I love Peggy. Throughout Mad Men’s four seasons, she is the character who has undergone the most change, from meek Brooklyn-bred office secretary to powerhouse Manhattan-girl copywriter with her own office and a whole lot of confidence to boot. She looks for opportunities and takes them, and even asks her boss, the show’s main character Don Draper, for equal pay (though she does not get it). But as we learned in last week’s episode, she is dedicated to her job at the expense of her personal life. And while we may have cherished the image of her and Don asleep on the office couch, there are probably few of us who would want to stay overnight at the office on our birthdays.
Peggy is able to get ahead at work not only because she is talented, but also because she gave up her baby. Peggy tells Don that she doesn’t want what she’s supposed to want and that nothing she does feels as good or as important as what happens in the office, and we cheer, and yet we are also rooting for our own harsh dichotomy: be successful in your career or have kids – you can’t have it all. The men in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office look at marriage and children as pegs on the ladder to success; a married man is viewed as more stable and having children to support might mean a raise. When a woman gets married, she is expected to leave the office, and not a single woman that we see on the show has a child and still works (aside from Peggy, who was unaware of her pregnancy).
It’s easy to look at Peggy and identify with her as a professional woman or even as a role model as we see what risks she takes in her sexist circumstances, or to hate Betty Draper for the cold way she deals with her children and her seemingly selfish unhappiness, or to blanket-statement say that Joan Holloway is fabulous because we envy her wardrobe. But what we really are seeing are women who don’t have choices, and that is Mad Men’s most sexist element.
Betty is a woman of privilege, yet she has no assets of her own. We learn that she went to college as an anthropology major and worked as a model when she met Don. Once she started having kids, she quit working and moved into suburbia to start keeping up with the Joneses. She gets the opportunity to start modeling again (really she is just being used as a pawn to lure her husband over to a different agency), and learns that she, not even 30, is already too old – lining up behind her are younger women who are also just waiting to get married so that they too can quit working. Betty busies herself with horseback riding and volunteer work but doesn’t feel fulfilled. She is living the Feminine Mystique – a very white, upper-middle-class, privileged symptom – the “problem that cannot be named.” And while it is easy to hate her in her ivory tower, if we were lucky enough we would all be or aspire to be Betty in this era.
But despite her status, is she really better off? She is treated like a child by her psychiatrist, who tells her husband everything she says in her sessions, by her doctor, who tells her that an abortion is not for a “woman of means” like her, and by the hospital who restrains her and drugs her against her will as she’s giving birth. When she divorces Don, we learn that despite the obvious fact that he was cheating on her, she wouldn’t have grounds unless there was hard evidence, and the fact that she was already entangled with another man makes the charges null and void. Don also has the power to take the children if he wanted to, and Betty has to rely on her next husband for financial support. Her agency comes in making the only decision she can – who she marries.
Joan blends a bit of both Peggy’s and Betty’s worlds – she is both respected at the office and married. However, as we learn, this isn’t a balance of choice, but of necessity – Joan’s husband Greg fails to get ahead as a surgeon and Joan must take up another job at the expense of her pride. Of course, having both partners working was a fact of life then just as much as it is now, but we also know that Joan is planning on starting a family. Will she still be running the offices of SCDP with a baby on the way? Will they section off a room for her to pump her breastmilk as she flawlessly puts together a client meeting? And will her value as client bait diminish if she loses her figure?
Joan’s situation is interesting because in wanting “what she’s supposed to want,” she stands to lose the most. I would love to see the office supporting her life decisions, but it’s hard to predict what will happen in such a sexist era. If you remember what Roger Sterling said to Don, arriving late to work after his wife just had their third child, “Betty had the baby, not you.” Mad Men is not the model for work-life balance.
So who, if anyone, is the show’s feminist champion? What would the ideal feminist role model on the show look like? Is such a character even possible? Leave your thoughts below!