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What's Happening to the Women of "Mad Men"?

Television
by Sam Adams
April 30, 2014 2:21 PM
8 Comments
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"Game of Thrones" has been monopolizing the conversation about gender roles in pop culture of late, with "Star Wars" now rising to take its place. But a few critics have picked this week to focus in on how "Mad Men" is dealing, or not dealing, with its female characters.

At Time, James Poniewozik asks, "What Have You Done With Peggy Olson?" The go-getting copywriter has been acting awfully frazzled of late, straddling the line between Hannah Horvath and a Cathy cartoon.

"Since the beginning of the series, she's often seemed to be a kind of mirror, alternative Don, and we soon saw that she, like him, was unmoored in 1969 -- except that her unmooring, apparently, was all about a man, Ted Chaough," he writes. 

It's not implausible or belittling that Peggy should be a wreck, even months later -- any more than it was, say, for Don to fall to pieces over his rejection by his neighbor Sylvia last year. There problem here is that right now Angry Lovelorn Peggy is all the show is giving us. Don can be fighting for his professional life and yet still struggle in his marriage and with his kids -- hell, that’s sort of what he's for. And Peggy, conversely, has wrestled with personal issues -- Abe, her pregnancy, her mother -- and thrown herself into her work at the same time. Right now, though, the balance seems badly off; what we see of Peggy at the office is refracted almost entirely through reminders that she’s shattered over Ted to the point of seeming like a different person. It isn't about the show being obligated to make Peggy perfectly likable, or empowered, or happy. It is about maintaining the complexity of a character who, over six seasons, has become the de facto female lead; or, at least, if her character radically changes, providing a reason beyond, "She went through a really bad breakup last season."

At the Los Angeles Review of Books' Dear Television blog, Anne Helen Peterson takes up a lonelier cause with "In Defense of Betty Draper," sticking up for the stuck-up housewife and horror-show mom whom "Mad Men's" viewers have largely grown to hate. (NB: Petersen knows full well that it's Betty Draper Francis now, but it's hard to think of her that way.)

One of the main defenses of any abhorrent character, whether in "Game of Thrones," "True Detective," or "All in the Family," is that they’re a “product of their times.” This argument is usually wielded as a means of recuperating misogynistic, racist, and/or homophobic men: of course he sexually assaulted/manipulated/destroyed that woman; that’s how men operated then! To some extent, I actually buy this argument: there’s no "outside" of ideology, even in fictional television, and all men must wallow in the moral imperatives set forth by their narratives. 

What strikes me, then, is how seldom this defense is used to exonerate unlikable women. Their actions are just as circumscribed by the ideologies that inform their cultures, but instead of explaining why they are the way they are, we call them bitches and shrews, harpies and sluts. Which is precisely why I think it's so critical to defend Betty: she is absolutely a product of pre-feminist sensibilities. All of horribleness, all of the judging -- it's all her sad, broken way of flailing against the quiet yet overwhelming disappointment of her life. She’s immature; she lacks introspection -- but it's difficult to blame her when the one attempt at gaining it culminated in a man looking down her shirt and reporting her confessions directly to her husband

"Mad Men's" characters may be a product of their time, but the show is a product of ours, and as such, it walks a tricky line. In essence, the show needs to notice things its characters don't, often tweaking viewers' awareness with a precisely calibrated swivel of a character's eyes: No one spoke out against Lou Avery's casual racism in "Time Zones," but you could see it register on Dawn's face, even as she held her tongue. And some of that, at least, is going on with Peggy Olson. Her signature moment in "Field Trip," where Don Draper made his tentative return to Sterling Cooper & Partners, came when she gave her old boss a sullen welcome back: "Can't say we missed you." But the finest moment in Elisabeth Moss's performance comes much earlier, when she first hears Don has entered the office. Moss, whose talents will be on further display in "The One I Love" and "Listen Up Philip" later this year, is unparalleled in her ability to put across multiple reactions in a single shot, and when Peggy first hears Don is mere feet away, her face is less an open book than an emotional encyclopedia: She's giddy and angry and disgusted and nervous all at once. When Peggy confronts Don later, it's less because she's settled her feelings than decided on one to present to him. She's put herself up to being a bitch, so he won't see that despite the bad blood between them, she's at least a little glad to have him back.

Betty's a tougher nut to crack. Her lunch, early in "Field Trip," with her old pal Francine culminates with Betty cooly blowing smoke at her former neighbor, evidently finding the pride Francine takes in her newfound travel-agent gig distasteful. But when we first met met Betty, she was at least part career gal: Only since she signed up as Henry Francis' political trophy wife has she come around to the conservative notion that a woman should be able to fulfill herself within the bounds of the home. As such, I think it's less that she lives, as Petersen puts it, "in a world without feminism" -- although she's certainly grew up in one -- than a world defined against it. The woman's movement was up and running in 1969, and the sour looks Betty throws at her son Bobby's braless teacher tell you exactly what she thinks of it. The 1960s didn't turn out well for everyone, and Betty seems like one of the people for whom the strictures of the old order are preferable to the uncertainty of the new. 

