Informal Feminism

{July 31, 2011}   The Women of Mad Men

So I have just rounded out a Mad Men addiction, for the past month I have watched all four seasons. As I watched it I found myself shuddering at various and frequent casual remarks of sexism and racism, at the same time though I watched the female characters evolve and challenge these ideas throughout the series. It is interesting to watch the female characters in the show as they are examples of strong independent women. Each of the main women in this show is forced to confront issues of gender on a regular basis. I am going to talk a little bit about three of these characters: Betty Draper, Joan Harris, and Peggy Olson. **warning: Mad Men Spoilers to follow**

Betty Draper is the first wife of Don Draper, The lead male character. Throughout her marriage with Don there are repeated instances of cheating and lying that Betty has to deal with. She is also facing bored housewife syndrome; she is trapped with two, later three, children whom she doesn’t seem thrilled to be raising. In the first season she is sent to see a Male Psychiatrist, who spends his time listening to her and then reporting the information he hears back to her husband. Betty is constantly represented as unhappy. She clearly feels trapped by her children and is subject to constant humiliating because of her husbands frequent affairs. However, Betty does take control of her life when she demands a divorce from Don, which is a bold move for a woman in the sixties. Even after her divorce she remains relatively unhappy and her relationship with her daughter becomes fraught with tension do to her lack of communication. She is a good example of how many women feel as if they have to marry, have children, and be the perfect housewife when secretly they desire the complete opposite. I feel that while Betty is a character that is portrayed negatively often she is also one that deserves understanding because of her circumstances. She had little other choice then to become a housewife, as well her divorce from Don is one that needs to be commended because of its courage from a woman. Also her divorce put out what a woman of the time faced when she requested a divorce, which was the possibility of losing all financial security and even her children.

Joan Harris is another strong female character in the show. She plays the head secretary in the office. Throughout the series she is subjected to constant harassment by the males in the office. At the beginning of the show you think her goal is to find a husband but you quickly realize that she is a working girl at heart. She does a job that is above standard in hopes of being recognized for her efforts. At one point on the show she is given the task of helping the media department and does an outstanding job only to be replaced by a male when the job was proven useful. She is portrayed at different times as strong and weak. When she is in the office she is strong and commanding, eventually getting a management position within the new company. While she is respected by the partners of the firm, you see her constantly battling the minor male characters, such as the copywriters. She does speak her mind and stand up for herself well in these situations but the constant harassment she faces as a female in a male dominated industry is apparent and something that speaks to workplaces even now. Her weaker moments are the hands of her male partners. She is at one point raped by the man who becomes her husband. She is also portrayed as vulnerable in private but never in public. It is revealed that Joan has had two previous abortions and is shamed by a doctor when seeking a third. Her character is one of the stronger females because she is portrayed as being able to handle herself and often does so without the help of the men.

Peggy Olson is the last female I want to talk about. She begins the show as a secretary to Don Draper. She quickly finds a way to move up and becomes a copywriter. She is one of the most ambitious women on the show. She is fights her way into the boys club of copywriting and maintains an excellent career as a result of knowing how to sell products to women. She has her struggles as well, she is shown giving birth to a child she wasn’t aware of and giving that child up for adoption. She does this in order to save her career and it is a good example of the kind of sacrifices a woman had to make in order to maintain a career. She also faces harassment at every turn because of her gender; she has to constantly prove herself over and over again to the male characters in the show. This is true of Don especially. While most of the team think she is his favourite, and she is to a degree, it also means that he pushes her constantly and refuses to give her a break. It is also clear in one episode that Peggy feels underappreciated because Don wins a Cleo for work that she did a large part of and he refuses to acknowledge anyone but himself. Peggy also begins to show strong feminist leanings by the end of the forth season when she points out that women are lacking the many of the same freedoms as many other minorities at this point in history and that she had to fight hard to get to the position she was in.

It is interesting to watch the female characters in Mad Men because they all highlight various issues that women faced then and in some cases still face now. The female characters in this show are fully developed and a good example of how women were treating at this time. It also shows the effects that these strict female stereotypes take out on women; Betty Draper finding being a housewife cloistering, for example. So while I found the causal sexism and racism of the show unnerving at times, watching the women stand up for themselves and climb up through the corporate ladder was satisfying.


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