Question: “What do women want?”
Answer: “Who cares?”

When “Mad Men” launched in 2007, critics claimed it was misogynistic. And with dialogue like that, it’s no wonder.

The men of Madison Avenue were held up as captains of industry, business heroes, suave and successful. The women, on the other hand, seemed to fall into stiff stereotypes: the suburban housewives, the steno pool. The “Mad Men” female characters were well-coiffed, waist-cinched arm candy. They kept the typewriters humming and the home fires burning.

A high-gloss, highly publicized new cable series was glorifying the rigid, biased gender roles that led to the women’s liberation movement. We should all be outraged, right?

Then something interesting happened …

Smart, savvy women started watching it, blogging about it, creating their own “Mad Men” avatars, buying sweater sets and throwing theme parties complete with little black dresses, Frank Sinatra, dirty martinis and cigarettes (albeit the chocolate variety).

Why are so many women mad about “Mad Men?”

“Mad Men” is well-written, well-acted, well-directed. It’s entertaining. It’s art-directed with an eye for historical precision beyond anything else you’ll find on television. It does to some extent glamorize the skirt-chasing, three-martini lunch era of early 1960s Madison Avenue. But it also exposes the sexist, racist underpinnings of that world with a bluntness and candor that add up to truly shocking drama.

We may want to dress like them, but we don’t want to live like them.  There’s an assumption that if a show deals with an unenlightened era, it is endorsing that era’s values.  Not so here.  In fact, the show’s writers – 7 of 9 of whom are women – devote a great amount of their effort bringing the complex stories of the women of “Mad Men” to life.

Anyone who assumes that these women characters are as two-dimensional as they first seemed hasn’t been paying attention. The ’60s brought waves of change that successful white men had to deal with, but the awakening of feminism may well have been the most drastic and uprooting of all. As the series continues into its fourth season, there’s still a war between the sexes, but the rules of engagement are being rewritten.

Let’s consider three of the show’s archetypal ladies: the perfect wife and mother, the gal Friday career girl, and the efficient queen bee who happens to have the silhouette of Jane Russell.

We’ll start with the curves. Sterling Cooper’s executive secretary is Joan Holloway. You can practically hear the “Va va va voom!” as she saunters down the agency hallway. But Joan is not a victim. She knows what she has; she knows how to use it. And despite her obvious allures (truly, her push-up bra enters the room a full beat ahead of the rest of her), Joan runs a tight ship. 

When a new girl is hired at Sterling Cooper, Joan gives her sage advice: “Go home, take a paper bag, cut some eyeholes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.” This lesson in self-assessment is accompanied by the number of a doctor who can provide the new girl with a prescription for birth-control pills. Turns out the secretaries are expected to put in overtime. After all, Joan later explains, “This isn’t China. There’s no money in virginity.”

Watching “Mad Men” from a modern perspective, it was hard to appreciate Joan at first. But like so many of the show’s characters, she quickly evolved into a more complex personality. We learned that she was having an affair with Sterling, who, after a heart attack, confessed, “You are the finest piece of ass I ever had and I don’t care who knows it.” While she goes into it with her eyes open, she is blindsided later when he leaves his wife, not for Joan, but for a younger secretary. When Joan does achieve her personal goal — engagement to a handsome young doctor— it proves a disappointment as well. In a particularly brutal scene, he “date rapes” her on the floor of her boss’s office. The look on Joan’s face is haunting as it moves from horror to acceptance. She will still marry him, but a big piece of her dream dies there on the carpet.

This season, it’s 1964. The Mad Men have defected, stealing Lucky Strikes, Clearasil, and a handful of other classic accounts from their London-based parent company. The new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, is a bit scrappier and seems better equipped to meet the needs of a changing world. And who is running the new show?  Joan, of course. The difference, though, is that she is no longer a glorified typist, and none of the men dare cross her. Today she would be called a COO.

Statuesque actress Christina Hendricks has been hailed as a “real woman,” although I for one could not achieve her ripe realness without some serious surgical augmentation. Her nuanced performance as Joan has been recognized with an Emmy nomination, but unfortunately Hendricks’s measurements get most of the attention. In an interesting example of reverse retouching, a shot of her was recently altered to make her look fleshier. The New York Times published a Golden Globes red-carpet image with an unflattering caption about the “big girl” in a “big dress.” After readers pointed out that the picture had been changed, the Times posted a lame excuse, saying that, “The photo was slightly distorted inadvertently due to an error during routine processing.” Like her character, Hendricks now knows what how it feels to be judged for her physical appearance rather than her performance. Maybe that “Mad Men” mentality is still among us, or at least still at the New York Times.