Betty was a model, whose job, like that of the ideal 1950s housewife, was, in essence, to look good. But now, she looks old, her Chanel suits more evocative of Jackie Kennedy than Patricia Nixon (to say nothing of Bella Abzug). She's noticed that her daughter, Sally, is growing up, and doesn't like it one bit, but she seems blind to the fact that Bobby's following suit. He's starting to have those feelings, even if he's confused about who to direct them towards; when Betty swigs from a pail of fresh milk at the farm, a pretty female classmate tries to catch Bobby's eye, but he's only got eyes for his mom.

None of this exactly answers the charge that what "Mad Men" is doing with Peggy and Betty is repetitive or backpedaling or both. But as Poniewozik notes, we're three episodes into what, depending on how you count, is either a seven- or 14-episode season, and no one in the business breaks a season as precisely as Matthew Weiner. It's seemed possible for a while now that "Mad Men" might do better to drop Betty altogether than keeping pulling her back in for variations on the same theme, but Peggy, at least, has frequently risked displacing Don as the show's protagonist, and if, as is hard to argue, the show has had her spinning her wheels for a few episodes, it's almost certainly because she's got places to go soon.

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8 Comments

  • Rosie | May 2, 2014 11:11 AMReply

    [" I think this another problem with splitting the final season. Knowing that we will only be getting seven episodes this year, I'm very frustrated that halfway into this half season Peggy's story seems to be stuck on the same beats."]


    This is the third out of fourteen episodes. Why are you in such a hurry for Peggy's story to evolve?
    .

  • Kevin | April 30, 2014 4:32 PMReply

    This article should wait until the first seven of the season have aired.

    To say that Peggy is "frazzled" because of the whole Ted thing is ignoring everything she's been through across the show. She's a nobody to Lou and Ginsberg is right on her feet with a fresh shot to get ahead. Add that to everything else she's lost and Peggy is sort of broken and jaded with the Ted thing as the catalyst that has put her in this "frazzled" state. It's not just a man, it's everything. Let's wait and see how she handles it or how the reintroduction of Don will effect the current stasis at SC&P. I suspect Peggy the Hero will return.

  • Kevin | April 30, 2014 7:41 PM

    "None of this exactly answers the charge that what "Mad Men" is doing with Peggy and Betty is repetitive or backpedaling or both."

    Then why is it necessary to mention at this point?

    My earlier comment is regarding the Time article more than anything else. I just don't see why it should be obligatory to point at a piece like that and say, "Hm, okay, what does everyone think of that?" There's plenty of things to analyze at this point. Just not these characters. Not yet.

  • Drew | April 30, 2014 6:53 PM

    I think he is somewhat waiting until the first seven of the season have aired. That's why he closes with a claim about how it's difficult to argue that Peggy's been spinning her wheels for the first few episodes and assumes that she will have bigger developments in the future. There is no judgment being made about the show's treatment of her. I thought this whole article was pretty attentive to the nuances of Peggy's complicated feelings as Elisabeth Moss so remarkably conveys them.

  • Drew | April 30, 2014 6:47 PM

    I think he is somewhat waiting until the first seven of the season have aired. That's why he closes with a claim about how it's difficult to argue that Peggy's been spinning her wheels for the first few episodes and assumes that she will have bigger developments in the future. There is no judgment being made about the show's treatment of her. I thought this whole article was pretty attentive to the nuances of Peggy's complicated feelings as Elisabeth Moss so remarkably conveys them.

  • Rosie | April 30, 2014 3:57 PMReply

    I think your assessment of Betty is a bit off. I think she's conflicted between her reluctance to accept the new view of what women on the cusp of the Women's Movement should be, and her occasional embrace of it. She may have regarded Bobby's braless teacher with distaste, but I still recall how she seemed enthusiastic over the idea of Sally's former friend, Sandy, embracing a career as a musician back in Season 6. And I never go the impression - at least recently - that she resents Sally becoming older. In fact, judging from their interaction back in late Season 6, she seemed enthusiastic at the possibility that she and Sally might have a chance to grow closer, now that the latter is getting older.

    Right now, Betty is at a crossroad. And instead of passing judgment on what she'll always be, I think you should consider that she's still a character in motion. But because Betty doesn't superficially adhere to the late 20th century/early 21st century ideal of the career woman, you seem enthusiastic over the idea of dropping her character altogether. I doubt that Betty will ever be the "New Woman". Then again, what the hell do I or anyone else know? Only Matthew Weiner does. And as Perspective Tech has pointed out, we've only seen three out of fourteen episodes, so far.

  • perspectivetech | April 30, 2014 2:29 PMReply

    "There problem here is that right now Angry Lovelorn Peggy is all the show is giving us. "

    The problem with statements like these is that it's quite the narrow view as only 3 episodes have aired this season thus far. Echoing Matthew Weiner's comments in the past years, this type of commentary is short sided and should be evaluated once the season has concluded and we can view the seasonal story as a whole.

  • Moose | April 30, 2014 8:56 PM

    I think this another problem with splitting the final season. Knowing that we will only be getting seven episodes this year, I'm very frustrated that halfway into this half season Peggy's story seems to be stuck on the same beats.

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