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Mad (wo)Men: The Complexity of Womanhood in “Mad Men”

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September 17th, 2010 at 9:05 am

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The cast of AMC’s “Mad Men:” Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks.

EDITED TO INCLUDE COMMENTARY at bottom of article on Season 4, Episode 9, “THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS,” air date 9/19/10.

AMC’s “Mad Men” is currently in its 4th (and probably best) season. It’s June, 1965, and “the times, they are a-changin’.” Both men and women on the show are experiencing massive upheavals along with the rest of the country, which was approaching a nearly unprecedented point of social unrest. The civil rights movement had begun in earnest; John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated; the Cassius Clay (whom the characters refuse to call his then-given name, Mohammad Ali)/Sonny Liston fight prompts horrible jokes about how “if I wanted to see two Negroes fight I’d drop a dollar bill out my door.” Second-wave feminism is about to knock everyone for a loop and the Vietnam War is going to alter lives forever. Male and female characters alike are choosing: dive in and go with the flow or fight against the rising tide? Note: here there be spoilers.

The ladies of “Mad Men:” Betty (Jones), Joan (Hendricks), and Peggy (Moss).

Despite the show’s title, the women of “Mad Men” are making the most leaps by far. Our three leading ladies are Betty (formerly Draper) Francis (January Jones), the picture of bourgeois suburbia; Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), the pioneering professional; and Joan (née Holloway) Harris (Christina Hendricks), who disguises her strength beneath demure dresses and Hermes scarves. The ladies of “Mad Men” are some of the most complex, fascinating, unpredictable, and infinitely watchable characters on TV. Creator Matthew Weiner offers a varied and sympathetic examination of the pressures under which women toiled in the tumultuous late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and the show draws frightening analogies between the quandaries of the characters in the ‘60s and ours today. It gracefully, subtly reveals just how much (or little) progress we’ve made. A friend told me that until recently, she couldn’t watch “Mad Men” because her inner feminist found it totally offensive. My (not-so) inner feminist is positively thrilled with the show’s offerings.

Betty Draper in her most frequent haunt: the kitchen.

First of the Mad Women is Betty Draper Francis, main character Don Draper’s ex-wife and the picture of ladylike frostiness. Betty is, perhaps, the show’s representation of the worst of the suburban 1950s: weak, white-gloved, and wealthy, Betty’s upper-class disdain radiates from her every (invisible) pore. She is a child, a selfish brat who smokes too much and never eats (over four seasons, I don’t think she’s eaten on camera more than once or twice). She’s a status-obsessed, wasp-waisted debutante with an ice queen demeanor. Betty’s the character who, in the first episode, caught her daughter Sally (the fantastic Kiernan Shipka) wearing a plastic dry-cleaning bag around her head and threatened to spank her if the dress was wrinkled. To be fair, Betty went through hell with her overbearing, duly status-obsessed family and in her farce of a marriage to Don. She has a breaking point: in the first season, in the midst of a mini-breakdown, she whipped out a shotgun and blasted the neighbor’s doves out of the sky; she also had restaurant bathroom sex with a stranger to get back at Don for his indiscretions. But this season has really made her the (little) bad wolf. Weiner has set her up for a fall, I think, because she’s far and away the most old-fashioned of the show’s women.

Ah, the heartwarming family dinner, complete with mother who smokes instead of eats and father who’s always running out the door.

“Mad Men” is significant for the parallels it draws between those halcyon days of yore, pre-Gloria Steinem, pre-Vietnam; and the turbulent American political and economical climate in the superficial, tech-savvy oughties. For instance, when Betty gave birth to baby Gene, Weiner touched upon the horrible ways women were treated in nightmarish delivery rooms, and maybe that hasn’t changed that much in 40 years. Betty’s housewifery took an interesting turn in the second season when she learned the pleasures of a washing machine’s vibrations, but she had to confront her own sexual issues when a neighbor caught Sally masturbating. Betty’s response? Utter humiliation and a threat to cut off Sally’s fingers. Seeing as how anti-masturbation Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell won the Delaware primary this week, obviously Americans are still struggling with some pretty serious repression.

