The Women of ‘Mad Men’: An Essay

[So, admittedly, I had wanted to write about Dexter today, but I am simply not going to have time. In short, finale is good, but I have some serious issues with the season as a whole that keep my from joining the hype train. However, I can offer you the following: it’s my Lit. Theory essay about ‘Mad Men’, one of my favourite series of the year, and recently nominated for two Golden Globes. I wanted to throw in a couple of YouTube videos here and there to spice it up but there’s no time; so, it’s just 2800 words of me intellectually rambling! Enjoy!]

From a twenty-first century perspective, the 1960s present a strange and foreign environment in which social interaction was defined by an entirely different set of rules. Man Men, a television drama from Matthew Weiner, takes place in the world of advertising during an era where smoking is natural and where segregation defines African-Americans as ‘the help’. While these social issues are used to locate the show within this specific time, largely remaining unchallenged within the show’s narrative, the presentation of women within Mad Men is a more deconstructive element. The series presents two women, in particular, who find themselves intertwined with this fast-moving world dominated by male figures: Peggy, a young secretary turned copy writer who struggles with her weight, and Betty, the wife of the Head of Creative who is defined by her domestic role. The series may be focused on an industry and a time period where the role of women was marginalized, but it represents an opportunity for the show’s writers to emphasize how this marginalization impacts these two women in particular.

Specifically, the daily activities of the Sterling Cooper agency are particularly worrisome: the discourse of advertising speaks to all audiences but is written and created almost exclusively by male writers. This environment provides a fertile ground for an investigation of the role language plays in reaffirming or challenging the patriarchal order. Peggy’s attempts to break into this industry may provide the most extensive representation of feminist literary theory within the series, but Mad Men also emphasizes the level to which phallocentric discourses bleed into the life of a young wife struggling to come to terms with her own identity. Mad Men is not a feminist television series, as its dedication to realism keeps either of these characters from emerging in defiance of all their unfair treatment. However, that attention to realism allows the series to demonstrate the level to which patriarchal discourse was dominant in life and language during this period, historicizing this period of feminine experience.

The concept of language is, according to Dale Spender, an eternal paradox which offers both wonderful opportunity and dismissive limitations; while there are a multitude of theories regarding language from a feminist perspective, Spender’s offers the greatest understanding of its ability to shape ideas. In “Language and Reality: Who Made the World?” Spender argues that there is a language trap: while language represents an area for imagination and creativeness to thrive, “we are constricted by that creation, limited to its confines, and it appears we resist, fear and dread any modifications to the structures we have initially created” (146). The problem, of course, is that these structures have been created by the dominant group, which Spender identifies as a male one. She believes that it is men “who have created the world, dominated the categories, constructed sexism and its justification and developed a language trap which is in their interest” (147). The true potential of language is difficult to achieve; language presents a fertile ground for women to reassert themselves within its creative forms but its existing patriarchal structures will prove a challenge to true subversion. Spender notes that the definitive quality of feminist analysis of language is that “feminists assert that we did not create these categories or the means of legitimizing them” (147); language is not a reflection of a patriarchal reality encompassing both male and female, but rather simply the patriarchal dominance of men. This is the challenge facing those who desire to change the discourse of language.

The importance of these principles can be succinctly displayed within Mad Men‘s basic setting: the advertising business was one of the main ways in which this male structure was substantiated and emphasized within the 1960s, and the series reflects these concerns within its structure. Sterling Cooper’s motivation within the series is to use and create language which will define or redefine a product or, in some cases, reality itself. While the audience for this language is society as a whole, its creation is a process of male writers drafting campaigns for male corporate executives. In the show’s Pilot, “Smoke in Your Eyes,” head of creative Donald Draper enters a room to meet with a client, and sees two individuals: one male, and one female. It is not a coincidence that he shakes the hand of the male representative, although it turns out that it is a woman, Rachel Menken, who is in control of the account. Don is one of the most progressive characters in the series, but his reaction to her attempts to control the account for her father’s department store is extremely telling. This is the language trap at work: Spender notes that once we have constructed language “we are most reluctant to organize the world any other way” (146). When Rachel attempts to redefine the advertising campaign in her own terms, Draper turns defensive, and eventually storms out of the room vowing that he is “not going to let a woman talk to me like this.” However, this experience with a client is nearly identical to an experience with a male tobacco executive later in the episode, and Draper does not react in the same fashion. The problem is not the tone of her language, but rather that she is attempting to use and co-opt a language created and controlled by men.

