In all its gauzy, gorgeous mid-century modern detail, “Mad Men” is a kind of funhouse mirror held up to the cultural norms of sixties America. Look how far we’ve come. Look how cool it was.
But “Mad Men” is a period piece that very often isn’t for women—and I am one of them—who have worked in advertising. Because for every office tableau that seems hopelessly retro—The typewriters; those African American elevator operators; that three-martini lunch!—there comes a moment that feels a bit too contemporary. A male account executive bemoaning the “humorless” women who take offense at his inappropriate jokes. The unofficial client meeting that ends up happening at a gentlemen’s club. That free-floating sexual innuendo that is just benign enough to ignore, especially when you’re the only woman in the room—but not so benign that you’re sure you should have.
My own “Mad Men” moments have been many. At the first presentation I made at a General Motors meeting, a dealer in the front row asks if I could move to the left so that the audience could better see the storyboards. When I said yes and shifted, a second dealer called out “Hey, we’d rather see you.”
It’s amazing how swiftly women in the workplace have to calculate in moments like this. How much respect will I lose if I say nothing? How much animus will I invite if I say too much? How do I get back to my presentation without missing more than a beat? My response, as I recall, was some version of what I hoped was an arch, but not too arch, “I’d rather you looked at the boards.” Delivered with the requisite smile, of course. So unsurprising—ordinary, even—was this event that when I brought it up not long ago to a male colleague and friend who was in the room that day, his first response was “Oh, that happened for sure.” He then noted that he had no memory of it.
It’s also telling that even today—over a decade later—I can still remember what I was wearing: A red A-Line skirt, a black turtleneck, and boots. That the memory of my fashion choices exists at all speaks to the self-questioning that women wrestle with after they have been reduced to a stereotype—was it something I did?—and the deeply engrained belief that we can change men’s responses to us simply by changing our clothes. That memory may also explain my mixed response to “Severance,” the first episode of the second half of the final season, when account executive Joan Holloway—in the wake of being harassed by the client—dons black glasses and a high-necked blouse. It’s the sort of age-old capitulation that feels both unfortunately necessary and self-defeating.
The male dominated environs of ad agency Sterling Cooper remain less of an anachronism than we might think. According to a 2013 article in Fast Company, only 3 percent of agency creative directors are women, even though women control 80 percent of consumer spending. The underrepresentation of women in advertising is contributing to an industry that is too often churning out work that relies on female stereotypes to “gain eyeballs,” as a Slate article about 2015’s sexist Superbowl ads makes clear.
“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner has often stated that two 1960s-era classics—Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl—have had an outsize influence on the show. “I felt I was presented with the deep conflict that existed in my female characters of the period,” Weiner noted in an interview with The New York Times. “Obstacles in the career and at home, motherhood, the pill … the identity of a woman in our culture was in complete crisis. Now I know that it wasn’t just that period.”
It’s not surprising that Weiner has co-opted the central theme of both of these books—addressing the female crisis of identity—in creating his show’s women. What’s surprising is that he imposes them on his lead male character, Don Draper.
Like the women around him, Don has constructed a self that closely approximates a particular American ideal. There is something of the perpetual outsider about him. He is in the room but never quite feels of it—perpetually taking a slow drag of his cigarette as he rolls mental tape on all he sees. Don watches women, and he watches the world watching women, but he is well aware that he is also under the watch of the more powerful and privileged men in his milieu. This may explain Don’s very real moments of feminist sympathy. It certainly underscores the fact that class, as well as gender, can be a marginalizing force.
To call Don an anti-hero—as many have—is to miss the point. It’s more accurate to say that he is a contradiction in terms. He is a vessel for past prejudices who has rare moments of enlightenment. He’s a philanderer who gravitates toward strong and independent women. He finds the plan to prostitute Joan in exchange for a prize car account appalling, even though he has sought the company of prostituted women himself.
His response to the sexist banter—usually directed downward at the secretaries—that is the lingua franca of the other men in the Sterling Cooper office is to frown slightly and change the subject or shut down the speaker entirely, as he does with sycophantic account director Peter Campbell: “Advertising is a small world, Pete, and when you malign a girl from the steno pool it gets even smaller. Keep it up and you’ll never run this place. You know why? Because no one will like you.”
Don is not afraid to advocate for women he respects, as Peggy Olson, the secretary he mentors all the way to her own corner office, recognizes when she says, “The day you saw something in me, my whole life changed.” But in earlier seasons he was also not above reducing her success to gendered binaries, praising her for “presenting like a man.” He gets it right just often enough to redeem himself with women like Peggy, but not so often that he contributes to any real change.
But Don—as deeply flawed as he is—is one of the most feminist characters on the show, more so, even, than many of the women. Joan suggests to Peggy that she bask in the unwanted attention of the office men (“You’re the new girl, and you're not much, so you might as well enjoy it while it lasts”). Talent manager Bobbie Barrett’s believes that professional power can be gained through sexual power (“Be a woman. It’s powerful stuff when done well”). These feel like antecedents to a sort of Beyoncé-style, “work it” feminism that holds that self-objectification isn’t really objectification as all. And when Betty Draper tells Don that Sally’s life wouldn’t be worth living if Sally lost her looks, we are watching a woman who has internalized a form of sexism that social scientists and feminist critics have been alerting us to for years.
Yet if “Mad Men” is gimlet-eyed about the ways that marginalized women can turn on one another, it’s not unsympathetic about why this is so. When Joan tells Peggy, who has been left out of an all-male meeting, “You’re in their country. Learn to speak the language,” she does it with the faintest hint of a shrug. This isn’t a woman embracing the state of office affairs. It’s a woman coping with a reality she believes she cannot alter.
More than a few “Mad Men” fans have expressed the opinion that the show’s representations of workplace harassment go too far. Weiner, addressing recent criticism of the show, notes that women who work in advertising have consistently responded differently to “Mad Men” than the men in the industry do. “Men will say, ‘This is outrageous … it’s too unbelievable’ … and women will say … 'You’re nuts. It’s still like that.’”
My own sense is that this is less a question of whether what’s being represented on the show once happened, or is still happening today—as this National Women’s Law Center report makes clear, workplace sexual harassment is indeed alive and well—and more about how differently women and men remember (and not just experience) those events. For a woman on the receiving end of a degrading comment, the memory lingers. For men, such rhetoric is just in the ether: ever present, rarely notable, and easily forgettable.
Still, something feels too obvious by half about the show’s last few episodes—as if ideology were driving character, instead of the other way around. The best “Mad Men” episodes have characters saying offensive things that are far more nuanced. The show is at its thought-provoking best when it takes on the sexism that’s far less obvious—the “micro-aggressions” that so barely register that they might not be recognized as aggressions at all.
At the beginning of season seven, a drunken and recently demoted Don confides to his former colleague Freddy— an aging freelancer no longer much in demand—that he reports to Peggy, whom Freddy also mentored. “Peggy!” Freddy replies—in wonder, perhaps in anger, and almost certainly in the knowledge that she now has the career he never will. Was it an ageing man’s fear of being replaced? A sexist man’s surprise that the timid young woman who once reported to him had outpaced him?
The ambiguity of the moment is what makes it so difficult to watch—and more difficult still to name. We don’t know what drives Freddy, and in the end it doesn’t much matter. Male motive isn’t really the issue. The marginalization of women in the workplace is.
My own experience in advertising was in many ways a positive one. I was hired as a copywriter in 1994, after a series of interviews done by six (all white, all male) Leo Burnett executives, four of them who had been at the agency during the tail end of the “Mad Men” era. They were almost always appropriate, if also occasionally paternalistic. Years later, a trifecta of male mentors advocated for my promotions to creative director, senior vice president, and group creative director. Put another way, my experience hews closer to Peggy’s than to Joan’s. But that 3 percent figure for female creative directors at the agency? It was about right.
What makes the story of Peggy’s rise most poignant is that she is beginning and ending the series as the exception, not the rule.