Peggy Olson: the prototype.

On the opposite end of the “Mad Men” spectrum we have Peggy Olson, the only female character who’s moved up in the ranks both personally and professionally. She’s the polar opposite of Betty: plain, smart, driven, ambitious, and independent. Peggy started as a secretary to Don, who rebuffed her sexual advances (made only because her fellow secretaries indicated it’d be good for her future). She had a mistaken one-night stand with her smarmy, rapist colleague Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), then gave birth to his child in secret and gave it up for adoption—a controversial decision at best. Peggy’s independence last season led her to sleeping with colleague Duck, and after her massive promotion to the Creative department she experimented with marijuana and started dating. This season she has attended bohemian art parties in Greenwich Village, casually and gently spurned the advances of a lesbian friend, and broken up with her boyfriend in favor of staying late at the office.

Cut loose, do the twist: does this look like a humorless bitch to you?

Peggy’s the up-and-comer behind lead Don Draper (Jon Hamm), and though he gives her tough love a lot of the time, his respect for her is apparent in their every interaction—and that’s a new thing for Don, the ladies’ man who still believes at heart that women should be seen, touched, and not heard. Peggy’s strength is her intelligence, her bluntness, and her autonomy. She is, for me and a lot of women like me, the prototype of the modern woman. Again, the parallels to the present are hard to miss: a study recently released states that some women in high-power jobs get paid more than their male counterparts. That applies to single, childless women under 30—like Peggy, and like those working Janes striving for the next best thing. Women like Peggy’s character made that possible. Granted, we’ve still got a long way to go.

In an interesting twist, for some characters the burgeoning women’s equality movement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In last Sunday’s episode, Peggy used her newfound power (granted by Don) to fire Joey, a creative artist with serious mommy issues, after Joey drew a lascivious picture of office manager Joan. Peggy is proud of herself, and we viewers are proud of her for a moment: she’s fighting for herself, for women everywhere, for equality in the workplace. Then in the elevator, she expects graciousness from Joan, and receives instead the utterance that “You’ve made it clear to them that I’m just a meaningless secretary and you’re a humorless bitch.” Wah-wah. One step forward, two steps back. Peggy is a forward-thinking, professional young woman who stands up for her gender in the workplace, but Joan sees that as stripping her of her authority, which she achieved by using her femininity to her advantage.

Joan Harris: bombshell beauty masks formidable strength.

Joan represents yet another aspect of feminine potency. She is a voluptuous, poised woman with a Marilyn-Monroe-esque breathy voice (it’s notable that Joan cried when Monroe was found dead). She uses the monumental power of her curves to navigate the treacherous waters of office politics, but the current of second-wave feminism is dragging her under (doesn’t that sound backwards?). Joan carried on a prolonged affair with partner Roger Sterling (the incredible John Slattery); she accepted the gifts with which he lavished her and took whatever she could get based on her feminine wiles.

Mrs. Harris is far from weak, though. Her husband-to-be raped her on the floor of her old flame’s office (yet another troubling connection to the present: marital rape is still a gray area under a lot of circumstances), and Joan held herself together. She bashed her fiancé (shouldn’t his role go away now?) over the head with a vase when he spoke disrespectfully. She verbally eviscerated her misogynistic colleagues by declaring that they’re all going to die in the Vietnamese jungle, and then brutally twisted the knife, saying “remember you aren’t fighting for me, because I never liked you.” She’s brilliantly manipulative and knows men like the backs of her lovely hands. She cultivated her strength in the patriarchal 1950s, but she’s losing her balance as the women around her (i.e. Peggy) gain theirs.