Mad Men‘s depiction of this sad reality of the advertising industry is necessary, however, in order to present an opportunity for change. Spender argues that the creation of language was such that “at no stage of this process were females in a position to promote alternatives, or even to disagree” (152). Specific to the creation of general language, she notes that there has been no influential female figure; in Mad Men, there is such an individual in Peggy Olsen, Draper’s secretary. After a brainstorming session for a lipstick account, designed to gather purely observational data from the stenography pool at Sterling Cooper, she stumbles upon her own language for the product by referring to the discarded tissues as “a basket of kisses.” With the male copywriters struggling to put together the right copy to express this product, they decide to allow Peggy to give it a shot. On the surface, this presents an extremely important opportunity: she is being asked to create her own language for this brand of lipstick. For Spender, this is chance to make headway into the problem of patriarchal language: she believes that feminists “are simply doing what males have done in the past: they are trying to produce their own linguistic forms which do not diminish them” (152). From a ideal feminist perspective, then, this turns Peggy into a pioneer of women’s language who can begin to promote an alternative to the male-dominated industry.

This idealistic scenario, however, is not possible within the environment of the ad agencies of the 1960s, and Man Men‘s commitment to realism identifies this glass ceiling. Peggy writes the copy for the Belle Jolie advertisements, but the advertisements are drawn and presented by men in “The Hobo Code.” Her role in the process is not even mentioned to the executives, swept under the rug as simply one female cog in the male machine. While Peggy does not have a feminist aspiration per se, Mad Men emphasizes the unfortunate futility that women faced during the period; Peggy is in a position to draft language, but she is not in a position to fundamentally change the industry for which it is written. Spender is not ignorant to some of the criticisms facing women who attempt to redefine language, noting that it could often be considered “tampering with the language” (152). However, any tampering Peggy does is simply edited out when it becomes finalized; there is little subversive about simply delaying the inevitable. Her subsequent rise to the position of junior copywriter, the first woman writer hired by Sterling Cooper since the war, is a personal triumph but does not transcend to a powerful feminist statement. However, in emphasizing this rise against the system, Mad Men does portray the efforts of women, and draws attention to her plight in a sympathetic light.

Although Peggy is certainly a sympathetic character, she also represents someone who is willing to compromise to fit into a man’s world. Peggy becomes a writer, but she does so within the terms of a male-dominated industry that is built on a foundation of patriarchal language. When her first copy is accepted in “The Hobo Code,” she remarks that the tagline is different than her initial copy; the men laugh off her comment, as one remarks that “You may be a writer honey: you’re arrogant.” In criticizing the writing of Luce Irigaray, Toril Moi attacks her for her views on female mimicry; Moi believes that “what she seems not to see is that sometimes a woman imitating male discourse is just a woman speaking like a man” (142). Inevitably, this is the journey which Peggy has taken, and Moi would argue that this limits her ability to attempt a subversive discourse. However, at the same time, she would never have been able to make any difference if she had not been willing to write what the industry expected; considering that the show is staunchly realistic in its portrayal of this time period, her rise to the position of junior copywriter represents an amazing amount of career mobility for a woman at the time. While Peggy’s mimicry does demonstrate the fact that Peggy will never be able to represent ideal female subversion, her appropriation of language has nonetheless been a positive step forward for her character. Matthew Weiner and the writers of Mad Men cannot be faulted for presenting a character who is human, and who places her career aspirations over her gender; this was a common scenario during this era, and is a proper reflection of the historical period.

Mad Men may be primarily focused on the inner-workings of an advertising agency, but it also focuses on how language of this nature is echoed within other discourses on a more domestic level. In “Indian Summer,” Peggy is assigned to write copy for an electric weight loss belt which requires a catchy ad campaign. The account presents further opportunities to display Peggy’s rise within the ranks of Sterling Cooper, as she presents her work on the product to male executives. Further identifying the level to which Peggy has had to conform in order to rise, however, Draper offers the following piece of advice: “You presented like a man, now act like one.” More importantly, however, the electric weight loss belt represents a product being marketed to women that could actually represent sexual liberation. Peggy’s copy presents the product as a way for women to attain a refreshed sense of self, but in reality the product offers sexual stimulation. The men are unhappy with Peggy’s choice of language, but they approve of her intention: selling to a woman’s desire for sexual satisfaction while redefining it in terms which only hint at the machine’s true purpose. They manipulate language on all of the products they sell, but in this case it seems particularly delicate: they know they need to reveal the sexual benefits of the product in order to sell more units, but they are wary of defining a woman’s sexual pleasure.

The message that the show is sending in this instance was the level to which this question of language wasn’t just excluding women, but was actually attempting to define their own personal desires. Luce Irigaray, writing about the power of discourse, identifies that a woman’s sexual pleasure is something which presents an opportunity for subversion. She writes that “feminine pleasure has to remain inarticulate in language, in its own language, if it is not to threaten the underpinnings of logical operations” (796). Phallocentrism, Irigaray argues, forces women to relate their pleasure to men, and any attempt to do otherwise would be suppressed by male desires. This viewpoint has particular relevance when you consider the rest of “Indian Summer.” Peggy’s campaign runs concurrent to a storyline in which, subconsciously, Draper’s wife Betty imagines a sexual encounter with a salesman while finding pleasure leaning against the washing machine. One of the criticisms of Irigaray’s theory is that it ignores specific and material male power relationships in favour of a more philosophical perspective; Moi writes that “feminism is not simply about rejecting power, but about transforming the existing power structures” (147). Betty’s reaction to this mental digression from her marriage, apologizing to her husband for allowing the salesman into the house the day previous, identifies that the philosophical power of sexuality is in this case a slave to more material definitions of this power relationship.

