Mad Men’s seven seasons trace the lives of its characters as they navigate the tumultuous 1960s in New York City, each of them facing romantic, professional, and personal struggles that are only compounded by the violence and upheaval that defined American culture and politics at this time. Mad Men’s attention to detail in recreating the stylish 60s is remarkable, with its warm cinematography, expertly-selected pop music cues, cultural references from Ritz crackers to I Am Curious (Yellow), and, of course, the meticulously crafted fashion, makeup, and hairstyles.
What makes this attention to detail all the more impressive is the fact that the show keeps up with the rapidly changing artistic, cultural, political, and sartorial landscapes of the 60s as its seasons progress. Tailored black-and-white suits and slicked-back hair give way to moustaches and suede, and dresses are traded in for brightly coloured blouses and pants. Long-form television is the perfect medium for capturing the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) changes that occur in people’s lives over a period of many years. Mad Men’s manifold group of female characters face some of the most drastic, messy, complicated upheavals in the series, and the way that the show builds these women’s lives deserves more critical attention.
This time period in America is characterized by violent assassinations, the Vietnam War, hippie culture, and social movements against racism, homophobia, and sexism (notably through the rise of second-wave feminism). As Rachel Catlett writes: “The characters are not necessarily feminists, but Mad Men, at its core, is a series primarily concerned with the struggles of women in the 60s.” The show does not always explicitly reference second-wave feminism and “women’s liberation,” but, over the course of the series, the characters confront violence and dismissal based on their gender, some of which inspires them to fight back and reject the limitations placed upon them. Caroline Framke astutely points out that Mad Men is a show populated by men who want to change but cannot, and women who demonstrate remarkably rich inner lives and the ability to grow and change in ways the men would never even dream of.
The show most closely follows Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who begins the series as a shy, awkward secretary and ends it as a confident, self-assured businesswoman, a badass creative force to be reckoned with. In the first season’s “Babylon,” Peggy participates in a brainstorming session for Belle Jolie lipstick, and her creative turns of phrase (“a basket of kisses”) catch the attention of her older male colleague, Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray), who then asks her to write copy for the company’s advertisements. Thus begins Peggy’s rise up the corporate ladder at Sterling Cooper (and later, Cutler, Gleason & Chaough), and, although she is consistently patronized by her male colleagues and clients and underappreciated by her boss, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), she refuses to give up because she knows that she is good at her job and deserves her position on the creative team.
Peggy’s professional triumphs often seem to come at a price, and she frequently finds herself in the uncomfortable position of feeling as though she has to choose between her career and personal/romantic fulfillment. In the first season, Peggy has a brief affair with the newly-married Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and accidentally becomes pregnant, a fact that she keeps secret from almost everyone, save for Don, her family, and eventually Pete. Peggy makes the conscious decision not to keep her baby, demonstrating remarkable strength in the face of this life-altering decision. Rather than follow the traditional path expected of women in the 60s of finding a man, getting married, and settling down to start a family, Peggy opts to spend almost all of her time at the office, finding herself alone in the empty building on weekends, holidays, and late at night. The few people she ends up dating, Mark (Blake Bashoff) and Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), end up resenting her for being distant and more committed to her work than to their relationships.
Peggy’s transformation from a timid, inexperienced young woman to a brash, badass lead copywriter is never clearer than in the seventh season’s “Lost Horizon,” when she arrives at the new Sterling Cooper & Partners offices swaggering down the hallway in dark sunglasses, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, proudly carrying the painting she inherited from Bert Cooper, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The advertising world is rife with toxic masculinity, and while Peggy resents constantly being subjected to sexist remarks and behaviour, she also takes inspiration from the assertive, overly confident men she works with. Peggy sees men get away with terrible behaviour and over time decides that she, too, should be allowed to do so. She makes her opinion known, no matter the consequences, as in the fifth season premiere, “A Little Kiss,” when she looks the Heinz executives in the eye and fights for her “Bean Ballet” advertisement, arguing that her pitch is fresh and beautiful, terms rarely associated with baked beans.
Peggy is not always kind, and does not always make the best decisions (“I stabbed Abe…”), but she learns a lot about herself over the course of the series, and learns to navigate her difficult position as a professional woman in a patriarchal society. Perhaps nobody else besides Peggy knows the deep struggle of being a working woman more than Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Sterling Cooper’s head secretary and later one of the firm’s partners. When Peggy first arrives at Sterling Cooper, the voluptuous, confident Joan advises her on how to present herself and how to talk to men. Over the years, Joan and Peggy’s relationship becomes fraught at times as they try to help each other navigate the sometimes violently sexist industry in which they work.
Even as Joan acquires more respect and authority, her colleagues (men and women both) see her as nothing more than a sexual object. She is often good-natured when clients comment on her beauty and her body, but over time becomes worn out and angry. By the time she tells Peggy, “I want to burn this place to the ground,” after being sexually harassed in a meeting, it is clear that Joan will no longer tolerate being diminished and not taken seriously. Christina Hendricks beautifully portrays how Joan’s hurt, anger, and humiliation grow and deepen over time, pain caused by being raped by her husband, Greg (Samuel Page), being pressured by her male colleagues into having sex with a Jaguar executive in exchange for being made partner, and discovering her dear friend Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) dead body after he commits suicide. What makes Hendricks’s performance so brilliant is the way that Joan sometimes allows her tough exterior to crack, as when she throws a model airplane at Meredith (Stephanie Drake) or confronts Lane and remarks that she has yet to meet a man who does not treat her like a “helpless, stupid little girl.”
