by Meredith O’Brien
I’ve been waiting impatiently for July 25 to hurry up and get here. That’s the day when the best show on TV starts airing new episodes. I’m talking, of course, about AMC’s Mad Men .
For a show set in the 1960s -- when women were admonished to strive for marriage, motherhood and domesticity; when female employees were openly harassed, undermined and assumed to be mentally and emotionally unfit as compared to men; and when the advertising men working on New York City’s Madison Avenue could and did act as though they were the kings of the world – it makes a lot of sociological insights that still ring true 50 years later.
In preparation for the fourth season’s premiere, I watched the first three Mad Men DVD  sets again and read a collection of fascinating yet academically-oriented essays, Mad Men and Philosophy: Nothing is as It Seems , which examined the show which was described as a drama which “is as much a mirror on ourselves as it is a window into a bygone era, showing us who we are by reminding us of what we once were and have chosen no longer to be.”
Several essays dissected the lives and the portrayals of the three primary women in show: Betty Draper (a mom of three who was unhappily married and, in last season’s finale was flying to Reno to divorce the lead character Don Draper), Joan Holloway Harris (who used to work at the Sterling Cooper ad agency, married a doctor, quit the firm, then, in the finale, joined a group of rogue Sterling Cooper ad men who were starting a new agency) and Peggy Olson (who started as a secretary, then became the firm’s first female copywriter, secretly gave up a baby she accidentally conceived with a married colleague for adoption and vocally advocated for herself in the workplace).
As the beginning of the fourth season nears, here’s what I’m hoping will become of the ladies of Mad Men, whom Mad Men and Philosophy described as spending “as much of their time subverting traditional gender roles as they do fulfilling them.”
Betty Draper: Last seen leaving her affluent, unfaithful, prolific liar, incredibly handsome husband Don to run into the arms of Henry Francis, a political aide to the New York governor, who was helping her get a quickie divorce.
While I was thrilled to see Betty finally stand up to Don by refusing to allow herself to be treated as though she were a gullible child, she turned around and got herself a new man, someone she barely knew and with whom she’d only shared a few stolen kisses and not much face-to-face conversation. In the scene before she told Don she no longer loved him and that their marriage was over, her determination to end her marriage was steeled by Henry’s words: “If you search your heart, you’ll know that I can make you happy.” When Henry and Betty were talking with her lawyer, Henry insisted – and Betty listened to him – that she not ask Don for any money for the care of her three children, including the baby. “Betty, I’ll take care of them,” Henry said, “and I’ll take care of you.”
What I hope to see in season four: That Betty doesn’t just become yet another Grace Kelly-look-alike trophy wife accessory for a high-powered husband. I hope Betty finds some purpose in her life because, as far as being a mother and a homemaker are concerned, those roles make her absolutely miserable and hold precious little interest for her. She’ll wind up being an alcoholic.
Joan Holloway Harris: While her expertise as an office manager was enlisted by the Sterling Cooper renegades to help them form a new ad agency, her “Mr. Right” husband enlisted in the Army as a surgeon because he thought he’d just wind up serving State-side, and that, in 1963, he didn’t think the military skirmish in Vietnam would last all that long.
Mad Men and Philosophy described Joan as “such a sassy woman of the world, it’s a surprising turn to discover that she is the least progressive of the three women.” While Joan is intelligent and talented, no one really gave her credit for that, not even herself when she decided to bank her life wholly on her doctor husband’s success (and he turned out to be an immature brat). It was only in the season finale when Don and his colleagues realized they didn’t know where anything was in the office or how things really worked that Joan’s real value in the business world was recognized and appreciated.
Season four hopes: Joan is allowed to blossom into the savvy businesswoman we know she could be and that her idiot husband Greg is sent to serve in Vietnam.
Peggy Olson: She spent the third season making headway with “the boys,” voicing her point of view (though she was frequently shot down and called naive) and finally, receiving begrudging respect from Don, who’d been rather nasty to the loyal protégé who kept his season two drunk driving accident under wraps and allowed Don’s mistress Bobbie sleep at her apartment.
The best moment for Peggy, the former gal fresh from secretarial school, occurred when the staff of the breakaway ad agency were pulling together (stealing actually) paperwork and files from their old company and everyone was getting tired. The sexist, arrogant Roger Sterling -- one of the two principals in the new and old firms – said, “Peggy, can you get me some coffee?” Without looking up or even blinking, she said, “No.” Roger looked initially shocked but then went on working.
My second favorite moment from last season: After walking in on her male colleagues smoking pot on a Saturday afternoon in the office while desperately trying to come up with slogans for rum, a dope dealer pal of one of her co-workers asked her who she was. “I’m Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana,” she said.
After a condescending associate declared that she wouldn’t like it, she came back with this zinger: “How do you know what I like? You never ask me how I feel about anything except brassieres and body odor and makeup.”
Season four: I hope that Peggy starts building a stellar reputation outside of her firm and ditches Duck, the older guy who she was sleeping with for half of season three.
While Mad Men and Philosophy said that this drama showcases “a bygone era,” a lot of the remnants of that era – sexism, expectations of what a wife and mother does in the home -- doesn’t seem altogether gone to me.