"What," asks producer and novelist Olivia Lichtensteinm, "is it like to live as a Fifties housewife whose life is dedicated to looking after her family?" We're glad she's taken on the brave challenge, because lord knows there's no one out there who actually lives the life of a stay-at-home mom, nor generations of parents and grandparents who actually lived the lifestyle and could talk about it. And besides, it always gives us such an accurate representation of a time period when people step into it without any of the assumptions, conditioning and social mores of the era!
Straw Man is established thusly:
We're transfixed by the programme's visual style, office manager Joan Holloway's hourglass figure, blonde suburban housewife Betty Draper's elegance, her adulterous husband Don Draper's smouldering good looks. All that meatloaf, whisky, illicit afternoon sex and brazen, carefree smoking...But what of this past we are hankering after? Are we looking at it through rose-tinted spectacles?
Hmm, yes, we do have a problem with idealizing the 1950s! You'd almost think we needed a raft of sophomoric cliched films decrying the suburbs and lives of quiet desperation that still somehow think they're revelatory...oh, wait.
For my experiment, I resolved to be bound by the following rules on 'how to be a good wife', which I found online from a home economics high school textbook published in 1954:
* Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal on time. This is a way of letting him know you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.
* Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you'll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and look fresh.
* Clear away the clutter. Run a dustcloth over the tables. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order.
* Prepare the children. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.
* At the time of his arrival home, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer, dishwasher or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet. Be happy to see him. Greet him with a warm smile and be glad he is home.
Then there are the don'ts . . .
* Don't greet him with problems or complaints. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax and unwind.
* Listen to him. You may have a dozen things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first.
* Make the evening his. Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment.
* The goal: Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.
Not surprisingly, the whole thing sucks. Not least because the author is apparently not in the habit of doing any household chores herself and delegates everything to a maid and her husband. (Although they have a housekeeper in Mad Men so this seems kind of arbitrary.) She then sets herself the task, for some reason, of making a dress. Hijinx ensue.
Ultimately she finds that debasing herself is demeaning and horrible, that her husband falls too easily into the role of lordly master of the house (which probably makes for a vacation from being full-time maid), and that doing housework is hard. But! It's not all bad! Doing your own work is, she finds, cheaper than paying someone. Treating people nicely (apparently something she only adopted for this week?) is a Good Thing, as is taking more trouble with one's appearance. Also, portions have gotten really big. But, overall, she finds the alleged myth of 50's perfection is overrated. Almost makes you think someone should write something called the Feminine Mystique...