Monday, September 8, 2008

Feminism in Strange Places: The Women of Mad Men

I've been wanting to write a post about AMC's Mad Men for ages now and, since another episode just aired last night and I'm trying to distract myself from the latest terrifying poll numbers, I figured that now would be as good a time as any.

For those who aren't in the know, Mad Men is a period drama set in the early 1960s in an ad agency in Manhattan; it's now in its second season and has proven to be quite popular. On the surface, it's not a premise that one might imagine as a bastion of feminism, especially considering the show's self-proclaimed dedication to accuracy and attention to detail. As you can imagine, the era of happy housewife heroines and consumerism is not portrayed as particularly woman-positive. On the show, the women in the office--most of them typists and secretaries--are routinely objectified by the male ad execs while the wives at home raise the children and have meals prepared for their hard-working men (many of whom often employ the "I have to work late at the office" excuse to hide their philandering and drinking). All that said, while Mad Men preserves the chauvinism of the time period (drawn into sharp focus by the fast-paced maculinist work environment of the agency), it's both an intriguing show and showcases some extremely compelling female characters who, sometimes subtly, rise beyond their prescribed gendered roles (even if they aren't exactly feminist by our standards).

(Read on for more, but beware some spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2.)

The Women of Mad Men

Betty Draper
“She wanted me to be beautiful so I could find a man. There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go ‘til you’re in a box?”

Betty Draper (on right) is the stereotypical 1950s housewife, with an edge. She's married to Don Draper, the Creative Director of the Sterling Cooper Ad Agency, and ostensibly divides her time between raising their two children and waiting for Don to come home for dinner (or not). Betty is sharp, sweet and loyal to a fault, at least on the surface. In Season 1, her neurotic episodes (the internalized stress of being left alone all day and the onus of being the happy housewife at all times) land her in psychotherapy. And, early in Season 2, her bottled-up frustration with Don's womanizing ways causes her to be unjustly prejudiced towards their young son. What's intriguing about Betty is her deep inner life, to which we're only barely privy, the constant sense that there's more to her than we see, that she might just have some card up her sleeve. Moreover, Betty embodies the silencing burden of forced domesticity in way that is both understated and deeply palpable.

Joan Holloway
“These men, we’re constantly building them up. And for what? Dinner? Jewelry? Who cares!”

Joan Holloway (center) is the Office Manager at Sterling Cooper. She has a lot of power--authority over all the typists and secretaries (and quite a bit of influence over the artists, copywriters and accountants, to boot)--and she knows it. While in Season 1, she was the clandestine lover of one of the senior partners, Roger Sterling, Season 2 finds Joan pursuing her own life more fervently. Joan is not a nice person, but she's a great character--she's smart, manipulative, and bitchy, and those are her good qualities. She probably knows more about what's going on in the office than all three of the top guys (Sterling, Cooper and Draper) combined, and she knows how to use that knowledge to her advantage.

Peggy Olsen
“I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box.”

Peggy is by far my favorite character on the show, and she's probably the most overtly feminist. Don's former secretary-turned-junior-copywriter (a rare job for a woman at Sterling Cooper), Peggy is quiet, fiercely intelligent, and slowly trying to make a name for herself amidst the good ole boys at the agency. A sexual misstep early in Season 1 leaves Peggy sneaking off to have a baby by the end of the season, a child her sister now raises in Brooklyn. Since then, Peggy is much more judicious, and she doesn't use her sexuality to get by. She's a little arrogant, but also unerringly honorable, sometimes to a fault. Her most recent transition, from staid to classy--she glams up in order to get in on the post-pitch celebration at a strip club in the Season 2 ep. "Maidenform"--may not seem very feminist. But I'm not quite sure I'd agree. By joining the guys on their playing field--the frivolous celebration at the strip club--she acquires more, not less, respect professionally, and sets herself up as someone who can work and play on equal footing as her male co-workers.

Bonus Round: The Women (Un)Fortunate Enough to Fall Into Bed with Don Draper

Don Draper, philanderer though he is, seems to have a penchant for independent women:

Season 1: Midge Daniels, a beatnik artist/art illustrator, who eschews marriage and love, adores sex, and eventually leaves Don when she becomes bored with his controlling ad-man attitude.

