An Ode to the Feminism of Mad Men
Warning: This piece is FULL OF SPOILERS for the entire series of Mad Men.
The seventh and final season of Mad Men proved to me that it is a show about feminism. The characters are not necessarily feminists, but Mad Men is, at its core, a series primarily concerned with the struggles of women in the 1960s.
It exhibits a diverse tapestry of female perspectives and a comparatively limited number of male perspectives in the back half of the series. The themes at the center of the lives of the women of Mad Men are still very much things women are forced to deal with: divorce, abortion, worrying about having to sacrifice your professional or personal life, motherhood, wondering whether your job will be there at the end of your maternity leave. There is a massive cast of compelling female characters facing a rich array of personal and professional problems. Over the course of seven seasons we see so many different women: housewives, career women, divorcees, black working women, aging beauties, socialites, hippies, and hip young wives. Many of Mad Men’s women occupy more than one of these spaces throughout their character arcs. As far as men go, we get only rich white guys with a few minor exceptions.
While watching the last season of Mad Men, I decided to re-watch the first season between new episodes. This ended up being a great decision, as the seventh season was all about parallels, and they were easier to spot watching the first and last seasons in tandem. Pete and Trudy re-start their lives together, Betty and Glen have another awkward moment, and Peggy and Joan once again encounter some serious sexism. Helen Bishop, the divorcee of the first season, is mirrored in the plight of Trudy Campbell in the final season. As Trudy discusses the trials of her life as a divorcee with a friend it’s clear that while women have changed much in the space of a decade, society has not quite caught up.
At the end of the series, the only people that have experienced real change are its female characters. The few male characters that have grown as have done so for the sake of a woman. Harry Crane is still a smarmy bastard, but Roger settles down for Marie and Pete recognizes what a terrible person he’s been for the sake of Trudy. The parallels to the first season highlighted just how much these characters have (or have not) grown. The most vindicating part of the final season was seeing its female characters, who now typically hold more screen time than their male counterparts, encounter the same institutional sexism they dealt with in the show’s front half and handling it far differently.
In the beginning of the series, Joan laughed off objectification and even seemed to enjoy it. A major plot in the early seasons was her mortification when it was revealed that she was over thirty and unmarried. Joan was so desperate to save face and be hitched that she married her rapist. However, at the end of Mad Men when Joan is harassed she takes action, and even turns down a rich and stable man in favor of the thrill of business that she has come to love. Meanwhile Peggy, who has always believed she must sacrifice her personal life for the sake of her professional one, finds that she is willing to balance the two for the right person. Both of these actions demonstrate immense development for these characters, who are almost completely the opposite of the women they were when this show began. Conversely, Don’s version of enlightenment is thinking of a great commercial. For all his struggles and experiences, he’s exactly where he was at the start.
Betty’s plot at the end of the seventh season was particularly heartbreaking. Just as she realizes what she was born to do, she is diagnosed with terminal illness. Her struggle to have control over her body in the final episodes is a fight with which all women can empathize. Throughout the show Betty is frequently treated like a child by the men in her life. Towards the end of the series we see her finally defending herself as an intelligent and capable woman, defending her intelligence to Henry after he chastises her for talking about politics at a fundraising dinner.
Over the seasons we see Betty struggle with feminism as she watches her friends take on jobs and tries to hide her jealousy, or considers an abortion despite the fact that she’s married to a wealthy man. Betty’s letter to Sally shows how badly she wished she had embraced the part of her that also marched to the beat of her own drum when she still had time to embrace her dreams, dreams that never truly included a family. As a housewife Betty was numb and miserable, and it’s clear that it was not the life she was meant to have lead; whenever she talks about her past as a career girl she lights up. In her letter Betty recognizes in her daughter that which she refused to embrace in herself until it was too late.
In many ways, Sally is the embodiment of second-wave feminism. In the 1960s feminism was not an unknown concept – Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 (we see Betty reading it in one episode), and the first-wave feminism of the suffragettes began decades prior. Like feminism, Sally begins to take root and come of age in the late ’60s, poised to flourish in the ’70s. She rejects the housewife lifestyle led by her mother, instead choosing the adventurous life her mother would have lead if she had been born in a different time, or perhaps had she not been impregnated by Don Draper.
The fifth season of Mad Men marks the beginning of a true shift in social dynamics for the offices of SCDP and the world outside its walls. When Megan sings “Zou Bisou Bisou” for Don’s birthday, it marks a turning point for the series. The power is no longer in Don’s hands – Megan did something he didn’t like and is unapologetic. Megan is a member of the first generation of women to benefit from the toils of women like Peggy and Joan. While Peggy and Joan are both forced to make painful sacrifices between career and family, Megan sees no reason she shouldn’t have a healthy home life and a thriving career. The fifth season is also when Peggy leaves SCDP after Don treats her like crap, taking a promotion at another agency and taking control of her own professional life from her mentor.
While none of the characters on the show are explicitly feminist, Don, the show’s main character, is strangely perhaps the closest it gets. While in his personal life Don tends to use women up sexually, professionally he is very much about empowering the women he has faith in. Peggy and Joan both view other women as competition or only appreciate them where they can help them get forward. Don gives Peggy her start, continually pushes her in her career and helps her without question when dealing with giving her baby away, never guilting her for not taking to motherhood. He has a great platonic friendship with Joan, and is the only SCDP partner to try to stop her from degrading herself for the sake of the company by sleeping with that sleazy Jaguar dealer.
Throughout the course of their relationship Don has often treated Peggy as a peer and granted her every opportunity possible, letting a profound relationship blossom between them. Hell, Don and Meredith even have a pretty positive relationship, and he accepts it stands up to him after he treats her like a little girl. It’s only once Don gets sexual with a woman, when things move from professional to personal, that he begins to act in a potentially non-feminist manner. Although even that is arguable, since most of the women he sleeps with are well aware of the nature of their rendezvous, and exhibiting sexual agency that was not mainstream at the time.
The screen time of male characters diminishes exponentially in the latter half of the show, and roles that were traditionally male begin to go to female characters. In the final season of Mad Men women are famous photographers, creative directors and producers. We see the female characters embodying the future while the male characters tout the same sexist nonsense as usual, making them look very dated. The juxtaposition of these two groups in the final season makes it clear just how much Mad Men has cultivated a feminist spirit over the course of seven seasons. It’s painful to see men whooping and acting like misogynist idiots to our strong female characters because the show has empowered them, and has let the men decide to either grow with them or stay the one-dimensional dummies of the first season.
When Peggy inherits Cooper’s power painting, it’s intensely symbolic. The power is being passed from one generation to the next, its meaning shifting, from an influential man to an influential woman to create a new legacy. Peggy tells Roger Sterling she can’t take the painting because she has to make men comfortable, and Sterling, showing how far he’s come, asks her plainly “Who told you that?” The shot of Peggy striding into McCann’s offices, cigarette between her lips, painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman tucked under her arm, is a shot of the future of women come to take over advertising, to take over the world. It’s also probably my favorite shot of the entire show. I love you, Mad Men, and I’ll miss you dearly.
Rachel Catlett lives in North Texas with her two dachshunds, Liz Lemon and Arthur, and her husband. She has degrees in literature and anthropology, and loves to put way too much thought into pop culture and feminism. In her heart, you will find Legos, salsa, and a David Bowie album. On her head, you will never find her natural hair color. If you would like to follow her on Twitter, she is there as @rachfab.
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