Get out the martini shakers! Mad Men is back.

When I first became addicted to AMC’s Mad Men, I recommended it to my mother. She scoffed, “I lived through that era; I knew men like that. Why would I want to go back?” And, sure enough, the series presented a bunch of arrogant white men in suits and a fairly two-dimensional view of women.

At least it did for the first few episodes. We had the perfect wife/mother/hostess Betty, the perky young career girl Peggy, and the executive secretary bombshell Joan. Even their hair color reinforced their roles. Betty was a patrician blonde; Peggy, a mousy brunette. And Joan? A ravishing redhead, of course. They lived in a man’s world and they made their way as well as they could using their feminine wiles.

But these women’s own stories unfolded quickly, and we soon realized that there was more to these women than met the eye. Joan had a master plan; she wielded far more power at Sterling Cooper than you might think. Peggy realized she had talent soon before she realized she was pregnant (purportedly as she was giving birth). And Betty … well … she was certifiably nuts.

As the show moved into its second, third, and fourth seasons, these women continued to grow and change. And new women were introduced: a more modern housewife, a successful single professional, teachers, psychologists, artists, business owners, a lesbian. Sisters started “doing it for themselves.” In fact, when a handful of the agency men broke away (stealing as many files and clients as they could) to start their own firm, they were at an absolute loss until Joan stepped in. And, just in case the men didn’t realize who was saving their professional hides, Joan showed up in pants.

Yet, oddly enough, even in their new agency, the men did everything in their power to stay exactly where they were. They looked the same, they dressed the same, they still drank scotch at the office, and they still womanized. But the world was changing all around them.

Now, after a 17-month hiatus, Season 5 of Mad Men is finally here. I’m looking forward to the style, the attention to detail, the inside look at advertising, the men behaving badly. But, most of all, I’m looking forward to the women. Their narratives are more interesting. And the men, more and more, resemble deer caught in the headlights. Or maybe a better analogy would be the Romans, desperately trying to enjoy one more orgy before Nero picks up his violin.

As this Season 5 preview photo attests, they still LOOK fabulous.

Mad Men’s female characters are no longer simple stereotypes. In fact, they represent a complex array of the options that were available to women in the years leading up to the feminist movement. The happy housewife is still held up as the ideal, yet Betty and Don Draper’s ugly divorce shatters that concept pretty quickly. Joan marries a handsome doctor, only to return to work when his unfulfilled aspirations lead him off to Vietnam.  Peggy fights for equality and respect at the agency, slowly earning her place at the conference room table yet never quite becoming “one of the boys.”

 
A new character (and a new type of woman) was introduced last season. Dr. Faye Miller (right)  is a consultant brought in to guide the agency in the area of consumer research. She and Don spar for a while before starting what appears to be a mature affair of equals, a more modern relationship than we’ve seen in previous seasons. She becomes Don’s confidante when a panic attack forces him to expose the secrets of his past. There’s a sense that they could actually be a team, something that Don has never had in his myriad relationships with women.

And what does Don do in the midst of all this? He proposes to his pretty young secretary. “She makes me very happy,” he sheepishly tells the other partners. Right, she keeps his mind off what’s really happening around him. Faye, on the other hand, sees the world (and Don) clearly. She has traded that “happily ever after” ending for success in a man’s world.

Fifty years later, women are supposedly free to pursue whatever definition of success we come up with. Yet I see these same types all the time.

  • I know professional women like Faye, some who never married and some who  married and had children, yet missed a lot of milestones because they were late at the office or away on business.
  • I see a bunch of Bettys every time I go to a PTA meeting. They use their college educations and frustrated talents to micromanage the school’s enrichment program.
  • I’ve supervised Peggys and Joans, women trying to figure out whether they can successfully and simultaneously negotiate both a career and a romantic life.

Mad Men’s women may still have lessons to teach us. And, I for one, can’t wait to watch the two-hour season premiere, martini in hand, on March 25.

And one last personal note. I’ve heard some people complain about the pressure the women were under in the Mad Men era. They had to look perfect all the time. But aren’t we under the same pressure today? We’re expected to work, run a household, find time to take Pilates and look like Heidi Klum in nothing more than a flimsy little sundress and just a touch of lip gloss. Back then, you were expected to make the most of what you had—with a lot of help from your hairdresser, make-up, and a girdle.

As a woman about to turn 50, I have to admit that the concept of a foundation garment is making more sense to me every day.

 

Leave a Reply to Judith A. Ross Cancel Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Judith A. Ross March 18, 2012 at 11:43 am

    This is an awesome review. Thank you! I, too, look forward to this season’s developments.

    Women really do have to do it all. And, honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with putting yourself at the top of the list along with the Mr. and the kids. Putting yourself at the bottom can leave you trapped and/or penniless.

    Reply