The Ladies of Mad Men


“Mad Men” has been touted as one of the best shows on television, pulling in three Golden Globe nominations in addition to several other awards this year alone. Why is our culture fascinated with a show about an ad agency set in the 1960’s that is fraught with unfaithful, despicable men? Why, the ladies, of course. “Mad Men” features several strong feminine characters in the mix of Don Draper and Pete Campbell, two equally interesting characters for a variety of reasons, but they also differ in their treatment of women. Draper has the most interaction with the women, ranging from his wife Better to his secretary Peggy to his client Rachel Menken. The setting of “Mad Men” allows the writers to realistically depict the women as they truly were during the 1960’s. The series as a whole highlights cigarette smoking, drinking, sexism, adultery, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism, and the female characters play a crucial role in the illustration of these themes.

Peggy becomes more interesting as the season progresses as she goes from having her first day to breaking the barriers of the working woman’s role. She enters the office in the first episode of Season 1 as a young, naive girl who is just learning about the working world. Joan, the “mother hen” of the secretaries, is teaching her how to operate, in more ways than one. She suggests “showing her legs” and going to the doctor to get oral contraception.  Peggy follows Joan’s advice, suggestively placing her hand on Mr. Draper’s hand shortly before she leaves for the day, though Don rebukes the offer and suggests that she focus on her work and not sleeping around, advice which she disregards later in the episode when Pete Campbell comes over to her apartment. They have another fling one early morning in Pete’s office, which ultimately *Spoiler* gets Peggy pregnant, although she does not realize it until going into labor. Peggy gives the baby up for adoption and her absence is explained, to Pete at least, as her trip to Fat Camp. Over the course of the nine months, Peggy works her way up by writing copy, first for the Belle Jolie lipstick campaign and later for the Rejuvenator, ultimately receiving a promotion to junior copy writer. She breaks the mold of the typical women of the office. She mostly keeps her head down, Pete Campbell aside, and ignores the many comments made by the men at the office, comments that range from her weight gain to her ability to work. She differs from the rest of the women in the office: she is well-educated, having graduated from a top secretarial school, and is not afraid to take on the responsibility of the men. When she requests that someone cover her desk while she works on copy, Draper tells her that she “presented like a man, now act like one.”

Rachel Menken is another interesting character, but on a very different level from Peggy. She is a Jewish store owner. She is classy, sophisticated, and a woman who is in charge. She captures the desire of Don Draper with her cool head and businessman attitude. She walks out of their first meeting, shortly after Don claims he will “not let a woman talk to him like this.” He changes his mind after their next “meeting” over drinks in a bar. Being Jewish, running a store, smoking, and drinking, she exhibits many of the themes that run throughout the series. Jokes are made often within the show regarding anti-Semitism. It is unexpected that as a woman she holds the position of power above her father in terms of the store.  She and Don begin an affair later in season one, despite her hesitations considering he is married and she truly has feelings for him. She is coolly rational when he comes to her offering to whisk her away where they can start a new life together. As a woman, she is more sensitive than Don to family and love, whereas he seeks to hide his past without any passing thought for his children or his wife. He further disregards them with all of his adulterous affairs as he attempts to fulfill some void in his own life. Rachel makes him seem weak in comparison to all of her strengths.

Betty is another kind of character all together. She represents the standard housewife, picture perfect always and creating the perfect home with the perfect meal prepared for Don’s arrival and the perfect children for everyone else’s approval. She is closed, hard to get to know, childlike. She constantly strives for approval, not just from Don but from the other women in the neighborhood, from Don’s boss Mr. Sterling, even from the children of other families. Helen’s son, Glen, asks Betty for a loch of her hair, which she gives him, and Helen later scolds her for it ( When Betty is modeling for Coca-Cola, she does so because modeling makes her feel beautiful and wanted, which ironically she rarely seems to feel with her husband. When her job is taken away because Don rejects the job offer, she tells the story as if it was her decision. She is always uncomfortable and puts a great deal of importance on image and presentation. Apparently, she becomes stronger in season three, although I have not seen it yet, but she *Spoiler* asks Don for a divorce after learning of his past and many infidelities.

The women of “Mad Men” represent a crucial part of the tale of the 1960’s advertising giants on Madison Avenue. They are the object of the men in nearly every scene. The way they appear on the show is very close to the reality of that time period. Peggy differentiates herself from the rest of the office by earning the respect of her boss; Rachel Menken uses the male language in the male world but retains her femininity; Betty is the doll-like homemaker. Separately these women create the story lines for the men to follow. The men, like Don Draper and Pete Campbell, are generally despicable characters. We are fascinated by who Draper is, but we do not respect him. We respect Rachel Menken. We respect Peggy. Betty? I’ll have to watch season three for that call.


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