The Changing Structure of Families in the Late Sixties on Mad Men

(Spoiler Alert this describes the episode “The Strategy”)

I fall into the camp that believes that Mad Men is one of, if not the best television show of all time. The final analysis to keep it in the all-time greats is how it will end. We have eight episodes to go for the brilliant Matthew Weiner to tie everything together and satisfy his legions of fans.

I thought the most recent episode, “The Strategy,” particularly its conclusion, was one of the strongest of the series. The quiet conversations, especially between the show’s leads, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) seemed both appropriate for the time period, the late 1960s, and yet so very timeless in their simplicity.

The Mad Men trio design a strategy for Burger Chef.

Draper and Olsen are “ad men” noted for their creativity in developing campaigns for clients. Olsen is far more precise and methodical, and Draper, her mentor, has the panache and confidence to pull off the magic that clients long for. They are able to tell a story to sell products, and their skill in doing so is what makes this show so fascinating.

Mad Men’s genius is that we are watching the early stages of American consumerism being fed to us by brilliant engineers of language and imagery. We are rooting for the Mad Men team to land clients, while simultaneously, we are well aware, with the benefit of hindsight, that this will lead to an era of widespread commercialism that we now accept as a part of modern life.

What we saw with “The Strategy” was our favorite characters coming to terms with some of the earliest stages of the disintegration of the “traditional” American family. Peggy and her team interviewed customers leaving the Burger Chef with white paper bags filled with a quick meal and found over and over again that the women felt embarrassed about taking a short cut to feed their families. So, she pitched a campaign that was meant to “give permission” to mothers to grab a meal on the go.

Peggy, who began as a secretary and worked her way up to copy chief, considered focusing her campaign on working women, pressed for time balancing career and family, a very modern conception indeed. But her male co-workers quickly dismissed this idea. Instead, they went with a traditional approach where the father lends credibility to the notion that fast food is an appropriate substitute to a home cooked meal.

Peggy asks Don, who has been married twice, whether the conception of family that they were eagerly depicting in the advertising campaign was just the stuff of fantasy.

She asks, “Does this family exist anymore? Are there people who eat dinner and smile at each other without watching TV?”

This felt massive to me! My husband and I did a double take; because we have had this conversation on numerous occasions. If we are tired at the end of the day, how can we ensure continuity for our family by gathering to eat dinner around the dining room table?

Apparently, in 1969, we were already grappling with a decline in family togetherness and an over-saturation and dependence on television as a substitute for conversation. Or that is the way the writers wanted to depict that period.

Ultimately, Peggy scraps her proposed campaign in favor of a new look at families. She said, “What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family?”

Peggy gives us the first inkling of “families of choice” or non-traditional families who come together wherever one might be. Not surprisingly, the early seventies usher in an era of workplace situation comedies, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, or WKRP in Cincinnati,where the newly configured “family” gathers around a water cooler or in a conference room.

My dream is that the drumbeat for family values would be replaced with a notion of valuing family. Through a sea change in our conceptions of balancing home and work, we can make way for people to spend time with whoever their “family” might be. To me, this episode was a very modern depiction of the need for family-friendly policies and flexible work schedules. Peggy’s commentary was like a canary in a coalmine.

There was still a chance for families of all kinds to come together around a meal. The episode ends with Peggy, Don, and their erstwhile co-worker Pete sharing a meal at Burger Chef. “The Strategy” reminds us that there really was a time when a dinner on the run was an aberration.

Is there space for that idealized notion of “the family dinner” without sacrificing the major strides we have made toward true equality? We have miles to go toward redefining family, but making space and time for nurturing those relationships would doubtless be a step in the right direction. By taking us back in time, Mad Men has often been quite successful in depicting how we might imagine our future, and “The Strategy” was no exception.




“Uncommon Practice at USF” collaborative exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art

Graphicstudio on the University of South Florida campus and the Tampa Museum of Art came together in a unique partnership to celebrate the outstanding work that has come out of this very special, research-based atelier located right on USF campus.

Graphicstudio began in 1968 as the brainchild of Donald Saff, who developed what Curator of the Collection of the USF Contemporary Art Museum, Peter Foe calls the “premiere house for experimentation in printmaking.”

On display at the Tampa Museum of Art, "Uncommon Practice at USF." Christian Marclay, Allover (Rush, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, and Others), 2008.

On display at the Tampa Museum of Art, “Uncommon Practice at USF.” Christian Marclay, Allover (Rush, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner, and Others), 2008.

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A Fractured Fairy Tale?: A Critical Look at Disney (Part 2)

As part of a series about “the Disney effect,” in part one, I looked at whether Disney’s focus on princesses is creating unrealistic gender norms for young girls. How will watching princesses in gowns and tiaras affect a generation of young girls who are taught to expect nothing less than the royal treatment?

