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Mad Men, RBG and Serena Williams: Embracing Discomfort that Helps us Grow

Talk about ZagZig, my media exposure lately has me weaving among the news headlines of Serena Williams and accusations of sexism on the tennis court, CNN’s recent documentary on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her fight for gender equality, and the television series Mad Men, now on Netflix, about an advertising agency in the 1960’s. The bounce from Mad Men’s prolific portrayal of sexism in the 1960’s to the documentary about a real advocate and news about a real-life, stellar athlete who happens to be a black female, made me think what Don Draper, the famous Mad Menmain character, would have thought about having a working mom and stay-at-home dad as neighbors.

Yes, I am a latecomer to the seven-season-series, award winning show, Mad Men, that started on cable in 2007 and ended in 2015. I had heard people talk about it at the office, and given my kids’ ages at the time, life was busy with other choices. I started watching it a few weeks ago at night, and discovered at least two things right away: 1) I couldn’t really binge-watch seven seasons; this would have to be a commitment over time; and 2) I did not know if I could stomach the office fondling and degrading treatment of women. Even my husband asked why I continued to watch it, knowing full well I am an advocate for women and men.

At times, I watched scenes of men “oogling” and “touching” an attractive staff person, and thought, “wow, was that really what it was like in the 1960’s?” At other times I marveled at the way some women, or rather show characters, displayed confidence with their own bodies. Still, at other times I cringed when I could relate to a scene; especially the one where main character, Peggy, asked for a raise, and got belittled by her male boss for asking, even when she was paid less than her male counterparts.

Yes, it is just a television show, a drama at that; but then they weaved a storyline of history – civil rights, President Kennedy’s election and assassination, and I am only in season 4 of the 7.

In the midst of Mad Menwatching, a friend of mine suggested seeking out the CNN documentary called RBG, the initials of the subject of the show, the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. In addition to the incredible life of an advocate, the plot and timeline follows the civil rights and women’s rights movements, a time where people due to color or gender did not legally have the same rights as others. RBGstresses the importance of the 14thamendment, in particular this phrase, “…nor deny to any personwithin its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Pre-Justice Ginsberg, attorney Ruth Bader Ginsberg, specifically took on cases where, according to law, men and women did not get fair treatment; the documentary sites some famous cases where as an attorney, in facing an all-white male supreme court at the time, she had to actually get them to understand, that women faced challenges that men did not.

Then, of course, in the news just this week, one of the greatest tennis stars of all time, faced controversy at the U.S. Open. Serena Williams verbally expressed her anger -- acting less than expected by some -- at chair umpire Carlos Ramos, and ultimately received three code violations. It prompted a lot of reaction in the news including a New York Times Op Ed from another famous female player Billie Jean King, who said it was sexism and called out the injustice that “women are treated different in most arena’s in life, especially women of color. “

As I reflected on it all, from television drama to documentary to real life events, I realize that this has all been unfolding over my lifetime. As a child of the late 60’s, the historical events in Mad Men seemed real to me; I am friends with women that worked at a time when women did not have the same rights let alone even a minimum six week leave for pregnancy; and still today I see examples of bias and expectations of behavior, holding some women back, even those who are at the top of their game.

Sometimes, It’s not so fun to literally see things unfold that make us uncomfortable -- like the office groping and games that used to be more acceptable, or the laws that held women back from pursuing equality, or even a female exceptional athlete standing up for herself and her own integrity. We grow through the discomfort.

Again, I am only in season four of Mad Men, but sometimes I think, what would happen if a working-mom, at-home-dad family moved into the old Draper family neighborhood in the mid 1960’s. (In season two, a divorced mom was controversial enough.) Also, today, kids legally have to ride in car seats, and smoking around children, which was even done by doctors and on school field trips in Mad Men, is not only frowned upon but banned.

Sometimes, we have to ZagZig to see progress, even when there is so much more to do in our lifetime. Media of all types, historical and current, can be a good reminder of that.

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