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What’s Happening to the Women of “Mad Men”?

What's Happening to the Women of "Mad Men"?

“Game of Thrones” has been monopolizing the conversation about gender roles in pop culture of late, with “Star Wars” now rising to take its place. But a few critics have picked this week to focus in on how “Mad Men” is dealing, or not dealing, with its female characters.

At Time, James Poniewozik asks, “What Have You Done With Peggy Olson?” The go-getting copywriter has been acting awfully frazzled of late, straddling the line between Hannah Horvath and a Cathy cartoon.

“Since the beginning of the series, she’s often seemed to be a kind of mirror, alternative Don, and we soon saw that she, like him, was unmoored in 1969 — except that her unmooring, apparently, was all about a man, Ted Chaough,” he writes. 

It’s not implausible or belittling that Peggy should be a wreck, even months later — any more than it was, say, for Don to fall to pieces over his rejection by his neighbor Sylvia last year. There problem here is that right now Angry Lovelorn Peggy is all the show is giving us. Don can be fighting for his professional life and yet still struggle in his marriage and with his kids — hell, that’s sort of what he’s for. And Peggy, conversely, has wrestled with personal issues — Abe, her pregnancy, her mother — and thrown herself into her work at the same time. Right now, though, the balance seems badly off; what we see of Peggy at the office is refracted almost entirely through reminders that she’s shattered over Ted to the point of seeming like a different person. It isn’t about the show being obligated to make Peggy perfectly likable, or empowered, or happy. It is about maintaining the complexity of a character who, over six seasons, has become the de facto female lead; or, at least, if her character radically changes, providing a reason beyond, “She went through a really bad breakup last season.”

At the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ Dear Television blog, Anne Helen Peterson takes up a lonelier cause with “In Defense of Betty Draper,” sticking up for the stuck-up housewife and horror-show mom whom “Mad Men’s” viewers have largely grown to hate. (NB: Petersen knows full well that it’s Betty Draper Francis now, but it’s hard to think of her that way.)

One of the main defenses of any abhorrent character, whether in “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” or “All in the Family,” is that they’re a “product of their times.” This argument is usually wielded as a means of recuperating misogynistic, racist, and/or homophobic men: of course he sexually assaulted/manipulated/destroyed that woman; that’s how men operated then! To some extent, I actually buy this argument: there’s no “outside” of ideology, even in fictional television, and all men must wallow in the moral imperatives set forth by their narratives. 

What strikes me, then, is how seldom this defense is used to exonerate unlikable women. Their actions are just as circumscribed by the ideologies that inform their cultures, but instead of explaining why they are the way they are, we call them bitches and shrews, harpies and sluts. Which is precisely why I think it’s so critical to defend Betty: she is absolutely a product of pre-feminist sensibilities. All of horribleness, all of the judging — it’s all her sad, broken way of flailing against the quiet yet overwhelming disappointment of her life. She’s immature; she lacks introspection — but it’s difficult to blame her when the one attempt at gaining it culminated in a man looking down her shirt and reporting her confessions directly to her husband

“Mad Men’s” characters may be a product of their time, but the show is a product of ours, and as such, it walks a tricky line. In essence, the show needs to notice things its characters don’t, often tweaking viewers’ awareness with a precisely calibrated swivel of a character’s eyes: No one spoke out against Lou Avery’s casual racism in “Time Zones,” but you could see it register on Dawn’s face, even as she held her tongue. And some of that, at least, is going on with Peggy Olson. Her signature moment in “Field Trip,” where Don Draper made his tentative return to Sterling Cooper & Partners, came when she gave her old boss a sullen welcome back: “Can’t say we missed you.” But the finest moment in Elisabeth Moss’s performance comes much earlier, when she first hears Don has entered the office. Moss, whose talents will be on further display in “The One I Love” and “Listen Up Philip” later this year, is unparalleled in her ability to put across multiple reactions in a single shot, and when Peggy first hears Don is mere feet away, her face is less an open book than an emotional encyclopedia: She’s giddy and angry and disgusted and nervous all at once. When Peggy confronts Don later, it’s less because she’s settled her feelings than decided on one to present to him. She’s put herself up to being a bitch, so he won’t see that despite the bad blood between them, she’s at least a little glad to have him back.

Betty’s a tougher nut to crack. Her lunch, early in “Field Trip,” with her old pal Francine culminates with Betty cooly blowing smoke at her former neighbor, evidently finding the pride Francine takes in her newfound travel-agent gig distasteful. But when we first met met Betty, she was at least part career gal: Only since she signed up as Henry Francis’ political trophy wife has she come around to the conservative notion that a woman should be able to fulfill herself within the bounds of the home. As such, I think it’s less that she lives, as Petersen puts it, “in a world without feminism” — although she’s certainly grew up in one — than a world defined against it. The woman’s movement was up and running in 1969, and the sour looks Betty throws at her son Bobby’s braless teacher tell you exactly what she thinks of it. The 1960s didn’t turn out well for everyone, and Betty seems like one of the people for whom the strictures of the old order are preferable to the uncertainty of the new. 

Betty was a model, whose job, like that of the ideal 1950s housewife, was, in essence, to look good. But now, she looks old, her Chanel suits more evocative of Jackie Kennedy than Patricia Nixon (to say nothing of Bella Abzug). She’s noticed that her daughter, Sally, is growing up, and doesn’t like it one bit, but she seems blind to the fact that Bobby’s following suit. He’s starting to have those feelings, even if he’s confused about who to direct them towards; when Betty swigs from a pail of fresh milk at the farm, a pretty female classmate tries to catch Bobby’s eye, but he’s only got eyes for his mom.

None of this exactly answers the charge that what “Mad Men” is doing with Peggy and Betty is repetitive or backpedaling or both. But as Poniewozik notes, we’re three episodes into what, depending on how you count, is either a seven- or 14-episode season, and no one in the business breaks a season as precisely as Matthew Weiner. It’s seemed possible for a while now that “Mad Men” might do better to drop Betty altogether than keeping pulling her back in for variations on the same theme, but Peggy, at least, has frequently risked displacing Don as the show’s protagonist, and if, as is hard to argue, the show has had her spinning her wheels for a few episodes, it’s almost certainly because she’s got places to go soon.

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