The message Mad Men sends to its audience regarding this relationship is that Betty is not complete under the control of patriarchal structures, but often chooses to be. For the most part, Betty represents the perfect demonstration of the level to which material phallocentric relationships define female existence. In “Shoot,” she is approached by a marketing competitor of her husband who believes she might be a perfect model for a Coca-Cola advertisement his agency is handling. Immediately, this seems to liberate a part of Betty that has remained dormant, as she digs into her closet to rediscover the outfits gifted to her by a designer during her time as a model. However, the episode does not liberate her from male power structures but rather shuffles her between them. Her nostalgic return to her modeling days is still a return to an industry rife with male power, specifically in her role as a muse. Her current position as a model does allow her some economic freedom from her domestic life, but her hiring is dependent on her husband joining with this rival company; when he decides against it, she is promptly fired. At the end of the episode, Betty sits at home with her children and decides to retake control of the domestic sphere: in a jarring scene, she takes a B.B. gun and fires at her neighbour’s pigeons for threatening the family canine. It’s an extremely evocative scene, and is yet another complicated choice which Betty has made in her young life.

It is important to remain aware of the fact that it was Betty’s choice: speaking in an interview, the show’s creator Matthew Weiner argues that Betty “is not just some feminist symbol, she’s a person who made choices in her life” (The Watcher). And, in the end, this is a realistic portrayal of a housewife during this period: someone who married young and was suppressed by patriarchal relationships around her would not become an ideal feminist in the early 1960s. In many ways, Betty is treating life like a modeling job, putting on a certain image and accepting certain directions; this is a human approach that creates significant depth in the series. This is a woman who is willing to play the role ninety percent of the time, but on occasion will go outside with a B.B. gun and a cigarette in her mouth. Obviously, however, this realistic portrayal is not as positive as some would like it to be. Images of Women criticism is an area which believes that the portrayal of women in literature should be as realistic as possible, an interest which Mad Men‘s writers share. However, Toril Moi demonstrates that this form of criticism also desires and “strives to identify with strong, impressive female characters” (46). Mad Men‘s portrayal of women, in the end, walks a fine line between these two ideas. It cannot live up to the desire for strong and impressive female characters, because the America of 1960 would not have been able to live up to that expectation. The show’s commitment to realism ostensibly limits it to a representation of female characters who are not passive beings: they are women who makes choices that, while not destroying the patriarchal system, certainly have a part to play in this society.

As a twenty-first century representation of an earlier era, Mad Men is being written in an environment which is far less gender-biased, and as a result there could be an expectation that there should be a greater emphasis on a feminist interpretation. However, what the series provides is deconstruction through a realistic interpretation of these events from a female perspective. While some theorists may argue that in representing the phallocentric systems of language and power relations the series is simply reaffirming their role in society, the show has done an admirable job of presenting a realistic image of this period where these systems were dominant. The series does not vilify or validate the oppression of women within the society, but rather demonstrates how it impacted these women on a personal and professional level. After watching the series, young viewers with no recollection of the 1960s will have a greater understanding of the conditions women faced during this period, and this historical account of women’s rights in America is a valuable discourse in understanding these ideas. Mad Men is not just a series about its titular ad executives, but rather a series about the society of an earlier era in which women play a prominent if marginal role; it is this realistic portrayal which brings to light important barriers facing women both then and now, even without developing into the pinnacle of a feminist text.

Works Cited

Irigaray, Luce. “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd edn. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 795-8.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. London: Routledge, 2002.

Ryan, Maureen. “Wild about ‘Mad Men‘: A talk with creator Matthew Weiner.” Weblog entry. The Watcher. 15 October 2007. Chicago Tribune. <http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2007/10/mad-about-mad-m.html&gt;

Spender, Dale. “Language and Reality.” The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader. Eds. Lucy Burke, Tony Crowley, Alan Girvin. London: Routledge, 2000. 145-53.

“Pilot (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes).” Mad Men. AMC. 19 Jul. 2007.

“The Hobo Code.” Mad Men. AMC. 6 Sept. 2007.

“Shoot.” Mad Men. AMC. 13 Sept. 2007.

“Indian Summer.” Mad Men. AMC. 4 Oct. 2007.

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “The Women of ‘Mad Men’: An Essay

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