It’s fitting that the name Joan Hollaway sounds like a pin-up girl. Similarly, the new girl, Peggy Olsen, comes across as earnestly all-American, eager to learn the ropes at Sterling Cooper. But if Joan’s character runs deeper than we expected, Peggy’s is practically indecipherable. Within the first season, she changed from a seemingly naïve plain Jane in Peter Pan collars to the willing and able sometime-mistress of a snarky married account executive. By the end of the first season, Peggy had stumbled into a junior copywriter job and had given birth to a baby out of wedlock. It’s unclear whether she knew she was pregnant or not. 

Prior to giving birth, Peggy got her professional break — as many women did — thanks to her insights on a woman’s product. In a focus group for Belle Jolie lipstick, she described a waste pail of discarded tissues as a “basket of kisses.” Eventually, Peggy is congratulated for her work and handed a drink with a sly “If you’re going to write like a man, you need to drink like a man.” Peggy is not a beauty and by this point she’s getting chubby, so it’s easier for the Mad Men to recognize her skills.

Peggy may have a more valued position at Sterling Draper, but she’s not satisfied. “I want what you have,” she tells agency creative director Don Draper. Watching Peggy’s tortured ascent — most of the account executives refuse to have her on their accounts and her first “office” is a corner of the copy machine room — gives me a new appreciation for the professional women a couple of decades older than me.

She’s not a women’s libber but she has the most conventional story. Now, in season four, Peggy has grown into a smart, no-nonsense, successful agency copywriter. She’s still trying to achieve something more, whether in success or experience. Before her turn as Peggy, actress Elisabeth Moss portrayed the President’s young daughter on “West Wing,” and she’s had success on the Broadway stage as well. Her Peggy is earnest, smart, ambitious but never sentimental. She sometimes wants to fit in, but rarely does. She well may be crazy, but she’s certainly interesting to watch.

With women coming of age at the workplace, can the Mad Men count on stability at home?  Not at the Drapers’.

Betty Draper is played to perfection by January Jones, a classic beauty á la Grace Kelly. She’s a smart woman (“I went to Bryn Mawr”) who — quite expectedly — stops modeling when she finds the model husband. She is the epitome of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, attempting to play house while going off the deep end. She first cracks when a neighbor threatens her children’s dog. Betty stands on the front lawn in a lovely peignoir set, cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, shooting a rifle at the neighbor’s homing pigeons. So much for The Donna Reed Show.

Frustrated with her husband’s infidelities and shocked by the secrets he’s hidden, she demands a divorce at the end of season three. Yet Betty can’t stop believing in the dream. When she finally stretches her wings, she flies right into the arms of the next perfect husband. Over the show’s four seasons, our compassion for Betty has transformed into a kind of horror. She looks like a Hitchcock heroine, and her story line has become more and more chilling. In particular, Betty’s heartless treatment of daughter Sally is shocking to watch in this day and age. In the most recent episode, Betty is “mortified” to learn that Sally was caught “playing with herself” at a sleepover. In a freakish interpretation of “the punishment fits the crime,” Betty threatens to cut off Sally’s fingers.

What then of Sally? Is she the future?  In season four, Kiernan Shipka, the remarkable young actress who portrays her, has slimmed down and lost her lisp. Still terrified of her mother and enamored of her father, when we last saw Sally she was headed into a child psychiatrist’s office to talk about her recent “mortifying” episode.

Interestingly enough, Sally’s doctor is a woman. As is the agency’s new director of market research. Perhaps Sally has options for the future after all.

Are the Mad Men of “Mad Men” misogynistic?  You might say so. Should they be running scared? Probably.  Are there good reasons why women are mad about “Mad Men?” Most definitely.

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  • Moe November 3, 2010 at 11:28 am

    I did enjoy your article immensely, but I noticed you failed to comment on how for their misogynistic ways there are repercussions on the men by “fate”

    betty getting even with don by sleeping with another man was a sense of empowerment thru action and don has not been left unpunished and all the men have had their actions catch up with them in one way or another whether it be roger sterling’s heart attack as he tries to recapture his youth and still run high even though he is running on empty, or the fact don is tortured by his secrets, or the fact that peter campbell is punished by his father in law, not to mention caught by his neighbour after a sex romp with their au pair…

    there are plenty more examples, such as Salvatore’s fight within himself to be openly gay and to express himself which show some of this misogyny is due to the social misconception of it being the norm

    each character is hiding in their masks, even timid Harry who is meek at the best of times but goes against the misogynistic grain and remains a faithful, innocent and loyal man to his family. (or so we are led to believe with the many asides and references made to his inavailability to be playful with the secretaries.)

    this show has a lot more depth than that shown in the article if you look at a broader range than that of the three leads, and although victims, each character is a champion for her cause in her own right as well which is being politely ignored.

    Thank you