Season 1: Rachel Menken, Jewish department store owner who meets Don while she's seeking a new look for her store. She falls in love with him, but leaves the city when she realizes that Don's attention is less about his love for her and more about his attempt to escape from the problems in his life.

And, last (for now), but not least, Season 2: the razor-sharp Bobbie Barrett, wife of comedian Jimmy Barrett and an astute businesswoman who manages her husband's career. She's already gotten Don into a fair bit of trouble, and I have no doubt their affair will be causing a big fuss in future episodes.

The female characters in Mad Men are so compelling to me precisely because they operate under such narrow, gendered social constraints and yet are still rendered as capable, smart and powerful. It's an interesting paradox: a series set in a time and place of extreme chauvinism, Mad Men somehow succeeds in providing strong female leads in a way that many television shows today still haven't yet mastered.

(Whew...I'm exhausted. I think I need a cocktail.)

Update: For a counter-argument, and fascinating discussion in the comments, check out The Hathor Legacy


Unknown said...

Great post. I know a lot of women rejected "Mad Men" b/c it initially seemed to be glamorizing sexism, but as the show has developed, it's become clear that there's a searing critique of sexism at the very heart of the show. The episode "maidenform," in which they talk about the male gaze but show Don withering under the female gaze, was brilliant.

ProgGrrl said...

It is indeed, such a feminist show. Since my generation (Gen X) is now going to run Hollywood, and we were the first generation to be born and raised within feminist times...let me tell you I have high hopes. :)

While I was listening to all the commentary tracks on the MM season 1 DVDs, I was struck by something showrunner Matt Weiner said about the show's pilot. He says the first line that ever came to him, the first scene he ever wanted to write for this show, was when Don gets dressed down by Rachel in a business meeting - and Don says "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this!" Weiner went on to mention that he was amazed to still be hearing that said in offices in the 1980s.

This show has feminism in its DNA.

Great post, btw.

Unknown said...

Great post! I have a couple more observations regarding Betty, Joan, and Rachel.

Betty: I think that Betty is the perfect example of The Feminine Mystique. This is exactly the woman that Betty Friedan wrote about (hmm... same name, too. Wonder if that was intentional?). It was published in 1963, and I wonder if the show will touch on it in the future.

Joan: I see Joan as a feminist in the fact that, yes, she has this power over the other woman in the office and uses it, but she also has a power over the men, too. And she knows this. And she uses it to her advantage. Joan knows how to use her sexuality to get what she wants from men, and that in itself is a form of feminism. At the time, her body and her sex appeal were the only weapons she had, due to the social restraints of being a woman at that time. But, she uses the weapons at her disposal to get what she wants from men.

Rachel Menken: She has done what many woman of today do, but not many women of her time did. She refuses to "settle" (at least in season one, when we first meet her) for a man that she only kind of likes. She sacrifices her personal life for her career. And she is a high powered business woman, something rare in those days. She is a feminist, powerful woman to the core. And it's because of this that she is so turned off when Don shows his "real" self to her: weak, vulnerable, scared. She loses respect for him because he doesn't have the strength to stay and face his demons, and her whole persona is built on strength. said...

Thanks for all the comments. I definitely don't subscribe to the the opinion that Mad Men is just replicating the sexism of the era without a serious undercurrent of critique. I would even go so far as to say that Mad Men might be one of the most explicitly feminist shows on television right now--perhaps even because they have to work within the confines of the misogyny of the 1960s.

@amy: Maidenform is one of my favorite episodes to date. Really smart.

@proggrrl: I really hope you're right about GenX running Hollywood, but I'm not sure I'm as optimistic about how wide-reaching feminism's effects have been. The paucity of women in starring (non-romantic) roles and/or women-centered Hollywood films is still pretty disheartening. Maybe I'm just being cynical? I hope so.

@britni: Great points. I'm right there will you. I adored Rachel Menken and wish she'd come back on the show in some capacity. Although Don really didn't deserve her.