The Women of MAD MEN

Jaime Weinman on why a show set in the early ’60s has stronger female characters than any modern drama out there


There’s been a lot of talk lately about the strength of the female characters on Mad Men, an unusual thing in a time when most shows do not have a lot of multi-dimensional parts for women. Amy Chozick’s article in the Wall Street Journal talks about the predominantly female writing staff of the show and the way they write for Betty, Peggy et al.

I think that the historical element in Mad Men, which I sometimes have reservations about (because of the museum-piece quality it lends to some stories and the way it invites us to distance ourself from the story) really works for the female characters. The problem with most female characters today, and indeed for hundreds of years, is not just that they’re written entirely from a man’s point of view, but that they define themselves mostly by their relationships to men. This was true even of the “butt-kicking babe” characters, or professional women like on Grey’s Anatomy, who tend to start strong and slowly sink into a morass of ‘shipping and getting caught between two men and stuff. And yet, because they are supposed to be modern liberated women, the show can’t really make an issue of its problem with defining its women or with giving them interests, lives, and feelings that don’t revolve around men. For the writers to deal with that problem head-on would be to admit that they have not, in fact, created super-liberated role-model characters, and not only don’t they want to admit it, they’re not even necessarily aware of the problem.

With Mad Men, the writers have given themselves an advantage: they admit up-front that the show is set in a time when women played a subservient role, and that this is an actual issue in the show. It’s an issue in present-day shows too, but the writers aren’t aware of it; with Mad Men, they are, and the plots therefore have the women examining the issue, trying to figure out how to gain some kind of autonomy (or how much of it they want) and how much of their lives should revolve around men, being what men think they should be, acting like a man in order to get ahead in their world, and so on. They have to address these things, because they’re looking at the past from a present-day point of view, analyzing the roles characters play in this environment. Because the writers are so aware that these women are expected to define themselves by their relationships to men, they wind up thinking about what these characters are beyond that basic definition.

All these issues, as I say, still apply in today’s world and especially on TV, because TV and movie plots have an unconscious habit of forcing women into subservient roles. (What I mean by this is that in real life, it’s possible to go a long time without focusing on romance or relationships. On TV, it isn’t, because the easiest stories to come up with are relationship stories. But relationship stories, at least in fiction, have a way of making the man the dominant character in the relationship, thereby turning strong fictional heroines into weak ones through the gravitational pull of these old storylines.) Mad Men finds them easier to deal with because they’re part of the environment in which it’s set, but there’s no reason it can’t happen on a present-day show. It’s just that it usually doesn’t.

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The Women of MAD MEN

  1. Thanks for highlighting the article. I love MadMen, the scripting is fantastic. The stories are great and he characters wonderful.

    I was glad to hear they hold the integrity of the show high, like no revenge for Joan, too Soap Operaish. The box of the history forces rules and constraints that drive the creativity.

    Not only is about women trying to figure things out, but also about men trying figure out how to deal with the changes…..this season should be great. Think about 1963, if this is the year they are starting in….Beatles on ed Sullivan, Kennedy Assisnation, changes colour television begining. Youth culture really taking hold. The shift from New York to California, the beginnings of US involvement n Viet Nam, Thalidomide!!!!

    But the last couple of shows, particularly Don's "Baptism" in the Pacific was some of the best I have seen. The season ender from season 1, the carosel speech was one of the most moving things I have ever seen on TV.

  2. I don't watch that show because Christina Hendricks is too hot for my virgin young eyes…

  3. I'm a January Jones fan myself

  4. This whole post is excellent, but the most important part is the paragraph about the way MAD MEN's recognition of its world's male hegemony contributes significantly to its ability create strong female characters. The most frustrating pieces of feminist criticism are the ones that argue the recognition of such a hegemony makes a work inherently anti-feminist. You see this from time to time in regard to BtVS: ie.- "Slayers were created by and are subservient to the Watchers' Council. Therefore BtVS is not really a feminist text." I think I've read similar articles about MAD MEN, though I can't find any right now. (These are minority opinions, obviously, but they still grate.)

    Such arguments ignore that the male hegemonies these shows depict are metaphors for the male hegemony that still exists in modern society and suggest that for some the only truly feminist texts are those that are purely escapist fantasy, in which female characters face no conflicts from society and can therefore achieve perfect empowerment as ideal feminist heroes. But such characters, and texts, would be extremely boring and unrealistic and thus not ideal feminist heroes. And this what we see on most shows: a reluctance to recognize in societal conflict leads to boring characters, so writers try to make those characters interesting by putting them in relationships, which results in boring characters defined by their relationships.

    This isn't to say that MAD MEN doesn't occasionally exploit its forthrightly sexist setting. Some of the sexist jokes the male characters tell are more legitimately funny than horrifying and not the sort of thing most shows could get away with. Additionally, I agree that the museum-piece quality lends a distance to the show and the characters, and this distance can sometimes lead to sense of triumphalism ("Look how backwards they were, aren't we so much more evolved now?") that might allow viewers to ignore that the power structure and sexism the show depicts still exists in a less obvious, egregious form.

  5. Mad Men is pure genius. Best show on TV.