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Golden Globes Sheds Light on Surprising Feminist Sleeper, “Mad Men”

pkamens Icon Posted by Paula Kamen

January 16th, 2008

Just by judging the show by its title, “Mad Men,” you may not immediately recognize it as a feminist groundbreaker. After all, it’s ostensibly about hard-driving, womanizing and drinking ad execs on Madison Avenue in NYC circa 1960.

But at the heart of the drama are the conflicted lives of its women directly confronting the entrenched and limiting sexism of the time. And it does so with more drama, depth, wrenching emotion, and complexity for a new generation of viewers than probably the most adroit Seven Sisters intro to women’s studies class.

Plus, the acting is incredible, just what you’d expect from the show’s creator, a former Soprano’s producer.

Thankfully, the drama received new attention on Sunday. The Golden Globes, albeit in a stripped down and austere show, named the show as the best “drama” on TV and the star, John Hamm, as best male actor. This is very notable for a drama obscured by its easily missed and ghettoized late-night airing time on, of all channels, AMC, usually sandwiched between a 2.5-star black-and-white Western.

For a complete feminist analysis of the show, better than anything I could produce here, see Marcia G. Yerman’s insightful article posted last month on Alternet, headlined “Sexism and the 60s.”

I’ll just add that, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and well acted characters to watch in Season 2 is Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), who starts out in the first episode of the show as Don Draper’s (John Hamm’s) new secretary. Soon an exec notices her natural copy-writing talent as she assists on a campaign to sell lipstick. As a novel move, the bosses give her copy-writing duties. Later, she gets promoted to junior copyeditor.

As we follow the progress of this “career woman,” we feel her struggles to be taken seriously and survive as a lone individual in a man’s world without any real rights (the benefits of an organized women’s movement). Just her talent and will enough are not enough to relieve her struggle, which reflects that of so many single women flooding into the urban workplace at that time (and created impetus for later organizing).

On her first day on the job, Peggy awkwardly flirts with her boss, doing what she thought a secretary had to do to survive, seeking power through sex. (Luckly, Draper reassures her that this is not necessary.) When she first gets her copyediting duties, she is offered no extra pay and has to do that work on her own time. Her pay is miserable, as we see her living in poverty with a roommate in a shabby apartment, as her bosses live in middle-class suburban luxury.

At best, her male colleagues treat her as an amusing novelty. At worst, they despise her as unnatural, constantly degrade her appearance as she gains weight during the season. She is constantly at odds with Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the office manager, who plays the Helen Gurley Brown “Sex and the Single Girl” part of the supposedly sexually “liberated” female who gets power ONLY through her sexuality. She is immediately threatened by Peggy, who is gaining some power (however minimal it is), with her brains. This represents the old school of “women’s lib” (power through sex) directly confronting the new one (power through real power).

Even more contentious is Peggy’s relationship with one of the young recently married and mediocre execs, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who comes from a privileged blue-blood Manhattan background and never hesitates to show his sense of entitlement. At first, he is drawn to her as a patronizing mentor and also as a dominating suitor. After much build up, they finally have an awkward quickie on his couch in the early-morning hours before the others arrive to the office. Soon after, he becomes increasingly resentful of and threatened by this woman for her “uppity” ways and talents.

(spoiler alert) In the show’s finale, it turns out that Peggy’s ensuing weight gain was not the result of “letting herself go,” as the others in the office constantly opine through the season. In a state of delusion and denial, she goes to the hospital for treatment for severe abdominal pain. It turns out she is 9 months pregnant and about to give birth. She is then sent upstairs to the obstetrics ward. In one of the most wrenching scenes I’ve seen on TV, the nurse brings her the baby, which she waves away.

Indeed, she has no real sexual options, to be both a “career” woman and a sexual “woman,” in ever having a self-directed sex life. Abortion was illegal. She was obviously not educated about birth control or empowered to use it. To have a career, she had to completely shut off that side of her, denying her baby as even a reality.

To catch these episodes, see the season encore on AMC starting on January 21. Then stay tuned the second season, which I hope gets more prime time treatment, deserving of such a first-class drama.

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