Throughout Mad Men’s tenure, men have seemingly had a glorified positions in the eyes of the viewer. This may be an unsettling depiction to a contemporary audience because our current outlook reflects gender equality. Mad Men and its creators aren’t implying that they themselves are discriminate amongst gender. No, instead the creators are providing a commentary on what gender relations were like in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Mad Men is lending us an exploratory lens on how prevalent and glaringly brazen sexism was during those times.
The mysogynistic males in Mad Men galavant around, boozing and sleeping with any one they please, never scrutinized or punished for their untamed behavior. Many of the men in the show are married with families, but they still seem to philander with any female within arms reach. Their assault is not only physical, but in most cases verbal or mental. In office place meetings, or dinners with clients, the woman are constantly squandered and silenced. This vicious cycle of oppression leaves little room for woman to get ahead in the workplace and in life.
While the woman are consistently bashed in the show it is highly representative of the times. With the departure of the 50’s, came a new wave of thinking, and during this pivotal time it was difficult for some to adapt to this changing tide. Woman had long been cultivating awareness of their discrimination and the 60’s and 70’s offered the perfect storm where Woman could now pave their way into a society that had continually let them down.
The depiction of the men flaunting their masculinity does not glorify them, instead it does the exact opposite. Many of the male characters including the protagonist Donald Draper seem to cast a shadow on the females in the show. It does not put them on a pedestal instead it lowers their worth. It exposes their true insecurities, and fears. More importantly it shows they are threatened by the power of the woman surrounding them.
The men grew up in a time where this behavior was the dominant ideology. Incessantly thinking that this is how things are structure, and from a position of power they hope it will be unending. This however is not true, this backward thinking did not outlast the sands of time. What Mad Men does to represent these transformative times is portray the female charters in a position of the strength as the series moves forward in time.
The episode “New Business” is premier example of the duality of sexuality in Mad Men. During this episode Peggy a strong female lead character who works as the head of creative department at Sterling Cooper & Partners to prove her worth at the agency after a long road of being oppressed and put down by her male counter parts. Peggy is the driving force for female progress throughout the show. She defies the norms of how a female should act in this time period. She shatters expectations by working harder than anyone else, and demands equal treatment. She does not ask to be treated better nor worse than the men around, wishing only to be treated the same.
Peggy is extremely successful in the workplace and is often viewed on the same level as her male workers. Outside the office the world is much less forgiving. Throughout the show Peggy is perpetually going on disastrous dates, and seemingly can’t sustain a functional relationship. The duality of her situation is alluded to by these coalescing factors that make up her representation of reality. While she gains acceptance to the boys club that is advertising industry, she is denied those very same rights in the outside world.
When talking about Peggy it is important to point out her perhaps monolithic character arc. At the beginning of the show Peggy is this innocent girl fresh off the boat from Brooklyn, she is thrown into this world swirling with vice, and lands head over heels. She is not like the other secretaries, she does not just take phone calls, she shows interest in the work that is being produced. She works hard to get noticed, hoping maybe her voice will be heard. Over the course of the seven seasons she endures discrimination, sexual abuse, and unruly behavior without saying a word. While she could have easily given up like the many before, she doesn’t give in, that would mean the men would win. Nothing would change, instead she is incredibly persistent knowing that the pay off will be well worth it.
In present she has now reached her peak, she stands tall above the men in the room. Not because of her Job title, but because through all the abuse and discrimination she has endured has made her a stronger person. She does not feel a victim to their crude behavior, because it is this very behavior that puts her above them. All the drinking, smoking, indulging, multiple mistress are merely guises for the insurmountable insecurities the men carry as their burden. No she is not the victim, they are, with their empty houses and empty houses and empty hearts. Peggy is not just a character, she is something much bigger, she represents the massive change in the dominant ideologies of society during the time period Mad Men takes place.
In the episode “New Business” Peggy and the woman are seen in places above the men. Don is dealing with closing a divorce and finding new love, he is dealing with the many insecurities that come as a result of his self destructive nature. Perhaps an even more important representation is with Peggy’s relationship with the Stan Rizzo the Art Director at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Stan considers himself an artist, like many artists he has stubborn temperament and a larger ego. While he fills the prerequisites of an artist, he isn’t exactly a virtuoso. When Peggy brings in a highly skilled photographer to shoot their new ad campaign for a Vermouth company, Stan is deflated and even insulted. The successful visionary happens to be a female. Throughout the episode Stan shows resentment towards the photographer Pima, while at the same time he begs for her approval. Stan is threatened by a woman who is more talented than him, and desperately seeks her acceptance–even more admiration. At the end of the episode he gains the admiration only, but does not see that her physical advances do not signify the acceptance of his art. Stan weakness and insecurity makes him blind to the true motivations of Pima’s actions.
Stan is giddy in the afterglow of his interaction with Pima, and he even goes to boast about his advance to Peggy. He is unaware that Pima tried to pull a similar move on her while showing her the photos she is thinking about selecting to run in the advertisement. While Rizzo shares his exploits with the creative department. Peggy disparages Stan’s limelight by telling him she did not fall a victim to Pima’s seduction like he did. Peggy and Pima are both woman of power, but that does not mean they get along. In the end Peggy denies Pima’s sensitivity seeing it for what it truly is, a mask for creative control.
These clashing archetypes provide us with a fresh insight to what authority meant to woman of their time period. It deals with very real often taboo representations, such as a female using her body to make an advance in the power structure of a male dominated world. What Peggy and Pima have in common is the ability to see the weakness that resides behind the deception of male power. They represent something larger than any man in the show, they represent a changing world, where men can no longer just get by on the sole of merit of being a male. New ideas, mean old ones must be challenged.