As the ’60s Moves Forward for Women, ‘Mad Men’ Leaves Its Women Behind

Mad Men may have started out as a feminist show, but in later seasons it reinforces rather than critiques the sexism faced by its female characters.

Since AMC’s Mad Men first premiered in 2007, critics of the show have applauded the series for its historically accurate and sympathetic treatment of women. The period piece, which focuses on a group of male, advertising executives on Madison Avenue, is set in the ’60s, a time period less than welcoming to women. Yet, both the popular press and scholars of the series have remarked upon the sensitive way that the series creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writers devote equal screen time to the women in these men’s lives, depicting their struggles right alongside those of their male counterparts. Writing for The Washington Post in 2010, Stephanie Coontz labeled the show “staunchly feminist” while in 2014 Time magazine branded Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) “TV’s Most Relatable Feminist.”

Anthologies such as Heather Marcovitch and Nancy Ellen Batty’s Mad Men, Women, and Children: Essays on Gender and Generation (2012) and Erika Engstom, Tracy Lucht, Jane Marcellus, and Kimberly Wilmot Voss’s Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance and Otherness (2014) contain essays which historicize the time period in which Mad Men is set, covering topics such as reproductive rights, domesticity, the role of women’s colleges, and representations of career girls in the series.

With the premiere of Mad Men’s final season scheduled for 5 April, it’s time to reflect on whether or not the series has continued to present viewers with progressive representations of its female characters and women’s issues. While I would argue that in the beginning Mad Men did a terrific job of drawing attention to the sexism of the time without glorifying it, as the series continues, the show becomes decidedly less progressive in its depiction of female characters.

In my first-year writing seminar that I teach at the George Washington University, my students — who watch and analyze the first season of the series — are struck by the fact that, despite the show’s title, the series focuses a great deal on the lives of its female protagonists. We spend many class periods discussing, researching, and writing about the historical climate of the ’60s and its impact on women. We recognize that Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the office manager and resident Siren, very much follows the advice that Helen Gurley Brown gave her readers and fellow office girls in her popular book Sex and the Single Girl (1962). We note that the portrayal of Betty Draper (January Jones) in season one echoes “the happy housewife heroine”, the educated yet unfulfilled woman of the time period that Betty Friedan characterized in her ground-breaking The Feminine Mystique (1963). We also sympathize with Peggy Olson, who involves herself with the less than desirable, soon-to-be married Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and ends up pregnant, giving birth and rejecting her baby in the climactic first season finale, “The Wheel.” In short, the Mad Men writers, at the show’s beginning, created dynamic, female characters who were easy for viewers to root for.

However, Mad Men’s representations of women take a turn with the premiere episode of season five, “A Little Kiss”. Most viewers will remember this episode for its “Zou Bisou Bisou” song and dance, performed by Megan (Jessica Paré), Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) former secretary and new wife, at Don’s 40th birthday party. However, an equally powerful, and more disturbing moment for Megan’s character, comes at the end of the episode when Don arrives home to find Megan preparing to clean their post-party apartment. Megan takes off her robe and clad only in her black lace underwear begins sweeping trash with her hand from the table into a garbage can. Megan tells Don to stop looking at her, that he can’t have her, that he’s too old. Don responds by grabbing her hair, and the two have sex.

Prior to this point in time in Mad Men, we often see women’s objectification through the historical lens of the ’60s. In the first season episode “Ladies Room,” the men in the office walk by Peggy’s desk to check out the “new girl”. The shot, however, is subjective; we’re seeing Peggy’s perspective, rather than the men’s. Likewise, in season two, when Joan’s fiancé, Greg (Sam Page), rapes her in Roger’s office, an extreme close-up shot on Joan’s face is used, followed by a shot of the couch in Roger’s office as seen from Joan’s perspective on the floor. As viewers, we are forced to focus on Joan’s painful reaction and to see what Joan sees in that moment; both shots help the viewer to better empathize with Joan. Even Megan’s sexy “Zou Bisou Bisou” dance seems historically situated, marking her as younger than her Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce counterparts and celebrating her as a symbol of the revolutionary changes coming in the late ’60s. Megan’s cleaning scene in “A Little Kiss”, however, doesn’t help us to better understand the time period. Rather, like her later threesome scene in season seven, it seems to be included merely to excite.

This shift happens with other characters as well, most notably Joan. Previously we may have admired the way that Joan commands her sexuality in scenes such as the season one Belle Jolie lipstick brainstorming session where she uses the one-way mirror to her advantage. By season five, we see Joan’s male co-workers exploiting her for her sexuality in “The Other Woman.” With the encouragement of the partners, Joan agrees to spend the night with Herb Rennett (Gary Basaraba), the dealer owner for Jaguar, to guarantee Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s winning the account.

