A Look to the Past, An Insight Into the Present: The Use of Gender in ‘Mad Men’

Mad Men chronicles the lives of Madison Avenue advertising executives in the early 1960s. The show revolves around an advertising agency called Sterling Cooper, later Sterling Cooper Draper Price (SCDP), and its enigmatic Creative Director Don Draper. Since its premiere on AMC in the summer of 2007, Mad Men has received overwhelming critical acclaim for its “unflinching portrayal of Eisenhower/Kennedy-era sexism” (Schwarz, 4) and has built a dedicated viewership of rapid fans. Additionally, much has been written about the show’s impressive production quality and meticulous attention to historically accurate detail.

Looking beyond the aesthetic surface of the series, what is the true motivation behind Mad Men’s frank depictions of these troubled social times? Is sexism being used as some sort of nostalgic trope, or does Mad Men actually delve deeper and explore these issues? The answer to these questions are mixed, with some critics praising show creator Matthew Weiner for Mad Men’s multifaceted deconstruction of 1960s era American culture, and others chastising the show for a perceived superficial endorsement of past wrongs.

A key element of Mad Men is its complex assessment of gender and the 
ways in which female identity were and remain constructed by patriarchal society. It does so by frequently showcasing its three central female characters: Betty Draper Francis, Peggy Olson, and Joan Holloway Harris. These distinct, multilayered individuals share one fundamental trait, a desire to control the course of their own lives and a limited ability to do so because of the social restrictions of their time. Mad Men does not simply present these characters as place card representations for historically resonant concepts (e.g., the Betty Friedan housewife or the Second Wave feminist), but offers a realistic depiction of who these women were, how they dealt with the circumstances they found themselves in, and how their struggles are still relevant today. The significance of Mad Men’s cultural analysis is complicated further when one considers the fact that a largely female writing staff is generating these past representations; seven out of nine Mad Men writers are women.

What are these contemporary women saying about what it was like to be a woman in the 1960s? How, if at all, are these representations formed by their own feminist perceptions or experiences? What reaction do they hope to elicit from their present-day audience? According to Erin Levy, an Emmy-winning former Mad Men writer, debates in the writing room were usually focused on character or storyline development, and not on how to incorporate gender or sexism more readily into an episode.

One notable disagreement centered around unhappy housewife Betty Draper having a one-night stand with a stranger at a bar during the show’s second season. The male writers were against it and felt that such an act would be an affront to the character’s integrity; the female writers were supportive of the storyline, “After all her husband’s infidelities, ‘how the hell is she going to take Don back if she doesn’t do this?’ executive story editor Robin Veith argued,” (Chozick, 1). The conflicting viewpoints emphasize the different cultural vantage points from which the male and female writers saw Betty’s character and understood the issue of her integrity. The male writing staff believed that Betty’s casual sexual encounter would sacrifice her character’s honor and alienate viewers, but the women writers looked beyond the sexual act and considered what it would represent for the character.

When questioned about critics who say that Mad Men might be rekindling sexist attitudes, Erin steadfastly defended the show, stating, “The times were sexist. The show is not” (Wheeler, 3). The writers of Mad Men appear to be more concerned with creating realistic portrayals (both male and female) of characters living in 1960s America than purporting a social message. As opposed to being an overt feminist interpretation of the era in which the female characters are imbued with the contemporary expectation of equality, Mad Men seeks to provide viewers with an inside look at a bygone era:

Mad Men is not a feminist television series, as its dedication to realism keeps either of these [female] characters from emerging in defiance of all their unfair treatment. However, that attention to realism allows the series to demonstrate the level to which patriarchal discourse was dominant in life and language during this period, historicizing this period of feminine experience (McNutt, 4).

Nevertheless, the simple fact that the series does not depict its female character’s reading Kate Millet or filing sexual harassment lawsuits against their bosses does not completely negate its feminist value (Give these characters some time, it is still only 1964; Feminism wasn’t built in a day.). Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s 2008 film Inglourious Bastards, Mad Men is not a revenge fantasy in search of historical catharsis. The feminist goals of this series exist on two levels and revolve around an exploration of the relationship between gender and society, not an outright rewriting of history and the evolution of American feminism. On one level, the series acknowledges all the adversity women of this era faced, “The audience is rooting for those women, and watching what they had to go through to get us where we are today,” (Wheeler, 2).

On another level, Mad Men’s feminist value lies in its subtle commentary on sexisms shrewd conversion of from overt to covert:

All this is worth remembering because in so many abstract, judgmental debates about women today, we forget the madness and acute frustration of generations past–as well as what remains the same. Sure, the show’s sexism can be funny–when it’s clearly retro, witty, and overt… But when Don says, “I won’t let a woman talk to me this way,” it’s more revealing than funny, because it still rings true (Baird, 2).

Some critics of the series have speculated that Mad Men owes its success to the self-satisfaction of a politically correct generation who like to feel good about condemning the behavior depicted on the show. While this may be true to some extent, Mad Men’s undeniable critical and cultural resonance indicates a deeper connection that far outweighs the viewer’s need to congratulate itself.

