The Soapbox: “Mad Men,” Pregnancy, And The Nuance Of Choice

This post contains spoilers!

Sunday nights are no longer full of Monday dread. I have something to look forward to at the very end of the weekend: a mind-bending episode of “Mad Men.” The show you love, full of characters you hate, and issues you hope to only deal with through barrier of your TV screen: infidelity, corporate hell, violence, and mortality.

For an office drama centered around a 1960s advertising agency, “Mad Men” has tackled very nuanced issues that remain relevant topics in our day and age. Anyone who watches the show knows the terrible way that women are treated: sexual harassment, rape, sexism, domestic violence, infidelity. And as of Sunday, all of the major female characters have experienced pregnancy.

As the show shifts into 1967 1968, the way pregnancy is discussed has progressed from Peggy hiding hers and being told to forget all about it, to Megan openly talking about miscarriage to an acquaintance and neighbor, Sylvia Rosen. (Who unbeknownst to her is “the other woman” in Don’s life.)

The conversation was so subtle and yet full of subtext. I was convinced that “miscarriage” was a euphemism for “abortion,” which was legal in New York during the ’60s three years before Roe in 1970. A second watch contradicted my initial thought; it was in fact a miscarriage. Yet, Megan’s language discussing her pregnancy could have easily been lifted and shifted to a different narrative. Megan says she doesn’t know how she feels about a potential pregnancy, and is relieved to not have to know how to feel. She confesses that she hadn’t been careful when having sex (with her husband, mind you). And then she is shamed by Sylvia for predominantly feeling relieved (instead of sad) because now she doesn’t have to worry about raising a child at this point in her life when her career is finally taking off.

Though different from Peggy’s pregnancy — Don and Megan are married, and Megan doesn’t carry the pregnancy to term — “Mad Men” again delivers a story thread of women, careers, and motherhood. pointed out the many unhappy representations of pregnancy in the show in a post called “Mad Men is the Most Anti-Pregnancy Show Ever,” which reminded us Peggy can’t become who she is until after she gives her baby up, Joan kept Roger’s baby, Kevin, but has kept his paternity a secret, and of course Betty and the baby born into tumult, Gene.

But I beg to differ. Mad Men has represented pregnancy a lot for one television show — each of its leading ladies got pregnant. (Hell, even Sally’s first period was a large topic of a season five episode.) Their pregnancies just haven’t been “rainbows and butterflies” pregnancies. Instead, the show has presented the often tricky topic of choosing when and how to bring a child into this world.  It was an era when the 1950s image of domestic happiness was still the lofty goal, and the working woman was a new phenomena. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which effectively legalized abortion, is still six years away from Sunday’s episode.

We love Peggy and her success, knowing that it might not have been possible if she had kept her baby. We feel terrible for Gene having been born into a dismembered household. We learn from Pete Campbell’s wife Trudy that a child may not save your marriage. And we watch Joan choose not to terminate Roger’s child, and then become a working single mother. Yes, the show lacks a thoroughly positive representation of pregnancy, but that seems pretty par for “Mad Men,” whose representations of love and marriage and all spheres domestic tends to show the rocky dark underbelly of intrenched institutions.

“Mad Men,” in this sense, brought up the topic of reproductive choice. Megan’s “choice” was made for her by a handy team of script writers, who threw in a pregnancy and miscarriage unknown to the viewers. Now, it is making her think. Does she want a child? Would she have terminated this pregnancy had she not miscarried? Even in her “happy” marriage, unplanned pregnancies happen, and knowing what Megan doesn’t know (about Don’s continued infidelity) it might not be the best timing to bring a baby into her world.

These questions are still being asked in today’s world.  Should women stay at home and be mothers?  Should we “lean in” in the workplace?  And with more laws introduced in state houses restricting abortion, I fear the national conversation about choosing a pregnancy sounds far more old-fashioned than Megan and Sylvia’s.


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