This is a piece I wrote awhile back about Mad Men and some of it’s leading ladies. Disclaimer: I do love Mad Men and consider it one of the best written television shows ever.
Note: I have not seen the mid-season premiere that aired last night yet so please keep that in mind while reading.
The Modern Struggles of Mad Men’s Women
While the men, particularly Don Draper, get the lion’s share of the attention on AMC’s Mad Men, its leading ladies have proven time and again their story lines can be just as captivating. The show is famous for transporting the audience back into American life during the 1950/60s. The sets, clothes, and dialogue are all there for us to gobble up. The difference between today’s styles and lifestyles are easy to spot, but when it comes to the trials and tribulations the women of the show encounter, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between their personal and professional problems and those of today’s woman. As a working professional, who also happens to be a female, I find myself watching the show and saying “Thank God it’s so much better now…sort of.”
Betty: The Bored Housewife
While motherhood is a full-time job, it’s clear from the inception of the series, when Sally and Bobby are both in school and she’s alone in the suburbs planning dinners and trying (unsuccessfully) to pass the time, Betty struggles with idle hands. I would argue she represents women of today who went to college, got good educations, but then opted to marry instead of join the job market afterwards. Or, they work only for a few years (student loans don’t pay themselves off, after all) until they become mothers. Choosing to be a housewife is not an anti-feminist choice. If you believe that the point of feminism is equality (which I do), meaning whatever path a person chooses is up to that person. There is no reason to begrudge a woman for opting not to have a career. There is everything to begrudge about a woman not having a choice to have a career.
Betty’s problem isn’t that she doesn’t work—she makes it very clear a career isn’t a priority to her—her problem is she is smart enough to realize she’s unsatisfied with her life. For all intents and purposes she’s at the end of the social latter she’s been climbing since her early teens and there’s nowhere left to go. While Betty probably won’t be winning any mother-of-the-year awards and often behaves more childishly than her own children, it’s clear from the background we’re given about her that she’s become exactly what she was raised to be, a beautiful, bored trophy wife.
So the question comes: what is Betty going to do with the rest of her life? Be Henry’s arm ornament for the rest of her days or work on creating her own identity? It is the sixties so she could go either way, but Betty’s past behavior has shown she doesn’t do well on her own, so the idea she’ll abandon Henry without a consistency plan (which would be another man that could provide for her and her children) seems out of character. She didn’t even consider leaving Don until Henry came into the picture. It’s difficult for some to feel sorry for Betty, but all I see when I look at her is a caged bird about to rip it feathers out.
Peggy: The Ambitious One
Peggy Olson’s storyline of personal peeks and pits while managing a rise through the creative ranks of SC&P is one of television most relatable female roles. Talented and ambitious, Peggy knows her worth, but is completely uncertain about how to go about making others realize it. She’s brave enough to ask for her own office once she proves herself as a valuable copywriter, she continuously ask Don for raises (even though he repeatedly denies her), and she never seems to take her eye off of the Creative Director chair to the point of almost openly coveting it. After being promoted to Copy Chief she learns through trial and error how to manage the creative talent she’s charged with. She negotiates for a higher salary when she finally recognizes she must leave Don’s creative nest to fly on her. The scene of her tendering her resignation to Don is full of emotion as Peggy explains she’s doing the same thing Don would do in her position. But, the rug is pulled right out from under her when Ted’s company merges with SC&P leaving her, more or less, back where she started with a higher pay rate, but the same respect issues. Peggy’s plight for respect often coincides with her asking Don for a raise. Women, who on average are paid 77 cents on the dollar to men, typically ask for fewer raises, and are less likely to negotiate. For the most part Don denies Peggy’s request for a raise, going as far as chastising her for even asking in the first place. We don’t see him treating her male counterparts in creative with the same rudeness. When Peggy finally leaves the company, Don immediately attempts to offer more money telling her she’s “finally found the perfect time to ask for a raise.” Peggy dismissed the gesture that came too-little-too-late explaining once again, it’s not about the money.
She’s often shown in the show as upset whenever she believes proper credit for her ideas isn’t given. She doesn’t even start looking for another job until Don snaps one too many times at her. This makes us wonder if she’s making an emotional or financial (aka business) decision. Well, like many choices in life, it’s both. She has had her feelings hurt by Don and isn’t generally happy working at SC&P anymore, but she’s also leaving for a company willing to pay her more and make her Copy Chief.
Peggy also struggles with being seen as a woman in the work place. She’s petite and pretty and by all means wants to attract the attention of a potential husband, but she usually finds herself being seen as “one of the guys.” She’s well-liked by her creative team, but she’s not viewed as feminine. Besides Stan, whose relationship with Peggy is the embodiment of being friend-zoned, she is typically viewed as asexual by her fellow copywriters. The female identity in the workplace is an obstacle women are still negotiating today. We are constantly told you need to look nice, but not too attractive. Women who flirt in the workplace are automatically assumed to be trying to sleep their way to the top when in fact everyone knows that doesn’t actually work. As Gloria Steinem put it, “If women could sleep their way to the top, there’d be a lot more women at the top.”
The mid-season finale of season seven left us with Peggy leading a major pitch and the ever reoccurring drama between her and Don seemingly resolved. So, when the next (and last) seven episodes are over, where will Peggy land? Will she replace Don as Creative Director as many have speculated? Does she get to finally have the fulfilling relationship with man she so desperately wants? Is it possible for her to have success both professionally and personally? I’m truly afraid of the answers we’ll get.
