The first time I watched Mad Men one of the main flaws I found in almost all of the adult characters was infidelity. No matter how much I wanted to relate to the cast, and to view Don Draper as my protagonist, this one major flaw slapped me in the face. From as long as I can remember adultery has been in the headlines. From my parents’ discussion of the Clinton scandal dominating the room, to last week my roommates' critical examination of the broken marriages of Tiger Woods, Sandra Bullock, and Jenifer Aniston (just to name a few). Adultery has never been spoken of as anything less than a sin growing up, and there is no reason why I or anyone else with my upbringing would consider it the same thing. Yet, if you turn on the television or surf the web you are guaranteed to find images of adultery are clear. The 1960s and last week are no different when it comes to the appropriateness or existence or adultery.
Mad Men does not shy away from showing their audience their leading men and women straying from or participating in the act of adultery. This is not shown because “sex sells” but because adultery was common place during this period, especially in the higher classes of American society. Don Draper and Roger Sterling are merely products of their time. Women were in on it too. In 1962, one of the bestselling women’s books was Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, the editor and chief of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1965-1997. Gurley Brown instructs young women how to work the system in which they were restrained by. She taught them many lessons that she learned during her 30+ years of being a single girl in the city from how to be financially sound and choose the best roommate, to how to chase a married man. This book was controversial at the time mainly because she voiced what was already being done behind closed doors. Joan Holloway is a great example of a woman who is sexually independent and allows men of every marital status to help her get the things she wants in life without toiling with the idea of marriage. Society is aware that adultery is a sin, and grounds for divorce even, but this does not hinder most people from straying. Gurley Brown in I’m Wild Again published in 1999 wrote a section about adultery. She asked one of the married men she had an affair with why he felt he “needed” to stray. The response was shocking; it was not selfish or deflecting the issue, he merely said “It just felt civilized."
I feel it is important for Mad Men’s audience to keep this in mind as they watch the series - to see it more as a cultural norm or rather something that was expected of them. People of that time married for different reasons, went to college for different reasons, and loved for different reasons. To compare them to today’s cultural standards is unfair and from my personal experience can build biases in your mind toward the show. Even though the reasons to turn to adultery may be different for today’s married couple, the rate of which marriages are ended due to marital infidelity seem to mirror the past. Today there are even dating websites devoted to adultery. These sites such as AshleyMadison.com, are providing an easier way for married people to stray. No longer are men confined to finding a woman on a train or taking off their wedding ring when entering a bar, but they are able to openly advertise for what exactly they are looking for. Are we today still as naïve about the severity and vastness of adultery as were the people of the 1960s? Or are we just as equally blinded by denial and refuse to consider that not everyone plays by the same rules taught to us? Or even that we ignore the rules when it comes to our own lives?
Sources referenced: Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America by Natasha Vargas-Cooper