Feminism / TV

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: Is ‘Mad Men’ the Most Feminist Show on TV?

Cross-posted at Bitch Flicks

So I arrived very late to the Mad Men party.  But due to the urgings of my boyfriend Jeff and my girlfriends Lauren and Sarah H., I finally succumbed to its siren song and watched the show, catching up on all 4 seasons.  As a self-proclaimed TV connoisseur, I’m picky about the shows I choose to let into my life.  I think The Wire is hands down the best show on TV ever.  I also love Sex and the CityLost and Battlestar Galactica to name a few.  I want my shows to possess fully formed characters, crackling dialogue and twisting plots…if they imbue social commentary, all the better.  Much to my delight, (and if you’re already a fan, you know what I’m talking about) ‘Mad Men’ bursts with all of these.  The show about an ad agency in Manhattan in the 1960s is also incredibly meticulous and historically accurate with its cigarettes, mid-day cocktails and skirt-chasing.  So what’s a feminist’s take on this show and its sexist themes?

In the Washington Post, Professor Stephanie Coontz passionately writes about feminism and the historical accuracy of Mad Men.  She asserts,

“Historians are notorious for savaging historical fiction. We’re quick to complain that writers project modern values onto their characters, get the surroundings wrong, cover up the seamy side of an era or exaggerate its evils — and usually, we’re right. But AMC’s hit show “Mad Men”…is a stunning exception. Every historian I know loves the show; it is, quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced. And despite the rampant chauvinism of virtually all its male characters (and some of its female ones), it is also one of the most sympathetic to women…But in 1965, feminism wasn’t a cultural option for most women. It would be another year before the National Organization for Women, the group that gave so many women the legal tools to fight discrimination, would be founded. Newspapers still ran separate want ads with separate pay scales for female jobs, seeking “poised, attractive” secretaries and “peppy gal Fridays.”

Coontz calls Mad Men this the most feminist show on TV…and I couldn’t agree more.  Most shows either don’t have female characters or have them as love interests or sex symbols.  Battlestar Galactica delighted me because it had a multitude of female characters.  Mad Men does too.  But I’ve rarely seen a show that tackled sexism in such an overt way.  Murphy Brown and Roseanne did…but that was back in the 80s and 90s.  Many shows today ignore that sexism still exists.  Now of course Mad Men takes place in the 60s.  Yet creator and writer Matthew Weiner told the NY Times that he pulls ideas from many situations that have happened to people in this decade.

Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), the show’s most brazen feminist, diligently climbed her way up from working as Don’s secretary to the only female copywriter and then to head copywriter with the capacity to fire people.  In season 1’s episode “Babylon,” sweet and ambitious Peggy comes up with the “Basket of Kisses” campaign for Belle Jolie lipsticks, as she rightly counters that “no one wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box,” the original campaign for the cosmetics.  I love her, even as I sometimes want to shake her for bad decisions (like sleeping with Duck).  In the beginning of season 2, we see that she gave up her baby.  Peggy continually chooses to focus on her career rather than on getting married and settling down, bucking societal standards.  In season 4’s episode “The Beautiful Girls,” Peggy discusses civil rights and feminism with Abe, a friend of a friend, at a bar.  She poses,

“But I have to say, most of the things negroes can’t do, I can’t do either.  And nobody seems to care…Half of the meetings take place over golf, tennis, and a bunch of clubs where I’m not allowed to be a member or even enter.”

Abe sarcastically responds that maybe we should have a “a civil rights march for women.” Peggy astutely voiced the frustrations many women faced; they simply were not (and still aren’t) treated equally.

Bombshell office manager Joan Harris (formerly Holloway), my fave character along with Pete Campbell (whom I simultaneously love/hate), is played by the phenomenal Christina Hendricks.  When I first started watching, I was worried she would merely be eye candy.  But I was pleasantly surprised as Joan is intelligent, assertive and articulate.  She possesses an impressive lexicon and knowledge of history, as well as doling out fashion tips (not too much cleavage) and social mores (no crying in the break room!).  But it was when Joan read TV scripts for Harry in season 2 in the episode “A Night to Remember,” when it was apparent that she excelled at a job beyond managing secretaries.  Yet rather than offering her the position, they hire someone else, never giving her, a woman, a second thought. Her reaction to this news broke my heart. In season 4’s episode “The Summer Man,” when Joey and Joan clash, he dismisses Joan to Peggy, not recognizing her value in running the office.  A raging chauvinist asshole, Joey issues an offensive insult to Joan,

“What do you do around here besides walking around like you’re trying to get raped?”

