The Women of Mad Men.
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.