When season one of Mad Men, the critical darling of a cultural time capsule concluded last year, the melancholy, all-American suburban mother/Grace-Kelly-doppelganger Betty Draper was coming to grips with her husband Don’s infidelities as well as the loss of what she had hoped would be the resurrection of her big city modeling career from which she retired after getting married.
At Don’s advertising agency, Sterling Cooper, his secretary, Peggy Olson -- who’d contributed valuable insight to several ad campaigns -- was promoted to become the firm’s first female copy writer. Hours later, at the close of season one, Peggy fell ill, went to the hospital and gave birth to a baby she didn’t know she was carrying, demonstrating that denial can be a very powerful thing.
Mad Men’s freshman season took place in 1960, a time when American society didn’t realize it was on the brink of major, social upheaval, particularly on the feminist front. Being divorced was considered scandalous for a woman, as one of the Mad Men characters – Helen Bishop – learned when she was shunned by the at-home mothers in her new neighborhood. Married women who worked were considered oddities, objects of pity whose husbands weren’t man enough to provide for them.
Amidst the Neanderthal attitudes toward women on display, Mad Men did offer up two strong female characters, notably Rachel Menken, a single woman running her family’s upscale department store who had an affair with the married Don Draper. (In season two, it’s still unclear whether the affair is over.) The other self-assured female character, Joan Holloway, used her sensuality as a bargaining chip at Sterling Cooper in her work as the senior secretary, while she was having a dead-end affair with one of the married partners in the firm. (An astute critic once said of Joan that, in another era, she would’ve been running the ad agency, rather than handling its correspondence and phone calls.)
But the first few episodes of the sophomore season of Mad Men put viewers in a time machine and projected us into early 1962, just as a clash of old fashioned manners – standing up when women enter the room, removing one’s hat in a woman’s presence in an elevator, etc. – are clashing with a widening beatnik/hippie ethos. We’ve seen a slightly more empowered, yet clearly simmering beneath the surface Betty, who has taken up horseback riding and openly demeaning her children, such as likening them to her post-riding manure that soils the family car. Joan, who has stopped seeing the married ad man and is dating an unmarried physician, told a junior ad exec to refer to her as the “office manager” rather than the “senior secretary.” Meanwhile Peggy -- after a mysterious, multi-month absence about which her co-workers are still gossiping -- is back at the ad agency trying to nonchalantly stop the men from asking her to fetch the coffee and serve as their errand girl while she confidently makes presentations for potential advertising campaigns.
Women in the Mad Men world, while not exactly “liberated,” are making strides this season, albeit incremental ones.
Betty Draper remains sad, while she’s evolving into an almost anti-mommy (by today’s standards at least) as she tries to figure out what she wants out of her own life, instead of solely being Don’s wife with whom she shares a home, though not always a bed and confidences. In episode two of the new season, during an evening of cards with neighbors, Betty caustically told a story about her son tracing a picture of George Washington from the cover of a book and then going to school and passing it off as his original work. She belittled the child, calling him “a little liar,” and scoffed when he appeared in the family room during their evening card game claiming he couldn’t get to sleep because he’d seen a ghost. Clearly Betty, who’s aware of some of her husband’s lies about other women – though not his biggest lie, that he stole his identity from someone else – is slowly making Don, and, by extension, his son, pay for them.
Peggy, who in the pilot episode of the show obtained a birth control prescription, is still, some 16 months after having given birth to a baby in secret, trying to get past it and embark on a career, not just a job, like one of the guys. And she couldn’t be one of the up-and-coming guys if she’s a mom. (None of the moms, other than the divorced one on Mad Men, work.) And as much as Peggy’s trying to forget that she had a child, her mother and sister won’t let her. In fact, viewers aren’t even sure exactly what became of her baby, though it seems that her sister has adopted him. In episode two, a toddler was shown in a bedroom alongside her sister’s children in the home shared by her mother and sister, but it’s unclear if the toddler is Peggy’s. In 1962, unmarried motherhood carried a serious stigma. But was the stigma serious enough to interfere with Peggy’s ability to climb the corporate ladder at Sterling Cooper, given all the married men (by my count four) who’ve had affairs and the one who is living under an assumed identity?
Although the lion’s share of Mad Men’s publicity and accolades (a Golden Globe award, an Emmy nomination) have gone to Jon Hamm who plays Don Draper, it’s the women of this show who make it intriguing with their baby steps toward liberation and freely made life choices. The stories of the Mad Men women are like an onion; they have many, many layers that are acidic and sharp, occasionally make tears come to your eyes, but, when cooked in just the right way, can also be sweet.
Any Mad Men fans in the house? What do you think of season two thus far?