That twist brings up the complex (though obviously true) notion that not all women were jumping up and down about women’s equality. Some had learned to wield their own sort of weaponry and condemned those who wished to deprive them of it. Based on her words and actions thus far, Joan would probably revere Camille Paglia’s theories on feminism. Joan is perhaps the most multifaceted of the three; she married an ass&!^@ because he was supposed to be a doctor it was what she was supposed to do, and now she’s living out the consequences. She’s remarkably elegant, resilient, and smarter than anyone gives her credit for—but she’s also kind of a snarky bitch (and I mean that in the best way).

Mad Men: Don Draper and Roger Sterling.

Of course, there have been other women: this season Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) provides Don with the smart, willful anti-Betty while “sweet” young Bethany Van Nuys (Anna Camp) hits a little too close to home. Characters like Helen Bishop, Bobbie Barrett, Rachel Menken, secretary Allison, and nanny Carla float in and out, showcasing alternate aspects of 1950s-60s womanhood.

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A showcase of some of the ladies’ best one-liners.

Framing these characters in the slimy, psychologically-motivated, demographically-centered world of advertising makes their differences stand out even more. These statistically-motivated advertising agents say things like, “corner the Negro market” or “you’re a woman, you know these things.” That kind of offhanded racism and sexism is (for the most part) so startling in our P.C. modernity that we’re constantly reminded of the show’s time period, which brings the similarities between then and now to the forefront.

Ad guru Don Draper is our main character, the enigmatic, despicable but charming man of power (whose figurative—and perhaps literal—impotence this season has been startling). A season or two ago, ad man Freddy Rumsen pissed his pants and passed out at his desk; too much available liquor in the Sterling-Cooper suite was good for absolutely no one. Freddy might’ve been laughed out of the office, but our antihero-protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has finally come to terms with his own raging alcoholism. The person with whom he had the only honest, loving relationship in his entire life, free-spirited California girl Anna Draper, is gone. His family is a mess. His work is circling the drain. Nonetheless, he’s trying to do that for which we’ve all hoped—pulling himself out of it. Writing and swimming himself out of it, to be precise. That’s all well and good, but for me, it’s the women of “Mad Men,” and the horrifying similarities from past to present, that make the show truly worthwhile.

For what it’s worth, I think I’m a Peggy, and I think I’m good with that.

Edited to add: Last night’s episode, “The Beautiful Girls,” couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for this article. The episode was all about the Mad Ladies.

“The Beautiful Girls” focused on poor Mrs. Blankenship’s death “surrounded by the people she answered phones for.” Sally Draper escaped from her psychiatrist to visit Don. Sally completely lacks a good female role model (Betty surely isn’t it), and she responded to the other women in Don’s life, particularly secretary Megan and Dr. Faye Miller, with respect, desperate affection, and curiosity. She’s the younger version of these characters; Sally says and does things these women feel but have repressed.

Joyce reunited Peggy with the man with whom Peggy shared a chaste closet kiss earlier in the season, and he shook her moral standing with SCDP when he brought up the fact that some of their biggest accounts are for racist companies. Peggy identifies with African Americans, saying she can’t do a lot of the same things they can’t, and that “they should work harder” like she did. It’s an interesting new facet to Peggy, and goes to show what sort of backbone she has: after this gentleman wrote a scathing article (meant to be “sweet”) about her, she sent him packing. He assumed he could change her mind, but he had no idea who he was dealing with. However, Peggy is concerned enough with the racism that she approaches Don and the rest of the SCDP crew. Of course, they brush it off. Peggy, again, is the prototype of strong, professional young woman fighting for herself and others–though she chooses her battles.

Joan, whose husband has now officially been sent his death sentence (he’s headed to Vietnam after basic training), rekindled her relationship with Roger though both of them are married. This may have been in response to Roger’s aplomb in handling their mugging, which occurred in a familiar neighborhood gone to seed. The two of them have long shared a comfortable sort of tension–the kind of relationship in which they both remember fondly what happened previously, but know it’s in the past. As they grow older and refuse to change with the times, they’re reaching out for what they know, what made them happy, and finding each other.

