Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

The Other Women of Mad Men

Features
by Sara Stewart
May 29, 2014 10:00 AM
15 Comments
  • |
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.

Features
  • |

More: Mad Men, Television

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

15 Comments

  • Kathy | June 15, 2014 7:25 PMReply

    Oops, I meant to say "Is Peggy Olson Really a Different Kind of Feminist?" As I said before, it's on the feministfever website. Check it out.

  • Kathy | June 15, 2014 7:23 PMReply

    Interesting post and comments. My problem with Mad Men is that it never pays homage to all the feminist activism that was happening in the 60's. There is a way to do that without interrupting the story line or trying to turn the main characters into activists. I have written about it in "Is Peggy Olson a Different Kind of Feminist?" It's on the feministfever website. Check it out.

  • s | June 1, 2014 1:17 PMReply

    If I never have to see Betty again, I'll be ok with that. Sally is much more interesting, even in scenes away from both her mom and dad.

    I'm most disappointed with how the black characters, namely Dawn, have been handled. There was real opportunity, particularly when Shirley and Peggy had that awkward moment with the flowers, but it was squandered when they were shipped off to different offices basically because of the color of their skin.

  • teresa | May 31, 2014 4:28 AMReply

    more Joan and Betty please!!!!! they contributed so much to every previous season, and i miss them! Sally Draper you can have...what a brat! Megan is so fake and phoney she is almost a characature of someone! Peggy is still little miss priss with her conservative self....Burger Chef queen! i was very disappointed in this half season of Mad Men....the highlight for me was Burt doing the "The Best Things In Life Are Free" number....that was golden.....

  • sammyjo | May 30, 2014 8:00 PMReply

    let's talk megan... she has only just been showing her true self to don lately. from the very beginning she has been "acting" in order to get what she wants out of life: acting as the perfect employee at the ad agency in order to get closer to her boss, acting as the perfect wife to don / as the alternative to whatever betty was, acting as the perfect mother-figure to don's children so that he would feel more comfortable about her being stepmother. when she didn't get her way about the acting role after her miscarriage, she pouted and whined so much even her mother told her to STFU, you should be grateful with what you have and eventually got what she wanted there when don got her the commercial. if you recall from season 5 when don was looking at some of her screen tests, his proud smile faded away when he realized he had seen every one of her dramatic faces many times before - she acts every time she's with him and he doesn't know what her real face is. it's kind of like being married to him, to be fair. and i won't even get into how she tells him they are through when she discovers he was fired and not having an affair like she thought, then encourages the 3-way they have with her female friend, eventually telling him they are through ad finitum when he gives her an update on his job status. he really did try to be a good husband with megan, but she was a better at acting than he was.

  • Noneya | May 30, 2014 2:14 PMReply

    As a black woman that works in a office setting with exacly ONE other black woman who looks nothing like me, nor I her, I laughed at the exchange between Dawn and Shirley. At least 3 times a day I called by the other girl's name when we clearly are two very different people both in looks and personality. I guess there's only room for one black woman in the office place. People (white) can't seem to understand that there can be more than one at any given moment. They missed a huge opportunity with that in this show. I am not suggesting they lay on the racial premises too thick, but it is worth a mention, especially considering the time period of the show.

  • ep | May 30, 2014 11:45 AMReply

    The autor of the article doesn't have a good take on the show if she believes it represents a "long-running exercise in wish fulfillment about a simpler time when men were men." The audience and the media may have ingested it with that perspective, and thus the media and the fans ruined the show for me. But from the beginning, Mad Men has been about pulling back the veil from that time, and showing the underlying prejudices and dysfunction of that culture.

  • Jesse | May 30, 2014 8:12 PM

    Agreed. Anyone who sees Mad Men as "wish fulfillment about a simpler time" has entirely missed the point of the show.

  • Jodi | May 30, 2014 10:58 AMReply

    Shirley/Dawn are not seen as interchangeable by the SC&P bosses.................their name-switching is a nod to the "they all look alike" prejudice.

  • Penny | May 30, 2014 8:20 AMReply

    The women of the REAL 60's would never have advanced to the level they do on Mad Men. Joan, a partner, no way. Peggy advancing from Secretary to making major presentations; would not have happened. i worked for an advertising agency from 1975-81. I had a masters in Speech, created the company brochure; wrote coop ad copy and everything a man in that office could have done; but i was told in no uncertain terms that i would never advance any further in the business because i was a woman. I will say that the one thing that is extremely accurate was the sexual roaming from person to person, the drinking and back biting is VERY accurate. The girls in the office slept around with the visiting sales reps and men in the office. Thankfully, i did not participate in that, and made that very clear when i started there as the Executive Assistant to the CEO. Women today are very lucky they did not have to experience the prejudice against women in the business world.

  • mike | May 29, 2014 6:06 PMReply

    Only the stars, please...

  • Christin K. | May 29, 2014 5:34 PMReply

    Tooth gap? You mean gigantic teeth that could take a chunk out of Jon Hamm any time.

  • Dana | May 29, 2014 1:29 PMReply

    Dawn also got promoted to head of personnel this season which was a nice turn of events, but I agree that it was disappointing she basically disappeared after that event.

  • lastone65 | May 29, 2014 6:15 PM

    I think the actress who plays Dawn had another commitment. I think I read where she did a movie. John Slattery was directing a full length movie, so he wasn't around much, either. Interesting you would assume they put her on the shelf, instead of thinking they were accommodating her extracurricular activity.

  • Felipe | May 29, 2014 1:19 PMReply

    What about Sally Draper? The most important female character besides Peggy this season...

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • Elisabeth Moss and Michelle Dockery ...
  • AFI Expands Directing Workshop for Women ...
  • Sandra Bullock to Star in and Produce ...
  • "If I Stay"Weekly Update for August 22 & 29: Women ...
  • Trailer Watch: Katie Holmes Teaches ...
  • Watch: "Women in Refrigerators" Supercut: ...
  • Meet Outlander, the Anti-Game of Th ...
  • Top Designers Refused to Make Melissa ...
  • 8 Queer Women Films to Watch in 201 ...
  • Guest Post: Going Back to School with ...