This season, Mad Men is set in 1968, a time of powerful and exciting organizing in the U.S. feminist movement—while the fictional Madison Avenue advertising crew scribbles out new taglines for headphones, it was the year feminists took to the streets to protest the Miss America pageant.
The show is distinguished for its portrayal of ambitious, complex female protagonists. Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway, among Mad Men’s many women, figure out how to make their own way in the male-dominated corporate world of New York advertising. The audience is meant to root for these women as they slog through rampant sexism, make personal choices good and bad, and deal with the everday feminist issues of trying to build both respected identities and stable finances for themselves.
The actresses who play these characters, however, are reluctant to characterize them as feminists.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly this week, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, and Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, the two disagreed with suggestions that their characters could be deemed feminists, even though they have feminist qualities.
Peggy, for example, worked her way through constant humiliations and brush-offs from her male colleagues to be taken seriously as a copywriter, disappointing her conservative mother. But that doesn’t make her overtly political—even when talking about overcoming gender barriers in her job path, Peggy seems career-driven, not concerned about a movement. As Moss says of her, “She’s not a revolutionary, and she’s not going to be like burning her bra anytime soon. I think she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care about politics unless it relates to her job. She’s not going to be a hippie. She’s a professional woman.”
Moss’s remark reflects the misguided opinion that feminists—then and now—are hippie chicks protesting in the streets and burning their bras. The author of The Feminine Mystique, lest we forget, was a suburban housewife, not a reefer-smoking flower child.
Joan, similarly, is a confident character who is certainly concerned with building new personal and career opportunities for herself, though she doesn’t seem to be devoted to a broader movement for women’s empowerment. Joan watches out for herself and demands to be taken seriously. “Some people have called her a feminist but I would not,” says Hendricks. “I think she knows that she deserves to be treated in a certain way, but her methods are not technically what you would call ‘feminist.’ Maybe now you would, but I don’t think you would have at the time.”
However one chooses to define a feminist, I think the fact that both Peggy and Joan demand to be treated with respect by men in an age when most middle-class women were expected to be homemakers displays a feminist way of thinking.
Based on my personal experiences in the entertainment industry, I could understand if Moss and Hendricks are reluctant to be known for playing “feminist” characters. There’s an industry-wide aversion to the term “feminist.” In Hollywood it’s a word that still carries negative connotations. Once, I mentioned to a friend who’s the director of a modeling agency—a nice guy with two daughters—that I work part-time for an organization that empowers women. To this day he occasionally asks me if I’m still working for “that lesbian group.” He asks in a joking, friendly tone, of course, but his choice of words shows the lack of regard and a limited awareness of the diversity of women’s empowerment among people in showbiz.
Established female performers like Amy Poehler and Beyoncé have enough clout at this point to say essentially anything without fear of hurting their careers, and the two have publicly stated that they’re feminists. People lower on Hollywood’s ladder, however, who still have to hustle to get good roles, often feel they need to step carefully at the risk of being pigeonholed.
This all boils down to the same recurring issue Mad Men deals with: In the media world, it can still be dangerous to be considered a feminist.
Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC