.

Apr. 29 2013 10:33 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

The vast changes in the western economies, that made it physically possible for women to compete with men in the post-agricultural industrial and post-industrial work force has eroded the "role" of father as primary "breadwinner" and provider and protector of "his" family. Since these roles are no longer applicable in the 21st century, the "family" system that prevailed in the 7000 year agricultural-based era is in its death throes. It's functionality is increasingly irrelevant. As rapid technological change will soon mean that infant humans will be technically possible to produce in laboratories and factories, that is what is going to happen before the end of this century. I.e., "Brave New World."

Apr. 29 2013 09:45 AM

I remember many song lyrics expressing sentiments like, let me outta here!!! from male point of view before any feminist lyrics -

Apr. 29 2013 09:34 AM

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