Power Pack: The Women of Mad Men

We don’t know about you, but we have been on the edge of my mid-century modern seats waiting to hear whether or not Mad Men is being renewed for a third season. Rumor had it that the show might get cancelled, but this Variety article confirms otherwise. Mad Men is coming back! Let’s all loosen our high-waisted secretary skirts in a collective sigh of relief.

Mad Men has been written about many times, especially in terms of feminism and the gender politics portrayed on the show. And you know what that means, right? It’s time for a Power Pack! So get your Manhattan ready, light a Lucky Strike (just as a prop, of course) and read on for links, video clips, and a discussion of the ladies of Mad Men.

For those of you not in the loop (and we would encourage you to quickly jump into it), Mad Men is a television show set in the early 1960’s that focuses on the Sterling-Cooper Advertisement Agency. There are many women on Mad Men, even though the name might have you believe otherwise. In the interest of time and space, we will discuss the three main women here: Betty Draper, Peggy Olsen, and Joan Holloway. This discussion requires a somewhat working knowledge of the show and its characters, but I will make every attempt not to spoil any of the plot for those of you who have yet to see every episode. To get caught up on Mad Men happenings, click here.

Betty Draper: The Archetypal Lonely Housewife

We will start our discussion with Betty Draper, played by January Jones. Betty is married to main character and man of mystery Don Draper, an ad executive at the Sterling Cooper Agency. Although Betty Draper played a relatively one-dimensional housewife in season one, season two has developed her identity beyond the realm of domesticity. From the outside, Betty looks like a blissfully happy married woman with lovely children and a smoking hot husband. However, the writers have always coupled this Grace Kelly-like image with an insightful commentary on the dissatisfaction that often came with Eisenhower-era femininity.

Betty struggles with her nerves, and occasionally lashes out and gives viewers a glimpse of the woman behind her perfect exterior. Watch this confrontation with her neighbor in the local grocery store (prior to this scene, Betty indulged the crush of her loner 9-year old neighbor by giving him a lock of her hair):

Here’s hoping that Mad Men makes it to 1963, so that Betty can get her hands on a copy of The Feminine Mystique.

Peggy Olsen: The Archetypal Career Girl

Moving on, the next lady of Mad Men is Peggy Olsen, played by Elisabeth Moss. Peggy begins the series as Don Draper’s secretary, but is promoted early on the be the first female copywriter in the agency. She is an outsider among the women in the office, and the men, in part because of her shyness and reluctance to display her sexuality. In addition, she comes from a poor Catholic family and doesn’t quite fit in with the privileged WASPS at Sterling Cooper.

Although many people in the office dismiss Peggy due to her naivete (and gender), her skill at writing advertising copy for women trumps their lack of interest in her. In addition, she starts her time off at Sterling Cooper by sleeping with the smarmy account exec Pete Campbell, and their relationship gives an interesting look at office dynamics. Check out this clip of Peggy talking to Pete in the office:

We want to say more about Peggy, but are afraid doing so would give away too much of the plot (many cliffhangers revolve around her character). Suffice it to say, she embodies an alternative lifestyle for women during this time period, and as such proves to be an excellent student to Don Draper’s teacher, especially when it comes to making sacrifices in the interest of career success.

Joan Holloway: The Archetypal Sex Bomb

No discussion of Mad Men would be complete without Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks. The Senior Secretary at Sterling-Cooper, Joan takes pride in her job and runs the office in more ways than one. This is due in no small part to her extreme hotness, but her success is about more than looks. She handles every situation with absolute confidence, from office squabbles to sexual assault. She literally is sleeping with the boss (Roger Sterling), but their relationship is genuine and never for economic gain.

Watch this clip of Joan giving Peggy the lay of the land in the office, and just try not to swoon:

Obviously this a brief rundown of the Mad Men women to get the conversation flowing. Pages could be filled on these characters and what they signify when it comes to women and gender (in fact, pages have been filled on the subject). In addition, there are several more fascinating female characters on the show like Bobbie Barrett, Trudy Campbell, and Rachel Menken.

Now that we know the show has been renewed, we can count on lots more interesting Mad Men discussion to come. For now, if you haven’t finished that Manhattan and Lucky Strike yet, leave your thoughts in the comments section!

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Mad Women

I'm so glad you posted this. I had a hard time watching the first few episodes due to the treatment of women - - and I'm not the only person who has mentioned that this has kept them away from the show. But once I gave the series a chance I recognized that the behavior of the men is not championed, nor excused, and in fact, the dissatisfaction with the female condition is often painfully foregrounded.

For example, Joan's stalwart professionalism and Helen Gurley Brown vibe profoundly underscore her disappointment with being unable to continue reading scripts. She's thanked and discarded, yet doesn't say a word in complaint. And when Betty takes an air riffle to her neighbor's pigeons, cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth, eyes squinted, in her nightgown, it's exquisitely sad - - a small act of rebellion, and a combination of asserting control, empowerment, and outrageous release.

I'm really looking forward to 1963.


My mom, sister and I found Mad Men together, and we all love it. My favorite moments are the ones that accurately illustrate environmental, parenting, and gender ideology of the era. I hate seeing anachronistic social ideas in media, and the show just wouldn't work if the women were marching around with the air of empowerment that generation earned for us. I am convinced that Betty is on her way to leading the local women's lib movement. I loved Peggy's last dialogue with Pete at the end of season 2, and Joan's relationship with her fiancee rings so true for the time to me. Also- my sister and I were watching the show with our 88-year-old grandmother, and she confirmed that the smoking and drinking and skirt chasing in the office were just as she remembered them. Good post!

I agree that the strong suit

I agree that the strong suit of the show is the way it tries to represent the ideologies of the era without over indulging in nostalgia toward them. Somewhere in season 1 there is a short but great scene in a public bathroom. Two of the white female characters have an exchange, apply some lipstick and walk out. The two black attendents, whom the female characters have failed to tip, turn to one another, and one says "If these purses get any smaller, we're gonna starve." I may have gotten some of the details wrong, but that's roughly what happens. Basically, I love the way the show depicts a pre-civil rights, pre-women's lib world, but also explores where and how that reality is starting to fracture...maybe always was fractured. Love it.

What about Midge???

I wish she had been in more episodes. I think she was the glimpse into the beginning of a women's lib movement. She couldn't have been more polar opposite from the rest of the females on the show. I would have liked to see her interact with a woman like Betty or Joan. It would have been interesting to see that dynamic.
For another show that does deal with the feminist movement, check out Swingtown. It's probably not to DVD yet, but I was totally sucked into a marathon of it one day. It's based in the 70's during the swingers' era and sexual experimentation, but we see the conflicts that each of the very different women have with their cultural surroundings of the time.

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