Swell guy…not sure who’s worse, him or Joan’s husband McRapist.  As Coontz writes,

“there wasn’t even a word for the sexual harassment the character Joan experiences.”

Yet Joan is furious at Peggy when she fires him for his misogynistic remarks.  Joan may not be a stereotypical feminist or self-righteous like Peggy.  And yes she married a rapist.  But she’s a feminist nonetheless; she just maneuvers the terrain differently.  Rather than coming at the situation head-on (something I would want to do like Peggy), Joan realizes that will just reinforce the men in the office’s perceptions of women as difficult bitches.  Sadly, she may just be right.

Joan’s decision to not go through with her abortion this season stirred up controversy.  In an article at RH Reality Check, Sarah Seltzer argues,

““Mad Men” is known for being excruciatingly period-specific. Joan was not at a modern-day abortion clinic and she was not privy to a modern-day abortion debate. She had followed a specific plan which involved breaking the law and risking arrest–which speaks to a strong determination to begin with. There were no protesters and no one to tell her what she did was immoral. Sure, by the standards of her time she was a “loose woman” but there was no pro-life movement calling women selfish babykillers…It’s realistic for her character, the time period, and the plot for Joan to have had the abortion. The show’s writers and the many viewers who think “she didn’t go through with it” are imagining a modern-day conception of abortion fueled by iffy anti-choice tropes found in movies like “Juno” or shows like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

I agree with Seltzer; too often abortion isn’t showed as an option that rational women decide.  But there’s something to be said for storyline and character development, as Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic counters,

“The real reason so many fictional characters choose to keep their babies may be much simpler than any of these theories: Babies advance plotlines, whereas abortions end them. As Ted Miller, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, “The history of abortion storylines has been mixed. The very personal circumstances are often lost in the pursuit of dramatic or sensationalized storylines.” An abortion can carry a single episode, or a few scenes in a film, while a baby provides fodder for seasons’ worth of material…Sure, Weiner could have found other ways to teach us more about the characters he’s created. But Joan’s decision on Mad Men—and Miranda’s on Sex and the City, and Juno’s in Juno, and so on—show that on screen, advancing the plot is more important than making a political statement.”

Obviously Joan is not anti-abortion as she’s had two previous abortions.  Barkhorn points out that some say screenwriters don’t want to show abortions as “they don’t want their heroines to appear unsympathetic.”  While 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime, it’s so rare for a film or TV show to depict that choice.  Only a handful of shows have portrayed a character having an abortion including Maude, Private Practice and Friday Night Lights.  Barkhorn also points to characters on Sex and the City (Samantha and Carrie) both of whom had abortions in their characters’ past.  But when Miranda becomes pregnant and resigned to have an abortion, she backs out at the last moment.  While some characters have gone through with abortions, it makes it seem that it’s a decision that young people choose, not successful adult women.

Had Mad Men not shown the conversation with her doctor saying that she wanted to start a family, I would have had a much bigger problem with Joan’s decision to not go through with an abortion.  Also, Irin Carmon at Jezebel raised the question as to whether or not Joan’s concern over not being able to conceive after multiple abortions was a reasonable worry in 1965.  Turns out, it was.  As it was illegal, it wasn’t regulated.  Also, sharp implements were used, rather than the suction that is utilized now.  There’s also the issue with her age as writer/creator Weiner points out.  As a 34-year old woman, she knew her biological clock was ticking.  Yet it would have been great for a bold show like Mad Men to show one of their main characters choosing an abortion.

Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), a psychologist and marketing research analyst, is another strong independent woman on the show we’re introduced to in season 4.  Peggy isn’t the only one who puts her work first.  Dr. Faye has a conversation in which she tells Don that she chose to focus on her career rather than have children and she doesn’t feel her life is lacking. These are choices that were very real for women in the 60s but women still contend with today.  It’s interesting to see just how far we haven’t come.  When Dr. Faye says goodbye to Peggy when she leaves the firm in the episode “Blowing Smoke,” Peggy says to her,

“You do your job so well.  They respect you and you don’t have to play any games.  I didn’t know that was possible.”

To which Dr. Faye replies, “Is that what it looks like?” But obviously Faye did play games as she wore a faux wedding ring just so she wouldn’t have to contend with men’s sexual advances.

But what about the women who do choose marriage and children over a career?  Betty Francis (January Jones), formerly Draper, is the archetypal housewife, and probably the most controversial, of the show.  In the beginning of the series, many viewers pitied her due to Don’s philandering ways.  Besides possessing beauty, Betty is educated, earning a college degree in anthropology (although upper-class women were often expected to go to college with the intent of snaring a husband).  Before she married Don, she had a modeling career, making her own money, and traveling around the world.  In the episode “Shoot” in season 1, Betty gets a taste of her former independent life as she models again briefly.  We also see how much she represses (or rather doesn’t when she starts shooting defenseless birds).  Now she’s the character everyone loves to hate.  She’s mired in misery, spewing bitterness at everyone around her, especially her children.  And speaking of her children, her 10-year-old daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) has already exhibited her feisty, independent ways…perhaps a feminist in the making.