In terms of its examination of gender and sexism, the true source of Mad Men’s appeal lies in its ability to be adapted to current day life. For example, when the series presents an overt act of sexism, the modern viewer acknowledges the un-PC behavior and understands that said act would have repercussions in today’s world. If a male character utters a line of sexist dialogue, the viewer concedes that this character would probably be disciplined in a present-day environment, but does not disregard the possibility that other contemporary men might still feel the exact same way. The act of sexism itself is not the shocking part. It’s the lack of consequence that is truly jarring. Mad Men’s conspicuous use of sexism forces the audience to confront its internalization, and the way it still plays a part in the construction and maintenance of the female identity.

When audiences and critics place their own modern day reasoning onto the actions of female characters based in the past, they ignore the societal pressures of the day and assume that these women (and by extension all women) are always free to do exactly what they want, when they want to do it. Furthermore, feminist criticism invariably, “strives to identify with strong, impressive female characters.” In the case of Mad Men, some viewers may find

It cannot live up to the desire for strong and impressive female characters, because the America of 1960 would not have been able to live up to that expectation. The show’s commitment to realism ostensibly limits it to a representation of female characters who are not passive beings (McNutt, 5).

Never is this more apparent than in recent online critiques that question Mad Men’s feminist value. All across the blogosphere, issues such as Joan Holloway’s rape, her decision to carry her pregnancy to term, and Betty Draper’s qualifications to be a mother are hotly contested subjects.

The controversy surrounding Joan’s rape by her soon-to-be-husband, centers around viewer outrage at her subsequent marriage to said rapist, “At this point, Joan could have retained her autonomy and restored her dignity by dumping the guy. But no, she married him” (Engoron, 3). While her anger is justified, the author of this article is effectively blaming the victim (Joan) for not responding exactly how she would want a modern day character to react. Never mind the fact that there was no such thing as acquaintance or date rape in 1964, or that raping your wife was still legal. The writers of Mad Men are not concerned with what modern women want to see their characters do, they are interested with realistically depicting the available options for these female characters in 1960s American society.

The power of this rape scene, and the lack of consequences that follow, can be found in the faraway look that comes over Joan’s face during the act, and the detached way she re-adjusts her dress after it is done. There is little doubt that Joan did not want to have that sex, but it’s less obvious as to whether she even realizes she was raped or simply brushed the incident aside as “one of those things that happens.” Her marriage does not end up being the happy ending she was hoping for, but Joan stays because she has invested all of her identity into this relationship; there is no other place to go. Dismissing Joan’s actions with a glib remark ignores the psychological and social factors that contributed to the hardship women like her endured.

Joan’s motivation to keep the baby reflects her characters navigation through two conflicting realities: a desire to create the “perfect” family with her rapist husband who is currently fighting in Vietnam and gain a socially acceptable sense of fulfillment, and the fact that the fetus inside her is the result of a one night stand with ex-lover and boss Roger. The writers had Joan decide to keep the baby because they believed it was the logical thing for her character to do given those set of circumstances, not because they were injecting their own morals or were shying away from broaching the subject of abortion. When interviewed on the topic, Mathew Weiner stated, “I’m so surprised that people thought she did go through with it… I thought everyone would know say that she hadn’t had an abortion. We already know she’s had a bunch… And to me, I felt she’s 34 years old. She knows that there may not be another opportunity” (Scholl, 2).

Another significant aspect of Joan’s character are her interactions with Peggy Olson and the ways in which these two female characters exemplify the conflicts within the women’s liberation movement. Not even a decade apart in age, Joan and Peggy represent two women who see the future quite differently. Peggy is often seeking counsel or validation from Joan, who is prone to withhold said efforts due to a mixture of jealousy and self-preservation. The evolution of their relationship is indicative of the emerging feminist political consciousness of the era and the dynamics it created within groups of women of the time.

In the episode “The Summer Man” (4.8), the intrinsic differences of these characters are explored when both women are faced with the prospect of a disgruntled male employee. At this point in the series, Peggy has developed a jovial back and forth with the male creative team that works under her. However, one of the young freelance artists named Joey has a big problem with Joan’s character. During one especially heartbreaking exchange, Joey haughtily dismisses Joan by calling her “a madam from a Shanghai whorehouse” and asks her what she does around the office “besides walking around like your trying to get raped?” Joan is so taken aback by the encounter that she goes home early for the day. Peggy warns Joey about his disrespectful behavior. The next day, Joey begins to draw a pornographic image of Joan and Lane. Two other male creative staffers are present and laugh as Joey narrates a sexual act between them. Immediately, Peggy warns against their actions but is ignored. She angrily orders them to work on the artwork for an upcoming campaign then leaves the room. Later that day, Peggy and Joan are talking in Joan’s office when Joan looks up from her desk and sees that a pornographic picture has been taped to her office wall.

Peggy takes down the picture and goes to Don’s office. He agrees that it should not be tolerated but advises Peggy to deal with it personally. “You want some respect. Go out there and get it for yourself.” Peggy calls Joey into her office and instructs him to apologize to Joan. He refuses and she subsequently fires him. At the end of the day, Peggy and Joan get on the same elevator as they get ready to leave for the day. Peggy, beaming with pride at the authority she has asserted, is hardly able to contain her satisfaction but is shocked when Joan is unimpressed:

“You want to be a big shot. Well no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.”