Beyond the obvious concerns with setting up young girls to expect Prince Charming to solve their problems, even the decidedly more modern Princess Sofia has a bevy of servants attending to her every need. Does any Disney character engage in daily tasks like pouring a bowl of cereal or taking out the trash? Through the Disney effect, children are learning to desire and even demand the trappings of wealth and prestige served up to them on a silver platter. But with wealth inequality on the rise, that may be slipping further and further away.

It was recently reported that even the most famous royals in the world, Princess Kate and Prince William are spending beyond their means, perhaps in an effort to keep up appearances. Their four-day Maldives vacation came with a $10,000 price tag. News stories like this rightfully raise the hackles of average citizens who are struggling from paycheck to paycheck to afford basic needs.


Young princesses at the Disney Bibidi Bobidi Boutique.

motel kids

Children living in a motel outside Disney.






Also, within the past few weeks, there has been quite a bit of coverage of the working poor living in the shadows of Disney’s castles and $100 price tags.

Much like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath who moved across the country to California hoping to find plentiful jobs in the sunshine as I wrote about in a previous post, modern-day families move to Florida hoping to find service industry jobs in the country’s biggest single-site employer, Disney World. Upwards of 62,000 people work in Disney World, but most earn Florida’s minimum wage, $8.03. Continue reading

A Critical Look at the Disney Brand (Part 1)

Although I have mixed feelings about the pervasiveness of the Disney brand in our culture, it seems as though visits to Disney World have become about as important to parenting as changing diapers and packing lunches.

I grew up at a time before the princess revolution that has permeated the world of young girls. I was a part of the second wave of feminism reading Betty Friedan and singing along to “Free to Be You and Me” a musical compilation about gender equity developed by Marlo Thomas to serve as an alternative to fairy tale mythology.

As the mother of a three-year-old, I am keenly aware of her exposure to the Disney princess brand. Will the fact that every Disney employee seems required to call her “princess” seep into her consciousness and impact the way she views herself and others? What will the long-term effects be of the omnipresent emphasis on royal balls and fairy godmothers?

Meeting one of the omnipresent Disney princesses at age eighteen months.

Meeting one of the omnipresent Disney princesses at age eighteen months.

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The Grapes of Wrath still relevant after 75 years

Although I am frequently moved by theatrical experiences, there are those rare and special moments when you see something that touches you so deeply you feel you have been transformed. I saw one of the two final performances of The Grapes of Wrath this week at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and I have been transfixed by the experience ever since.

John Steinbeck published the book The Grapes of Wrath, 75 years ago this month. The themes of the play are so universal that the story of the Joad family living in the forties is nearly as relevant to our lives today as it was when it first entered our cultural lexicon. The book was an immediate hit with waiting lists at local libraries; however, while it inspired so much appreciation from its fans, it also elicited a great deal of hatred and anger, and as a result is one of the most banned books in American history. The truth can be a dangerous thing for those who do not want to hear it. Interestingly, the Joads find themselves confronting truth-tellers along their journey who try to warn them that the promises of jobs and security in California are not what they seem. And Steinbeck’s masterpiece is a frank reminder of the darkness that can overtake men’s souls when resources are scarce. It is hard to dwell in that place where you are so keenly aware of that reality. Continue reading

Serendipity and Community

This week, serendipity has given me a greater sense of community.  On Wednesday afternoon, my colleague pointed up at the sky in awe.  A halo encircled the sun in a dazzling display by Mother Nature.  I found myself wanting to summon all of the students working fevershly on their laptops outside to step away from their end-of-the-semester preparation and look up at the sky.  Instead, we left to eat our lunch only to return to find a small gathering of USF staff snapping photos and pointing — it was still there!  We all started talking about what we saw in the sky.  Was it a rainbow?  Was it made of tiny crystals surrounding the sun?  Did it mean a storm was brewing?  Our little group seemed to have different theories.  I exchanged cards with Javier Rodriguez who took this beautiful photo far better than the ones I snapped on my iPhone.  I learned he is a professional photographer as well as the Fiscal and Business Specialist for the USF Office of Graduate Studies.

Photo by Javier Rodriguez

Photo by Javier Rodriguez

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the road weeps, the well runs dry – a community engaged theatrical event

the road weeps, the well runs dry produced by the University of South Florida School of Theatre and Dance is a landmark example of community engaged research, development, and scholarship. The final performances representing the culmination of a three-year process to produce this previously unpublished play written by Marcus Gardley, took place during the weekend of April 12-13th.  Stay tuned for a wrap-up of all the community engaged programming related to this milestone production.

This massive undertaking began when USF Theatre Professor Fanni Green was approached by a former classmate of hers, Lisa Rothe of the Lark Play Development Center, a “laboratory for new voices and new ideas” that runs a program called Launching New Plays in the Repertoire Initiative to support mid-career playwrights, such as Gardley, who was selected as part of the pilot of this project in 2011. Gardley wanted his play (which is staged in four settings through the grant) to be produced in at least one university setting in Florida, where the play is partially set.

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