The shot sequence where this happens supports, rather than undermines, Joan’s objectification. The sequence isn’t necessarily historically grounded in the way that Joan’s rape is. Instead, like Megan’s scene, the sequence seems oddly titillating, as the camera focuses on Joan’s cleavage, starkly white again the plunging neckline of her black dress. While certainly any fan of Joan’s would feel sorry for her in this moment, the moment itself doesn’t seem to work as a commentary on women’s objectification during the time period; rather it seems to be objectification itself. As Joan’s storylines fade in subsequent episodes, it only seems to underscore the fact that Joan has served her purpose and is no longer relevant.

The characters of Betty Draper and Peggy Olson, the two other prominent women in the series, undergo even more dramatic transformations by the conclusion of the first half of season seven. Arguably, it is Betty who is the most sympathetic character at the start of the series. In the series premiere episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, viewers are immediately set up to feel sorry for Betty, who isn’t revealed until the closing minutes of the episode. We’ve followed Don to the office, to his mistress’s apartment; we are led to believe he is a single man, living an exciting life in New York City, until we see him in the cliffhanger moment return home to his unknowing wife in the suburbs. We see Betty struggle with her shaking hands, her nervousness. We see her consult with a psychiatrist, and we see Don and the psychiatrist discuss her progress, unbeknownst to Betty. As viewers, we know that Don is cheating, even though Betty doesn’t.

In later seasons, Betty begins to morph into someone else entirely. She becomes mean and bitter. She is cold to her children, particularly her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka). While in season one Mad Men subtly comments on how different parenting styles were during the ’60s (no one blinks an eye at a parent slapping a child who is not his own at a birthday party for misbehaving in “Marriage of Figaro”), by the later seasons, Betty’s mothering reflects more on her particular failings as a person instead of serving as a comment on the ’60s. She’s reduced to a “monstrous maternal” figure, a “Mommy dearest”. When the writers write in a weight gain for Betty, in part because of January Jones’s pregnancy, the fans rejoiced, creating memes of “Fat Betty” and reveling in fat shaming her. The shift is startling. Betty’s character transforms from a woman who shoots her neighbor’s pigeons in an act of motherly love (season one’s “Shoot”) to a mother who bullies her son into eating a bag of gumdrops as a form of punishment (season seven’s “Field Trip”).

As for the “relatable feminist,” Peggy Olson? Peggy, who has made a name for herself in the male-dominated field of advertising, is, in many ways, reduced to a comical spinster in later episodes. In season seven, “A Day’s Work,” Peggy mistakes a bouquet of roses that her secretary received for Valentine’s Day for her own. An affair she was having with a married man at work, Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), has ended, yet Peggy is convinced he has sent her roses. She throws them in the trash, picks them out, all the while the audience knows that they are not even hers. In season six’s “Favors,” the image of Peggy sitting on the couch next to a newly acquired cat can’t help but call to mind the stereotype of the cat lady, the woman who gives up all personal fulfillment for her career.

Unfortunately, it seems as though as the seasons pass and the historical time period slowly becomes more progressive Mad Men regresses, either failing to create empathy for its female characters or resorting to stock stereotypes rather than critiquing them.

Stephanie Coontz ended her article “Mad Men Is TV’s Most Feminist Show” with a note about Betty and Don’s daughter, Sally. She writes, “In the long run, little Sally, the Draper’s daughter, may be the one to watch. It was, after all, the daughters of the 1950s and 1960s housewives who, determined not to end up like their mothers, grew into the ‘mad women’ — mad-as-hell women, that is — who become the most militant feminists of the 1970s.”

Weiner himself has commented that it is Sally who the show is really about. But if Sally is the key, then again I have concerns for what Mad Men is saying about women. In the season seven part one finale, “Waterloo”, Betty and her new husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) welcome guests to their home. The guests bring their two sons, a muscular teenager and a nerdy, younger brother.

There appears to be hope for Sally when she kisses the nerdy, younger brother after he shows her Polaris through his telescope, but the shot that follows works to undermine that hope for her. She pulls out a cigarette, and in a stance almost identical to her mother, she begins smoking. In this moment, Sally is aligned with the most-hated female character on the series. While I feel confident that historical changes are coming for American women in this second half of the final season, I worry that Mad Men’s women will be left behind.

Caroline J. Smith is an associate professor in the University Writing Program at the George Washington University, where she teaches first-year writing seminars themed around visual culture. Her research interests include women’s fiction and popular culture productions. She has been published in journals such as Women’s Studies and College Literature. Her essay, “’There’s a Monster Growing in Our Heads’: Mad Men’s Betty Draper, Fan Reaction, and Twenty-First Century Anxiety about Motherhood,” will be published in the upcoming anthology Teacher, Scholar, Mother: (Re)Envisioning Motherhood in the Academy (Lexington Press). She is the author of Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Chick Lit (Routledge, 2007).