Mad Men 7a Part 2: The Women

28 Jun

In my last Mad Men post, I quoted Danielle Henderson in The Guardian, in which, via the topic of sexism in Game of Thrones, she made the following comment about MM:

 I’m exhausted by the triumph of men at the expense of women as a narrative device.

As I promised, I’d like to rebut this idea, with a particular focus on the half-season just gone, but also with reference to the show as a whole. Because, if you’re interested in feminism, gender or the experience of women and you’re not watching Mad Men, I’ve gotta say – you’re missing out.


Partially, I think this might be another symptom of the aforementioned Don Delusion – believing that Don is the only main character. Don is incredibly important, no doubt about it, but arguably the other central narrative in the work is that of Peggy Olson.

Peggy’s road hasn’t been easy. She arrives at Sterling Cooper a young, naive girl of 21, hopelessly out of her depth and thrust into a world of brand new expectations and social mores that can be bewildering to navigate. The silly mistake she makes in episode one – having sex with Pete, or in her eyes, entering adulthood – could have destroyed her. Since then she’s had a few disastrous flings, tried to leave the company and fought with Don. All this could have been the end for her. But instead, through sheer force of will and her own talent, she triumphs. In the final episode of 7a, we saw Peggy finally ‘graduate’ into a fully fledged creative, pitching as well as her mentor Don and doing a damn fine job.

What I appreciate most about Peggy is that her character isn’t clear cut. She’s the smart girl who gets recognised and plucked out of the secretarial pool, but this isn’t just a ‘rags to riches’ tale of a woman finally making it in a sexist world. She’s as complex as any man in the show, if not more. As mentioned, she makes mistakes all the time; she’s clever and funny, but she can be stubborn, awkward and even racist. She has faced sexism from all angles, but this hasn’t been the only facet of her struggle – she’s also tried hard to transcend class and cultural boundaries.

Most importantly, her self-realisation as a woman hasn’t been a simple journey from The Feminine Mystique to bra-burning activist. Weiner has said on several occasions that he is trying to tell an alternative story of the 60s, and Peggy’s slow road to independence fits this nicely. In many ways that makes her even more compelling. Part of her problem has been that she is sometimes ill-at-ease with the image of womanhood that she is both creating and supposed to be fulfilling. She’s not always a great dresser, not stunningly beautiful in the same way as, say, Joan, and makes terrible choices in men (Duck – just why?). And, of course, she’s sacrificed her role as a mother. One of my favourite scenes in the whole show is when she sings ‘Bye Bye, Birdie’ in front of her mirror, dressed in a girlish nightgown and flipping her hair. I love it because it encapsulates both her desire and struggle to ‘perform’ as the feminine ideal:

Similarly, Peggy’s status as a woman has been both a help and hindrance to her throughout the nine years we’ve known her. I discussed last time how the show very much plays with the interaction between wanting and rejecting, and this goes some way to making Peggy an equal to Don in narrative terms. She is outsider and insider, unknowable other and human being, creator and consumer.


Then we have Joan Harris (Holloway). Like Peggy, by the end of 7a she has achieved remarkable success: a partnership, her own office up in accounts and the promise of a million dollars. This is perhaps a less realistic triumph than Peggy’s – Joan is unqualified, inexperienced (in a way, although she does have many years with the company to draw on) and reliant on her own savvy to see her through. And yet, here she is, like Peggy, finally able to hold her own against Don.

Again, this has been hard won. Joan just is the feminine ideal – the Marilyn – but this has worked against her as much as it’s worked for her. Her prostitution to Jaguar in Season 5 was perhaps an exaggerated choice on the show’s part; although an emotionally devastating move, I’m not sure I could see it happening in real life. However, the storyline for me was somewhat reminiscent of the treatment of Cylon 6 in Battlestar Galactica, in particular Season 2’s Gina. In Season 1, 6 had been set up as the ultimate femme fatale, an object of desire and little else (seeing as most of the time she had no corporeal form – it’s a long story). Then, in Season 2, Galactica encounters its dark counterpart in the Pegasus, where 6 has been subject to rape and abuse by the crew. The story forces the audience to re-examine their own view and treatment of the character, whom we have perhaps reduced to nothing more than eye candy. Similarly, Joan’s prostitution may draw on similar responses.

That’s not to say that Joan’s character lacks complexity. Joan may outwardly ‘perform’ femininity very well, but she has also struggled to conform to the ideal. She thought she wanted the straightforward marriage, babies and a little house, but the man she chose turned out to be quite different from what he advertised. She’s ended up a mother, but a single one; rich, but through her own work rather than her husband’s. Once  more, Weiner develops a rich female story arc that shows the variety of women’s lives.


There are, of course, many other women to discuss: Betty, Megan, Sally, Rachel, Trudy…the list goes on (another tick in the feminist box). Like Peggy and Joan, these women have made gains and losses across the series – as have the men. Some have achieved notable triumphs, some quieter, and some, I suppose, have wound up in a worse position than before (although I struggle to think of one – I mean, Trudy is divorced but she’s finally rid of Pete Campbell and that can only be a plus). As such, I find it difficult to agree that the show simply celebrates the ‘triumph of men at the expense of women’.

Yes, all these women have faced sexism. Yes, all these women have problems that are unique to women, with the struggle to conform to a partiarchal ideal of femininity often at the heart of their arcs. But, importantly, this struggle is conveyed in a layered, complex way that avoids simplistic generalisations. These women aren’t tropes. They have full, rich lives that hold up to detailed exploration just as well as their male counterparts. They make mistakes, hold grudges, say the wrong thing – and have brilliant ideas, support others and make bold choices. They are human. And the fact that this makes Mad Men stand head and shoulders above other shows says something deeply troubling about modern culture.

Original pictures courtesy of Tom and Lorenzo, youknowyoulovefashion, mad men wikia and AMC.

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