And of course no commentary on Mad Men would be complete without a mention of charismatic ladies’ man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the flawed hero and reluctant conscience of the show.  Despite the bed-hopping alcoholic’s missteps, he continually does the right thing, even if he doesn’t realize he’s doing so: promoting Peggy to copywriter (even if it is to spite Pete), opposing Betty’s corporal punishment of their children, standing up to big tobacco (even if it is a publicity stunt to garner attention for the firm).  He also surrounds himself with intelligent, driven and complex women: Peggy, Anna Draper, Rachel Menken, Midge Daniels, Bobbie Barrett, Dr. Faye Miller, Megan and yes, even frustrating yet tragic Betty.  And while we often see them through his broken, tortuous eyes, they certainly hold their own.

Despite the male protagonist and sexist scenes, the show continually passes the Bechdel test, a measure that a film or TV show portrays two women talking to each other and not talking about men.  One example is in the season 4 finale “Tomorrowland,” when Betty and housekeeper Carla (sadly, the only character of color on the show) argue about Sally and what it means to be a good mother.  But my favorite scene in that episode, and one of the most kick-ass of the whole series, shows Peggy and Joan discussing men marrying their secretaries and how they’re treated at work.

Peggy: “You know I just saved this company.  I signed the first new business since Lucky Strike left.  But it’s not as important as getting married…again.”

Joan: “Well I was just made Director of Agency Operations, a title, no money of course.  And if they poured champagne it must have been while I was pushing a mail cart.”

Peggy: “A pretty face comes along and everything goes out the window.”

Joan: “Well I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job.”

Peggy: “That’s bullshit.”

Then they giggle knowingly.

With their commentary on unequal treatment  and pay at work, this conversation could just as easily have taken place in 2005 rather than 1965. In season 4’s episode “The Beautiful Girls” which echoes the theme of the 2nd season (my fave!) which told the stories from the women’s perspectives, at the very end, Joan, Peggy and Dr. Faye all end up in the elevator together.  Three different women, different paths but all with the same goals: to be valued for their minds and their work and to achieve success in their careers.

Some aspects of society have obviously changed since the world of Mad Men.  Coontz describes how in the 1960s the term sexual harassment wasn’t even coined yet; how Joan being raped by her boyfriend (now husband) Greg was not so uncommon as marital rape wasn’t defined by the courts yet; how Peggy giving up her child for adoption was something many women did; how Faye choosing her career over having children is what many women chose as companies could fire women for getting pregnant; how Betty slapping Sally or using television as a babysitter for Sally and Bobby were routine parenting techniques.  Coontz writes,

“We should be glad that the writers are resisting the temptation to transform their female characters into contemporary heroines. They’re not, and they cannot be. That is the brilliance of the show’s script.  “Mad Men’s” writers are not sexist. The time period was.”

With the backlash writer Aaron Sorkin rightly received for the sexist portrayal of women as fuck trophies and sex objects in the film The Social Network, it’s an interesting question as to whether the time period and events portrayed are sexist or if the writers’ depictions are sexist.  A writer does choose what to show (and not show).  This has been one of the valid criticisms of Mad Men, that there are so few people of color on the show.  But with regards to sexism, the writers (7 of the 9 writers are women) continually convey the feelings, attitudes and perspectives of how the female characters contend with their sexist surroundings, which invalidates the notion that the writers are sexist.  If they were, they would never depict complex, fully developed characters; they would never let us see the thoughts, hopes and fears of the women on the show.

Some may try to write Mad Men off as chauvinistic but the show begs you to look deeper, analyzing every word, every gesture, to shatter the façade, crack the layers and see what’s actually going on behind the veneer of perfection.  The show forces us to examine our flawed history, but also our flawed selves.  We are still haunted by the specter of sexism.  Women still don’t earn equal pay, and sexist ads clutter up magazines and billboards.  Rarely does a show tackle institutional sexism so overtly.  Even rarer is the show that not only features a variety of strong, independent women, but actually champions them. Mad Men depicts feminism in many different ways through myriad characters.  Beyond being a visually stunning, flawlessly acted show, it should be a reminder, a warning to us that the past is not so distant.  We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come yet; we still have far to go.  In the meantime, I’m going to let the intoxication of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce linger…


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