This exchange resonates because both women have valid points. Joan has experience with the gender stereotypes that trap women in these sorts of no-win situations, and prefers to deal with issues by working within the system and maintaining the status quo. Peggy represents progress and is trying to challenge the system. Feminist bloggers praised this elevator scene and how it presented two alternating feminine perspectives, “It was classic: men act like jerks and women end up getting pitted against each other. Happens all the time, even now” (Barreca, 2).

Popular consensus is that Betty is not a good mother. However, from the outside observer, both Betty and her husband Don appear as equally ineffectual parents, but audiences rationalize Don’s behavior as an element of his anti-hero status. There may be something to this contention. Don ignores his children and often treats his family as if they were props. Yet, her cold and spiteful nature alienates viewers so much that it transcends character details and translates into her character being a horrible person, “[Betty] grew up thinking that there were two roles to play, abuser and abused. Now that she wants power, now that she’s sick of being abused, she’s chosen to become an abuser” (Shady, 2).

Viewers seem to believe that Don’s flaws as a father are not as egregious as Betty’s limitations as a mother because they don’t see the role of caring father as innately intertwined with ‘being a man’, as the role of nurturing caregiver is with ‘being a woman’. The fact that Betty rejects this role, and takes her frustrations out on her kids, becomes decidedly unforgivable. In this way, the hatred of Betty’s character stems from a perceived betrayal on her part:

We all said we wanted her to get in touch with her anger, but we expected that anger to look admirable and positive and feminist. We didn’t consider that it might just be anger. That she might just not bother to think about how she was serving the world or women or the audience (Sady, 2).

According to Mathew Weiner, “People must see a lot in themselves [in Betty], or they wouldn’t be reacting so strongly” (Scholl, 2).

Peggy Olson’s struggles to be respected within the advertising world reflect the Second Wave debate concerning sameness versus difference. Essentially, her character explores the question faced by a woman trying to succeed professionally in an overtly sexist era: is it better to discard all “femininity” and act like a man, or embrace her “femaleness” and use it as a differential strength? After she finds that she was not invited to some after dinner drinks with clients and was excluded from creative team memos, Peggy is concerned that she is being left out of the playing field. She wants to adopt a more radical-libertarian approach and combine masculine and feminine behaviors to prove that she is just like the men. According to Joan, if Peggy wants to be taken seriously, she should stop dressing like a little girl. Similarly, business woman Bobbie Barrett advises her to “start treating Don as an equal… You can’t be a man, don’t even try. Be a woman. It’s powerful business when done correctly” (“The New Girl”). Both Joan and Bobbie are advocating a radical-cultural feminist view that posits reclamation of ones femininity as a source of strength (Tong, 50-51).

Additionally, some critics credit Mad Men’s realistic portrayal of Peggy’s precarious situation and praise the series for its examination of how, unlike Don, a woman with ambition like Peggy would be forced by the times she lived in to choose between a career and a family. Conversely, there have been a recent string of feminist criticisms of Peggy’s character that denounce her lack of a personal life:

Peggy tells Don that she doesn’t want what she’s supposed to want and that nothing she does [in her personal life] feels as good or as important as what happens in the office, and we cheer, and yet we are also rooting for our own harsh dichotomy: be successful in your career or have kids – you can’t have it all (ReCupido, 2).

This argument appears to be focused on the idea that Peggy can have it all; that Peggy should want it all; and that Peggy should be able to clearly articulate this complicated desire while living in 1960s pre-women’s liberation era America. Never mind the fact that at this time in history a woman could rarely have both, or the fact that Peggy’s character does not want both. Critics of Peggy’s character want her to fast forward 40 years into the future of feminism.

The female characters created in Mad Men are set in a past era, rife with social constraint and overtly rigid gender roles. Despite these restrictions, their portrayals are layered, thoughtful, and attempt to deconstruct the status of women. If Mad Men is “harmful for women” then why are their female portrayals of the past more fully developed than present day representations? Recent female driven films set in present day frequently feature similar depictions of contemporary woman, “Over and over again the postfeminist subject is represented as having lost herself but then (re) achieving stability through romance, de-aging, a makeover, by giving up paid work, or by ‘coming home’,” (Negra, 5).

Present day portrayals such as Kate & Leopold (2001), Life or Something Like It (2002), and The Ugly Truth (2009) are far more troubling than the blatant sexism depicted in Mad Men because of the messages of false empowerment and anti-feminist agendas they promote. Furthermore, the female characters in Mad Men are actively struggling to break free from strict gender roles, while the present day characters in films like Bride Wars (2009) seem to be retreading back to them.

“Postfeminism entails an aggressive (re)codification of female types. In gestures that often tout the ‘freedom’ from political correctness, postfeminist culture revives the ‘truths’ about femininity that circulated in earlier eras,” (Negra, 10). Ultimately, Mad Men is an examination of gender and the
 ways in which female identity were and remain constructed by patriarchal society. While
the social constraints facing women have changed, the image of woman is no less constructed today than ever before.




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