As an aside, there are no coincidences, no mistakes on this show. Peggy’s friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet) had a short interaction with Megan (Jessica Pare), about whom Joyce has commented before. Are we about to learn something new about Megan’s sexuality?

Which is your favorite “Mad” lady? Why?

All photos copyright their original owners.

  • http://rechercher.tumblr.com rechercher

    There are so many factual errors about the show in this piece. Matthew Weiner has stated for the record that Peggy gave her baby up for adoption, it is not being raised by her sister. We did learn after the fact that her sister was pregnant at the same time Peggy was, but despite some misdirection, when Peggy tells Pete that she gave the baby away, she means away to an adoptive family, not to be raised by her sister.

  • Julia Rhodes

    rechercher- I had originally written that she gave the child up for adoption, and my editor pointed out he thought that was incorrect, that Peggy’s sister was raising the child. It has been changed back.

  • http://calitreview.com Paul Comstock

    @rechercher we went back and forth on the adoption question. Julia originally had written that the baby was given up for adoption, but I thought it was being raised by Peggy’s sister. It’s been pretty unclear in the show, but thanks for the clarification.

  • cee Jay cohn

    I believe the writer has missed the point with Joan. She uses her sexuality as her power and when Peggy fires Joey, she has in effect emasculated Joan. That is what enrages her and shows how outdated, outmoded and out maneuvered she will be by the professional women coming her way.

  • http://calitreview.com/ Julia Rhodes

    I believe what I said about Joan was exactly that, without the use of the term “emasculate.” Joan is exactly the opposite of masculine, and I wouldn’t use that term to describe her feeling of impotence in the situation. What Peggy did to Joan was to take away her feminine power. To “defeminize” is maybe the best term for that, although some parts of the internet seem to think “empower” is the opposite of “emasculate,” which opens a whole other can of worms. “Power” and “masculine” do not always go hand in hand.

  • http://web2.airmail.net/ktrig246/out_of_cave/ Kathleen

    I enjoy Mad Men but I don’t think it’s a feminist show. Yes, the show was inspired partly by feminism, but it’s insulting to find no feminist activists on the show, no references to bestsellers like The Feminine Mystique or the fact that NOW was born in 1966. Perhaps they’ll bring up the ‘f’ word (in a good way) in Season 5, but so far, they’ve been much too coy about it.

    I’m not so sure if Matt Weiner is pro-feminist or if he’s a compassionate male chauvinist.

  • Jürgen Silling

    AAAAA ( like a River /IF stone for me.

    Thank you ( born 1934 )

  • B-Rich

    More factual errors both from the show and from real life facts:

    “She had a mistaken one-night stand with her smarmy, rapist colleague Pete Campbell”…
    Peggy and Pete was more than a one-night stand– in the very 1st episode, she got together with an engaged Pete when he drunkenly showed up at her door. And in the 8th episode– after Pete was married– they did the wild thing early one morning on an office couch.

    “It’s June, 1965, and “the times, they are a-changin’.” …The civil rights movement had begun in earnest; John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated; ”

    Martin Luther King , Jr. was not assassinated until April 4, 1968.

    “Cassius Clay (whom the characters refuse to call his then-given name, Mohammad Ali)”

    Ali spells his name “Muhammad” not “Mohammad”

  • amy

    I can’t believe people are criticizing this well-considered, articulate article. It’s one of the best and most comprehensive commentaries on the female and/or feminist aspect of Mad Men I’ve read to date.

  • sana

    Great ride…agree with every bit of it…neatly put. More and more of us are Peggys i believe, isn’t it?!

  • sana

    *read

  • http://www.facebook.com/deirdre.rasmussen Deirdre Nichols Rasmussen

    I’m a Peggy type, but I have so much respect and affection for Joan. I root for them both, but in Season 3-4 especially for Joan.

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