Modern Life Lessons from the Ladies of “Mad Men”

It is irrational that I get emotional at every promo I see for the ending of Mad Men- I am a twenty something female feminist of color…so I’m not exactly the target audience for the show. But as I’ve followed these characters through the last six and a half seasons, I’ve actually learned a lot about myself, what I want in a workplace, and how I want to live my life inside and outside of work. As we gear up for the final episode on May 17th, here’s what I plan to carry with me after spending years with the Sterling Cooper gang:

IMAGE CREDIT: Scripps Media

From Rachel Menken: We all have expectations about how our lives will be. But our lives will differ from that perfect vision – and that’s okay.

They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.

Rachel was one of the first women we saw interact with the show’s main character, advertising whiz, and ladies’ man Don Draper (Jon Hamm). She challenges his seemingly impenetrable bravado, and is unafraid to tell him what she wants from their relationship. When he runs to her hoping to escape troubles at work and home, she firmly sets him straight, admonishing him for not thinking his actions through. As a creative, Don often builds visions for clients of perfection, of the best case scenario that would come from use of their product. In our daily lives, we allow the media to influence what that might look like for us. But Rachel is the realist that we sometimes know we should be. By calling out the moment where Don was confusing his invented reality from Sterling Cooper with his real life, she shook us all up with a reminder that the fantasy we may build for ourselves is pretty unlikely to materialize.

IMAGE CREDIT: High Octane Growler

From Megan Calvet (nee Draper): Valuing your career when in a relationship is the right thing to do. 

I’m sick of tip-toeing around you every time something good happens to me. This is my job. No, my career.

From the moment she arrived at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Megan projected the sense that she was destined for a different fate from other women that Don lusted after. And she proved that in a few different ways- not only did she ascend quickly from the secretarial pool and into accounts, but she left the agency altogether shortly after- for an acting career and a starring role in Don’s life. As her acting career started to take off, Don was forced to adjust to the idea that his wife wouldn’t just sit at home and take a backseat as Betty had before her. By asserting that her aspirations were just as important as her husband’s, Megan showed one of several ways that she would challenge Don’s notions of how he should relate to a woman. And while the Megan-Don relationship didn’t last, his apology to her earlier this season was among the most sincere we’ve seen from him, the sort of apology that comes from having been changed by everything they’ve been through.

IMAGE CREDIT: Open Letters Monthly

From Betty Francis (nee Draper): Don’t be afraid to shake things up.

Only boring people get bored.

This seems like a simple one, and in some ways it is. But Betty has been quietly fearless in her pursuit of something different over the course of the show. Once she learned about Don’s infidelity, she came to a point where she acted on her impulses to leave him for someone more respectful. She spoke up when asked about the Vietnam War, against the wishes of her politician husband. And in this final season, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in literature, at a time where it wasn’t customary for women (let alone ones staying at home) were pursuing advanced degrees. Even in the last significant turn for her character (I won’t spoil it, you don’t want me to), she has been the show’s best example of doing things on your own terms, while accepting your present circumstances. So many characters are caused stress by focusing on the “what if;” she navigates her next steps while understanding “what is.” Betty is the show’s quietest example of what a wish to defy expectations can look like; what once looked cold and detached now looks resolved and polished. Happy trails Betty, may you get all that you want.

IMAGE CREDIT: Wikimedia

From Joan Harris (nee Holloway): It’s okay to keep searching for what you want, even if it doesn’t work out the first time around.

Sometimes when people get what they want they realize how limited their goals were.

Joan shared this nugget of wisdom with Peggy as she moved to her new office and officially into the role of junior copywriter, but it has persisted to be the defining characteristic of her journey through the show. At the tail end of season 1, Joan was still focused on finding love and getting married, at the expense of advancement through the company. After believing she had found it, only to be neglected and mistreated (to the point of rape in the SCDP offices), she refocused her priorities to care for her son and moving up in the company. Here again, once she had the comfort of a partner role in the company and enough money to live well without a husband, she found that station a bit empty as well. To this day, the decision of how to balance work and family plagues so many women; it is a nebulous question that has no right answer and no definitive determination of which will be more fulfilling. Watching Joan continue to navigate these challenges proves that it’s never been easy, and likely never will be.

IMAGE CREDIT: Pinterest

From Dawn and Shirley: Some workplaces are not a welcome place for everyone. You don’t have to stay in those places.

“Hello, Dawn.” “Hello, Shirley.”

Let’s take this to a serious tip for just a moment. This is one of the most surprising moments for me to watch as a longtime viewer of the show- first, that a primarily white writer’s room would come up with such a real scene; and second, that the sort of issues that they’re talking about are still happening. As an example, I was in this very scenario, last week. In 2015. Yup.

For the first few seasons, Mad Men addressed the racial realities of the era only tangentially, before making a progressive (for the time) move by having SCDP hire people of color where other agencies weren’t. But they proved that having what we now call a “diverse workforce” isn’t enough; finding ways to make people with a different experience feel included is an important thing to cultivate, and you can lose people if you fail at it. The scene in this past week’s episode, where Shirley left Roger while reminding him that not everyone is welcome in that field, says so much- Roger’s genuine realization that his happiness in the office wasn’t possible for everyone is echoed in offices, workplaces, and countless other places for public discourse every day…forty years removed from the show’s setting. Everything old is new again, and the Dawn/Shirley arc has proved an incredible reminder of that.

IMAGE CREDIT: AMC Networks

From Peggy Olson: New beginnings are possible, no matter how insurmountable the past may seem.

If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.

Devoted viewers of the show will remember that this was Don’s line first, but he was awed to see her use it in a meeting during her brief time away from the firm- fully owning its power and using it to her advantage. And in fact, Peggy has done that from the very beginning- push to find her own place in the office, contribute meaningfully, and rise from the secretarial pool into the creative world inhabited primarily by men. She locked horns with many in the process, including several famously contentious moments with Don, but ultimately they came to understand what their relationship was- that of a flawed but brilliant mentor and hungry if overeager protege. Watching their relationship come together is a great reminder for those who seek to build mentor relationships- despite the push to place high-powered women with others trying to aspire to success, our mentors don’t have to look like us. The people that inspire us may not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. And maybe the biggest lesson in Peggy’s arc- even though the grand story may look like it’s about them (Don), there’s a strong possibility that it’s actually about you (Peggy).

What have you learned from Mad Men? Will you miss it when it’s gone? And what show will be next to drive our shopping decisions?

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