LesBiSwirl: The feminism of “Mad Men”

It’s been a while, but Victoria and Marcie are back for a new “LesbiSwirl,” this time, to break down Mad Men’s feminism. Alas, Joyce Ramsay (and her finely tailored blazers) may no longer be with us, but there’s still plenty to swirl about.

Mad Men is feminist—but the characters are not. This is a simple, yet vital, distinction in our reading of the show that conveys a larger truth about how feminism as a political ideology has been made palatable to the general public. By turning feminism into a fun, celebrity supported brand, it has lost its potency. Capitalist-driven, repetition and replication—for example, overpriced t-shirts made in sweatshops and donned by swoon-worthy men in the name of feminism—have effectively rendered the term “feminism” meaningless, paving way for its misattribution and misidentification throughout our consumer culture. No wonder, a new Vox poll reported last week, only 18% of Americans identify as feminists. No one knows what the hell feminism even is, let alone what it means.

When it comes to Mad Men, now in its final episodes, there are very clear ways to pinpoint how it is a feminist show. First, the show includes a diverse range of female characters—from white, Westchester housewives to black secretaries; from angsty teenagers to disillusioned 40-something wives; from sexy bombshells to corporate cogs, and everything in between. The female characters are not just diverse. More important, they are complex. And it is the portrayal of their complexity that betrays their humanity—that women are not single-dimensional objects for men’s consumption; they are real people with real lives.

Mad Men passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Not only do these women talk to each other about things other than men, they often exhibit a heightened awareness about their own place in the world. Most notably, take, for example, Dawn and Shirley’s verbal acknowledgement of being the only two black women in the office. They know that they are seen as interchangeable as black women, and make a mockery of the office’s racist culture by calling each other by the other’s name:

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Mad Men’s women are, arguably, more diverse and more complex than the majority of male characters, whose only desire is to know “what women want” in order to either sell products to them or fuck them.


Today, when only 42% of all speaking and major characters, according to the study “Boxed In: Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On-Screen Women in 2013-14 Prime-Time Television,” are women, Mad Men’s number of multi-dimensional female characters is a sign of its commitment to representing the variety of women’s lives in 1960s America. Its Dickensian portrait of the decade puts women front-and-center, even though the show presents itself as a drama about “Ad Men.”

Perhaps this is not surprising when a majority of the show’s writers are women. For Season 3, for example, seven of the nine writers were women; in a more recent season, nine out of eleven writers were women. At that time, 80% of prime-time television shows had zero women writers. The 2013-14 “Boxed In” study found that only 25% of television writers are women. The study also showed a statistical correlation between the number of women writers and the number of female speaking-parts.

It is no surprise that Lisa Albert, who has been both a writer and producer of the show for all seven seasons, described Mad Men in an interview with Elle as “stealth feminism of the best kind.”

But, Mad Men’s female characters are not feminists.

Television and pop culture critics have sounded off variously about how the show’s characters are feminists. Peggy Olson has garnered most of that applause, with Time calling her “TV’s most relatable feminist” and Salon deeming her a “feminist hero.”

The seemingly knee-jerk reaction to celebrate Peggy and Joan and Megan as feminists is symptomatic of the kind of culture of feminism pervasive today. It’s not that the “feminist” assignation is slightly anachronistic—Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966. Feminism was in the air, but it wasn’t a readily appropriated identity in American culture until the 1970s. It’s just the fact that these characters are not feminists.

Or, to put it another way: Feeling empowered is not the equivalent of  empowering women.

Peggy is a woman who “wants to have it all,” the career and the husband—in that order. She always sacrifices her personal life for her career, even choosing to work over going to her own birthday dinner at a fancy New York City restaurant. Her objective is to create a better life for herself; the fact that she’s a woman is circumstantial to the attainment of her career aspirations.

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In this regard, Peggy values people based on their use-value for the advancement of her career. She berates Joan for dressing a “certain way,” while working with her to secure certain accounts that, she knows, depend on Joan’s sex appeal. She tries to get her secretary Shirley fired because she mistook Shirley’s Valentine’s Day flowers for her own (when, in fact, she got none). Peggy is hostile to other women, because, if she cannot make use of them for her own work, she sees them as the competition.

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