Specifically, this is elaborating on thoughts found in an essay in the book Mad Men and Philosophy, edited by Rob Carveth and James B. South. The essay is “Mad Women: Aristotle, Second-Wave Feminism, and the Women of Mad Men,” by Ashley Jihee Barkman. It’s a very well-written essay, and very correct in many places. I couldn’t help but thinking, though, that the analysis offered in the essay might have altered slightly had the essay been written after season four and not after season three, and so I will expand upon thoughts, with all respect and admiration to Barkman. I am but a pop culturally analytical college student, so I’m sure I don’t have the same credibility, but bear with me.
The essay begins with a description of the woes that the women face and their reactions: “sexual harassment in the workplace, adulterous husbands, and even nonconsensual sex,” and they’re “shown coping in an era fraught with what Aristotle, in a qualified sense, would deem ‘injustice’”(203). Fair points. Barkman disregards Aristotle’s view of women as being “incomplete men” early on, so that’s not an issue.
Her essay also has the three main female characters, Peggy Olson [Elisabeth Moss], Betty Draper [January Jones], and Joan Holloway Harris [Christina Hendricks] are the primary focuses, and this makes sense. Peggy, she says, “is the lone individual who receives due justice — that is, she is treated as possessing a rational soul — but seeks it out as well”(205). Betty is less fortunate; “Perhaps her beauty muffles her chance at self-actualization”(211) but at the end of her marriage to Don (Jon Hamm) “the threshold of injustice she can bear has been reached”(212). Joan, somewhere in the middle of the two experiences, is “an invaluable part of the ad agency”(213) but Barkman describes her as “the least progressive of the three women”(212).
This is a notion I have a problem with. “She neither initiates like Peggy, nor reacts like Betty, but patiently waits for her due. Joan is a woman comfortable and content in the values and expectations of those in the pre-second wave world (of feminism),” Barkman writes, also on page 212 of the book. In the first seasons, this is true. Joan, despite being college-educated and clearly efficient in the workplace, has been raised to believe that a woman’s worth is in her looks, and she doesn’t see much reason to question that. She knows that that’s how the world of the office is and there’s nothing she can do to change it, so she may as well accept it and make the most of it.
But by season four, there’s a bit of a shift. She came onto the new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, from the ground up, helping organize and initiate the move and facilitate the new organization, and she’s proved herself even more “invaluable” in the new workplace. Despite having not been working after her marriage to Greg Harris (Sam Page), Roger Sterling (John Slattery) knew that they couldn’t make the transition without her. And though it’s not really said explicitly, Joanie is happier when she’s working. She seemed restless in the life of a housewife (the dinner party in 3xo3, “My Old Kentucky Home,” has forever won the award for Most Heartbreaking Accordion Performance in my heart) and having purpose is something that helps, especially as Greg transitions to the position of a military doctor and is there for her less.
But there’s this telling conversation between Peggy and Joan in the last episode of season four, “Tomorrowland,” and I will actually copy the entire thing out because I think it’s just that important.
Joan: Whatever could be on your mind?
Peggy: Can you believe it?
Joan: Happens all the time. They’re all just between marriages, you know that. He’ll probably make her a copywriter. He’s not gonna wanna be married to his secretary.
Peggy: Really? Is that what he meant? “She admires you.” Jesus.
Joan: That’s the way it works for some.
Peggy: You know, I just saved this company. I signed the first new business since Lucky Strike left. But it’s not as important as getting married. Again.
Joan: Well, I was just made Director of Agency Operations. A title, no money of course. And if they poured champagne it must have been while I was pushing the mail cart.
Peggy: A pretty face comes along and everything goes out the window.
Joan: Well, I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction from this job.
Peggy: That’s bullshit.
Both women laugh.
Don has just become engaged to his secretary, Megan Calvet (Jessica Paré), and the men in the office seem more focused on this event than either of the actually workplace-related advancements that Peggy and Joan have made. The other women in the agency come and go with some regularity, but these two have stuck around, and they’re clearly doing important work. And even Joan’s tired of sitting around just letting it go unnoticed, now.
More importantly, though, I think Barkman’s essay neglects the other women of Mad Men, the supporting supporting characters. Women like Midge Daniels (Rosemarie Dewitt) and Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), like Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie), like Helen Bishop (Darby Stanchfield), even like little Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka). Each of them have something interesting to say about the female condition, too.
Midge is the first woman-on-the-side of Don’s that we meet, a beatnik intellectual with artistic inclinations and a generally pretentious worldview. The similarly inclined men she’s seen palling around with serve mainly to point out that even the alleged advanced thinkers of the time are stuck in these silly gender roles. They criticize Don’s participation in the ad industry, but do nothing of substance themselves; the men still treat the women like objects, and the women allow it.
Rachel is another story. Having grown up in her father’s department store, she’s determined to revitalize it. She’s an independent woman, and she doesn’t see why her interest in business should counteract her femininity: “If I weren’t a woman I wouldn’t have to choose between putting on an apron and the thrill of making my father’s store what I always thought it should be.” (1×01, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”) She rebuffs Don’s advances repeatedly, observing that such a relationship would be unwise, and when she does finally act on her interest, she does so on her own terms. When he begs her to go away with him, she refuses, still convinced it’s the wrong decision. She’s going to do what she feels is right, and she’s not going to let anyone walk all over her.
Trudy is the picture of domestic bliss on the outside. Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) wife, her family brings him business ties and she makes him respectable. She keeps a neat house (well, apartment) and she’s always smiling and loving. They argue, yes, and the dramatics that come from their struggle to have a baby are a point of contention for quite a while, but that’s about all there is to it. Pete cheats a couple of times; not much comes of it. Trudy loves him and supports him no matter what. She’s happy just being his wife, but on Trudy it doesn’t seem like giving in. It’s truly the life she’d wanted, and while she’s bright enough to have more, probably, she’s content. And she’s far too good for Pete, too. She negates the stereotype present in a lot of media that men with wandering eyes or who work late a lot always have harpies for wives (ergo, the cheating/avoiding home/whatever is their fault and not the man’s).
Helen is a neighbor of the Drapers, down the street: she’s important in Betty’s evolution as a character, being the first divorced woman in the neighborhood, and while Betty looks down on her for a while (all of the neighbor women do) she softens, becoming momentarily friendly. Of course, that doesn’t end well, as Helen’s son Glen (Martin Holden Weiner) is a creeper and Betty gives into it, but Helen is the first picture of a completely independent (save child support and such) woman, the first openly liberal female character on the show; she paves the way, I think, for Betty’s eventual decision to divorce Don. (I’m sure Betty decided that she’d be careful to remain proper even after divorcing, remarrying almost immediately; none of that going around for recreational walks wearing pants and volunteering and holding a job for her, oh no.)
Sally is honestly becoming one of my favorite characters on the show. She started out just a little girl, window-dressing in Don’s suburban life, but as she’s growing up she’s rebelling a bit more against her mother. Betty’s concerned over her beauty, her weight (which is ridiculous; she’s got a rounder face, like a lot of children do, but she’s not pudgy), her behavior. Things like intellect hardly factor in. Sally’s just trying to grow and to discover herself (sometimes literally and sometimes through actions like cutting her own hair, both seen in 4×05, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”). She’s not interested in Betty’s ideals. She wants to be her own person.
I’m interested to see how season five (oh, god, next year) contributes to these portraits.
–your fangirl heroine.