Why So Blue?

I’ve recently become an avid fan of the show Mad Men and have begun to wonder, besides the throwback styles, great acting and writing, what makes it so popular? Is it because the Drapers make us long for a time when roles were more defined? As a woman, living in the pre-feminist era also meant having fewer choices, getting little respect, earning far less money and being sexually harassed and largely underestimated. So why did I dress up like Betty Draper for Halloween and go to a Mad Men party where everyone else did too? Is it possible that having fewer choices and more defined roles makes us happier?

According to the U.S. General Social Survey, which has measured people’s happiness since 1972, women are steadily getting unhappier with time. (Only black women in America are a little bit happier than they were in 1972, though they’re still not still not as happy as black men.) The study asks “How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?” of a representative sample of men and women across the spectrum in terms of age, education and income levels, marital status and with or without children. Five additional studies from around the world have apparently come to the same conclusion – women are less happy now than they were 35 years ago. Conversely, according to the study men are happier than they used to be.

So what’s the deal? Women have more opportunities than ever before. Though still underrepresented in positions of power, women today can run for elected office, have a fast-paced corporate job or be an astronaut. We’re not relegated to staying home, cleaning the house and raising the kids. Actually, the problem may lie in the fact that nowadays women are expected to do all of the above, all while staying in shape, looking pretty and being happy. Clearly, something’s got to give. Maybe for some of us, it’s the happiness part.

Though I’d like to believe assertions by Marcus Buckingham, a guy who studies and writes about women’s happiness, that being responsible for the ‘second shift’ – the workload in the home like cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, etc. – doesn’t contribute to women’s levels of stress and unhappiness, I’m not convinced. Buckingham admits women still do more of the home-related tasks than men do; in fact, it’s well documented. However, he argues that because the trendlines are generally moving toward parity, the ‘second shift’ can’t be the reason women are less happy (apparently between 1975 and today women's housework hours declined from 21 hours per week to 17, while men's went up from 6 to 13 and dads today are spending more time with their kids while moms are spending less than they were in the late 70s).

But who are we kidding? At the end of the day, whether they work outside the home or not, women are still held ultimately responsible for feeding the kids, helping them with their homework, doing laundry, and most other things that keep a family life running smoothly. Not to mention single moms who do virtually everything on their own…I also can’t help but think that how the work we do is valued contributes to our sense of self-worth, productiveness, and ultimately, how happy we are. For the most part, much of the work women do is undervalued, whether it’s housework and child-caring (which gets about as much credit as sitting on the couch eating bon-bons), or having a job outside the home where we still don’t get equal pay for equal work.

Buckingham also cites polls that ask men and women “Which do you think will help you be most successful in life, building on your strengths or fixing your weaknesses?” Whereas men split the middle, a whopping 73% of women say they concentrate on fixing their weaknesses. Considering women have taken on more roles and entered new spheres in which to focus on how much they suck, it’s no wonder we’re feeling kinda down. So does that mean the feminist movement simply gave us more opportunities to feel like failures?

Either way, I do know there are a million reasons I’d rather live post-feminist movement than pre. If having more choices means having more stress and anxiety, then bring on the anti-depressants. In the end, we may never know the ‘answer’ to why women are increasingly unhappy, indeed there are probably many answers. It’s an important question to ask though, and not just for women’s sake – for everyone’s.

Maybe next year I'll dress up like Peggy Olson.

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4 thoughts on “Why So Blue?”

  1. In lovely liberal San Francisco women are 49% of the population. However, on San Francisco City boards they only make up 34% and 27% of the Board of Supervisors. Women with a graduate or professional degree earn only 66% of what a man with the same education level does.

    I don’t think antidepressants are going to cut it…

  2. Yes, women today have more choices, but we are consistently reminded of these deeply ingrained societal roles. For example, many working mom’s I know often feel guilty because they can’t see their kids as much as they want/or feel they should. On the flip, stay-at-home moms can lament the career they’ve given up. The problem is, these are choices women shouldn’t have to make. We need to reform our work culture to better support the dual/triple/quadruple roles women play. More flex time, acceptance of part time, job sharing, paid sick days…all would go a ways towards women being happier (and healthier).

  3. I am not surprised to hear that women would choose to fix their perceived failures instead of building on their strengths. If in the future I choose to have a job and to raise kids I am not sure it would be possible to do my absolute best at both. Whether you sneak out of the office early to pick up the kids, or stay late and miss the kids’ soccer games, one of your obligations gets the short shrift. I think I would really struggle with feelings of inadequacy both at work and at home.

    I think part of why I love Mad Men is that the workplace struggles of Betty and Joan, women who would be in their 70s or 80s now, don’t feel dramatically different from what my friends and I are still dealing with today. There may have been fewer choices and more overt sexism in the early 1960’s, but the goal of having both a satisfying career and fulfilling home life remains the same.

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