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The Other Women of Mad Men

Women and Hollywood By Sara Stewart | Women and Hollywood May 29, 2014 at 10:00AM

There were some fascinating underdog moves by women on this show that deserve a mention now that we're at the halfway point. Here are the five female characters, other than Peggy, that I came away from the midseason finale wishing we had seen more of.
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Dawn (Teyonah Parris) on "Mad Men"
Dawn (Teyonah Parris) on "Mad Men"

In a recent Facebook discussion about the awful events of last weekend, and whether or not our sexist cultural landscape was to blame, I was reminded by a brilliant, feminist playwright friend of mine (who is a guy): "I'm tired of columnists and pundits being given a pass on talking about 'white men' as if that were some kind of undeniably monolithic group that has weekly meetings or something. It's lazy." 

I agree, and am occasionally guilty of this, and vowed to him that I would try to do better.

That said, boy, does Mad Men do a good job of making them seem that way! (Literally, at SCDP meetings, with the exception of Joan).

For all the strides forward by female characters, and women at large, over the course of Season Seven and for all the discussion about how it's not about one character but the ensemble, most of the endless pontification about the show still revolves around Don. Ratings dropped precipitously when, at the season's start, Don was emasculated and aimless; they perked up again when he started to get his mojo back.

In the end, it's worth remembering that this is a show created by a guy and directed, uniformly this season, by guys. It's a long-running exercise in wish fulfillment about a simpler time when men were men, getting less interesting to many viewers now that that masculinity is beginning to buckle. I know it's more complicated than that, but I also think it's not (exhibit A: our enduring love affair with the iconography of that time period).

Still, there were some fascinating underdog moves by women on this show that deserve a mention now that we're at the halfway point and left to mull these episodes until whenever 2015. I'm going to leave off discussion about Peggy, as she's already been thoroughly covered elsewhere. I came away from the midseason finale wishing I had seen more from five other female characters:

Joan

Christina Hendricks seemed to mainly exist this season to look annoyed in board meetings and to help shuffle personnel around when push came to shove, as it did in this season's second episode, "A Day's Work." Her brief reunion with Bob Benson in "The Strategy" was delightful -- and her rejection of his sham-marriage proposal inspiring -- but it felt strangely discordant to see her turning against Don without more context. Yes, we know she harbors resentment about his scuttling the Jaguar deal and her million-dollar prize money; what have Mad Men writers done for her lately? As one of the figureheads of female objectification from the early days of the show, she's now one of the primary standard-bearers of the changing times, alongside Peggy. She deserves more attention than she got this year.

Betty

Oh, hi Betty, you deliciously imperious bitch! Congratulations on emerging from the mansion you've been holed up in all season, smoking and restricting your caloric intake. Your showdown with Henry over your dissention from his views on Vietnam -- as wrongheaded as yours were -- was a remarkable new turn, your snapped comeback at him ("I'm not stupid! I speak Italian!") both hilarious and portending a new path. A run for office? Why not? You've got the cliched all-American good looks for it, and the icy resolve and total familial disinterest of any good politician. Too bad that storyline didn't go anywhere; or can we hope for its expansion next year?

Dawn

Don's homophone-monikered secretary (played by Teyonah Parris) was the first black hire at SCDP, and it seemed she would be the entry point to a larger focus on the way 1960s race relations would find their way into even the conservative ad men's offices. But aside from her stint as Don's Gal Friday, visiting him at his home while he languished on leave -- and eventually giving him the brush-off when he got too desperate -- Dawn's the one who's languished as a character. Likewise:

Shirley

The first SCDP employee to rock an Afro, she got her moment in the sun in "A Day's Work," when Peggy mistook Shirley's (Sola Bamis) roses for her own while having a particularly terrible day. Shirley and Dawn are maybe the most interesting pair of workers in the office now, and I'd love to have been a fly on the wall for more of their conversations, like the one in which they greet each other with the other's name -- sharply mocking the way SCDP bosses see them as completely interchangeable.

Megan

There's a fair amount of Megan hate out there. I think her character wasn't given a real shot at three-dimensionality this season, despite the sizable amount of screen time she got relative to the names above. Out on the west coast, Mrs. Draper settled into her new life as an up-and-coming actress, forced to drop everything whenever the lonely Don landed in her Hills bungalow with a thud. But character development seemed mostly communicated in the size of her hair and the Californication of her wardrobe, not her personality. Her interaction with Don's "niece" in "The Runaways" turned on a dime so sharply that it seemed oddly out of character, especially for someone who's been defined by her kindness towards others (remember that formative scene in which Sally spilled the milkshake)? I'm glad she isn't the Sharon Tate avatar that the internet at large had hoped for, but I'm sorry she didn't get the chance to show us more depth beyond the pretty face and that unforgettable tooth gap.

And finally, a slow clap for Peggy, who landed that Burger Chef pitch with NASA-like precision. She will lead us into the final seven episodes, which -- given Sunday's uncharacteristically light conclusion -- will probably see all hell break loose.

This article is related to: Mad Men, Television


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