Megan: The Fading Artist
When we first met Megan she was Don’s new, beautiful secretary who’s in the right place at the right time to become the next Mrs. Don Draper. As far as character development goes, Megan has made the journey from pretty-young-thing to disillusioned fading actress. She’s a beautiful woman with a creative brain, her short stint as a copywriter at SC&P showed us that, but since her move to California and the big pond of Hollywood, she’s discovering she might be just another small fish after all and her coping mechanisms don’t seem to be helping. While it’s not surprising her and Don’s relationship is failing considering its scare foundation and Don’s inability to connect emotionally in his romantic relationships, Megan’s downward spire seems to stem from much deeper roots. In season 5 when her she’s struggling to break into acting in New York and simultaneously fighting the depression that failure is leaving her with, Megan’s mother ruthlessly points out “This is what happens when you’re surrounded by creative people, but aren’t creative yourself.” Not very comforting words, but that gives much inside to Megan’s internal dilemma and her less than supportive relationship with her mother. It also strikes a nerve with anyone who has an artist inside of them they had to push down for whatever reason.
Interestingly, despite having many similarities with Peggy (choosing family over career—at first, at least, pursuing a less traditional career), Megan finds less sympathy with the fan base. While some of that can be attributed to the fact that she was originally introduced as a relatively flat character whose biggest claim to fame was her pretty face, I would argue Megan’s issues are often swept under the rug because she’s beautiful. The mentality of not feeling sorry for the pretty girl prevailing in this case cause things could always be a lot worse, right? You could be depressed, detached, and on the verge of a mental breakdown, AND ugly, right? Then where would you be? Still depressed, detached, and on the verge of a mental breakdown, probably.
Megan and Don’s quiet break-up in the midseason finale was fairly anticlimactic, which leaves me unconvinced this is the last we’ve seen of Megan. Living relatively alone in the hills of Los Angeles with a career that can’t seem to get off the ground, she appears poised for a tragic ending to her very short book.
Joan: The Aging Flirt
Throughout the series Joan has proven time and again she knows more of what goes on at SC&P than any of her co-workers yet she’s still treated like a secretary. It could be argued she’s worked harder for her position and risen higher (sans Don) than from where she started. Yet, she doesn’t garner the same respect as her male counterparts. Even when she shows her aptitude for finding the perfect ad spaces for television commercials, a job she thoroughly enjoys, it’s snatched away from without a thought to her feelings or, more importantly, her success potential. Harry Crane, an ad man—not a partner—publicly insults her during a partners’ meeting and receives no repercussions for his actions. Had he done the same to one of the male partners it’s hard to be there wouldn’t have been consequences. When Joan has the chance to begin bringing in her own accounts she is faced with opposition at every turn and has to resort to lying and trickery, and Peggy’s help, to land the client behind the other partners’ backs. Very much implying the policy of it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. She takes the risks, gets the account, and finally begins the transition to a more traditional partner role. Even though Joan is now a partner, she’s not given the same reverence. She still continues working as office manager and isn’t able to pass it off until one of her male counterpoints makes the suggestion first. Even now, Joan is the only partner without a secretary.
Like Peggy, she continuously struggles to be respected by her male coworkers. Unlike Peggy, she unashamedly uses her sexuality to garner favor. Unfortunately for her, it doesn’t work. While she instills respect and/or fear in the support staff of the office, the copywriters, ad men, and partners don’t give her much thought.
Throughout the show the savvy redhead makes a lot of decisions that cause us to cringe, including marrying her husband after he rapes her and prostituting herself out to reel in a client and gain herself a 5% stake in the company and her partner position. The choices Joan makes are difficult to watch because they’re supposed to be. She is constantly confronted with deciding between the lesser of two evils. I can’t see how that’s much different from every women’s struggle today. Do you report the sexual harassment at work and be blackballed or just keep quiet and hope the promotion goes through? Do you accept the lowering pay job or hold out for something better and hopefully not bankrupt yourself in the process?
After the rape scene, Joan pretends like it never happened. She still marries her fiancé and attempts to support him in every way possible in attempt to make him successful. She finally throws him out when it becomes clear he’s too selfish to become successful. It’s difficult to watch her marriage knowing the foundation it’s built on, but let’s not forgot rape is still one of the most underreported crimes of our time. The most common type of rape is acquaintance rape, meaning the victim personally knows their attacker. And, spousal rape only became an official crime, in some states, in recent years.
The first half of season seven finds Joan mainly concerned with providing for her son and making the company, and in turn herself, as rich as possible. She opposes Don’s return based on the financial liability he poses to the company. She’s a single mother nearing 40. Joan has gone from looking for a successful man to take care of her to instead becoming the provider herself. I think the most surprising decision she’s made is to turn down Bob Benson’s marriage proposal even though it’s an arrangement that makes sense. With the series finale looming in the near future, fans are curious as to how many more difficult decisions is Joan going to be faced with and what are they going to tell us about her, the sixties, and ourselves.
The success of Mad Men can be attributed to multiple variables including the complicated, compelling story lines and relatable characters. As the show continues to progress, its ladies are receiving more screen time and their stories becoming ever more complex and relevant to the audience.