Thursday, September 13, 2012

Peggy Olson, Cohabitor

            The writers of “Mad Men,” finally got it wrong—way wrong. They know a sexual revolution when they see it, but sixties openness had its limits. Adult women who had mothers opposed cohabitation did not tell them they planned to live with their boyfriends—they lied.

              Lots of college students were living with their boyfriends. But Helen Gurley Brown was editing Cosmopolitan for women from working-class families who had gone to secretarial school, and had not graduated from college. Brown thought those women should have a place of their own, not share it with a boyfriend.  

              “At the Codfish Ball” is set in 1965 at Peggy’s New York City apartment. Katherine Olsen, Peggy’s mother, brings a cake to dinner with Peggy and her Jewish boyfriend, Abe.  Everyone is dressed up, as if a big announcement is about to happen. Peggy, in a nice modest print dress and pearl earrings, tells her mother that she and Abe are planning to “move in together.” Shocked, Katherine Olsen immediately rises from the table to head home. She tells Peggy bitterly, “If you’re lonely, get a cat.”  Jabbing her finger at Peggy, she says to her, “this boy, he will use you for practice until he decides to get married and have a family.”

           Yes, a Catholic mother would not have thought it was scandalous for her daughter to cohabit; she would have thought it sinful. But because a young woman knew her mother thought she was sinful, a nice Catholic girl would not have told her mother the truth.  She would have known that her mother would condemn her. A real Peggy Olsen would not have told her mother she was planning on living with her boyfriend, and she would not have invited her mother to a nice dinner to inform her of her plans. Catholic young people, men as well as women, often lied to their parents; they had separate phones installed that a boyfriend could never answer or made the boyfriend move out when mother came to visit. Girls who informed their parents were genuinely nonbelievers, liberal Protestants, or reform Jews. The writer of this episode did not understand how stigmatized cohabitation was in 1965.