By the seventh season, Joan grows to realize that the only person she can rely on is herself, everyone else be damned. She and Greg divorce and she decides to raise her baby on her own, with little involvement from his biological father, Roger Sterling (John Slattery). After years of workplace harassment and mistreatment, Joan decides to start her own film production company that will be run out of her living room, an ambitious move that prompts her boyfriend, Richard (Bruce Greenwood), to leave her. Joan was always mature, disciplined, and brave, but she finally blossoms toward the end of the series as she begins to trust in her own talents more than she ever had before. Joan faced profound difficulties during the 1960s, yet the series suggests that the 1970 offers the dawning of a new and brighter era for her.
Betty Francis (January Jones) is perhaps the character with the most tragic ending. At times cold, uncaring, and vicious, Betty spends most of the series in misery. Yet Betty is compelling in the way she can be mean one moment and incredibly sensitive the next. She loves her children fiercely, but the way she shows affection sometimes looks and feels like rage. Betty begins the series as a perfectly-manicured docile housewife, speaking in a soft voice and capitulating to Don’s every desire, perhaps willfully ignoring his shady behaviour. It is not until the second season’s “A Night to Remember” that Betty truly crumbles after Don’s colleagues poke fun at her during dinner, after which she spends a number of days wearing the same dress and drinking red wine in bed. After this, Betty makes the wise decision to leave Don, and begins the process of becoming more assertive (some would argue too assertive).
By the time Betty receives a fatal diagnosis of lung cancer, she has caused considerable damage in a number of her relationships: with Don, with Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and with her second husband, Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). Her diagnosis is particularly tragic as it comes in the midst of her pursuing a psychology degree, a huge step for perpetual housewife Betty. After a number of unhappy relationships and unfulfilling years at home, Betty finally sees more for herself and her future, and going back to school is one of the few decisions that she makes solely for her own benefit. Despite her chilly exterior, she spends much of the series thinking about her children and her husband(s), doing what she can to provide them with good, comfortable lives (although not always in the most conventional ways). Toward the end of the series, she takes a step back and acknowledges her own intelligence—as she says to Henry, “I’m not stupid, you know. I can speak Italian!” Her stubbornness prevails as she refuses treatment and gives her family instructions on what to do in the event of her death.
The last glimpse we get of Betty—in “Person to Person”—finds her seated at her kitchen table smoking a cigarette while Sally washes the dishes. This scene heartbreakingly suggests that Sally will be the one taking on the housework after her mother is gone, a loss likely to happen in the near future. The other undercurrent of the scene is the fact that Sally and Betty have finally mended some of their resentment toward each other, a reconciliation catalyzed by the most unfortunate circumstances.
Sally experiences some of the most drastic changes of any character in the series. The first time we see her, she is a tiny munchkin, running around the house making trouble with Bobby (Maxwell Huckabee, later replaced by a number of different actors). Over time, Sally witnesses more debauchery and emotionally volatile situations than any little girl should ever have to. Her resentment toward both of her parents builds over time, as her mother becomes more spiteful and her father more pathetic, lost, and broken. Sally grows up quickly as a result, enduring her parents’ divorce, her grandfather’s death, and both Don and Betty’s remarriages before she even turns fifteen.
Sally’s curiosity sometimes gets her into trouble, as when she gets caught smoking a cigarette in the closet or masturbating at her friend’s house during a sleepover. Kiernan Shipka displays remarkable maturity in her characterization of Sally, and has a particular knack for delivering lines with blunt sincerity. Who can forget the ending of “At the Codfish Ball,” when Sally, having accidentally walked in on Marie (Julia Ormond) going down on Roger, bluntly proclaims that New York is “dirty,” or when she coldly tells Betty, cigarette in hand, “My father has never given me anything,” after she sees him cheating on Megan with his neighbour, Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini). Despite Betty’s worries that Sally is a perpetual problem child, by the end of the seventh season she has become an intelligent and sensitive young woman who will undoubtedly take wonderful care of her siblings when Betty is gone.
Mad Men undoubtedly made space for women characters to grow, learn, and face personal hardships, some of which have larger political and social resonance. Yet the show never made the same space for its non-white, non-heterosexual women, of which there are only a few. It certainly addresses racism and homophobia at times, yet never in a sustained way, and often only to reveal character development in the straight, white protagonists. In “Mystery Date,” Peggy brings secretary Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris) to her apartment so that she can stay the night, after Dawn reveals that she’s too scared to go home because of violent riots in Harlem. The scene largely focuses on Peggy’s awkward attempts at kindness, yet we never get to see how the interaction affects Dawn.
Dawn is one of the only recurring Black characters on the show, but she only appears in scenes taking place at work. Her banter with Peggy’s secretary, Shirley (Sola Bamis), is fantastic, but the show’s focus on their friendship is only cursory. Dawn is later promoted to head secretary, a monumental move for the closed-minded Sterling Cooper & Partners, but this promotion occurs toward the end of the series, leaving very little room for Dawn to become a protagonist.
Similarly, Peggy’s queer friend, Joyce (Zosia Mamet), is never afforded much interiority. She appears sporadically, looking cool in her tailored suits, offering Peggy opportunities to experience art and culture. She takes Peggy to a party/experimental film screening where she first meets Abe, and later shows the creative team at SC&P photos from the Richard Speck murders. Based on these small exchanges, we know very little about Joyce. She is Peggy’s cool friend, her gay friend, her photographer friend, yet we never see her again after the fifth season.
Outlining these blind spots serves only to suggest how Mad Men could have been more inclusive, and more attuned to the wide variety of people who lived and worked and loved in New York City in the 1960s. Mad Men provided television some of its most interesting, complex women for many years, and while the show’s anchor is ostensibly Don Draper, the women took it to a beautiful, tragic, angry, brilliant new level.