LesBiSwirl: The feminism of “Mad Men”

Peggy, at best, is a prototype for what the ethos of feminism in the workplace becomes in the 1970s, and beyond. Even Elizabeth Moss agrees; in describing her own character to Elle, she observed: “She’s not marching or burning her bra or trying to change the law. She’s actually down, on the field, in the office, dealing with the obstacles as they come,” Moss said. “She doesn’t know about the glass ceiling. She sort of feels it when she bumps her head against it, and she just keeps going.”

Wanting to have a successful career; wanting a fulfilling love life; eating a cupcake without regret—these are not in themselves feminist acts.

Peggy’s success as a career woman is built on the fact that she is not a feminist. She doesn’t feel solidarity with other women, and she identifies with men, especially Don. After Peggy has Pete’s baby and is in the hospital/home for unwed mothers, Don advises that she erases this experience, and, upon her return to work, promotes her. Peggy’s transformation from a Brooklyn girl sporting a ponytail to creative Manhattan powerhouse wearing a smart bob mirrors Don’s identity theft. Only Peggy didn’t have to steal an identity to shake off her old life. Instead, she leverages her comprehension of womanhood in order to transcend its chains in the professional sphere.

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The Ad Man’s job requires that he cast himself in the role of the consumer in order to create a campaign that the consumer will buy. This is precisely what Peggy does when, in Season 1, she on a whim comes up the slogan “basket of kisses” for a lipstick brand when the Ad Men in her office ask her for her thoughts as a woman. With this triumph, Peggy exits the secretarial pool by giving the bosses a woman’s perspective. She understands women because she is one. The difference for Peggy is that while she is a woman, she does not see herself existing among a community of women. It is a difference that allows Peggy to excel at work while trampling the confines of her female status.

Arguably, it is impossible to practice feminism and be a careerist in a patriarchal world. Peggy’s status as an ideal worker emerges from her rejection of the various female identities that feminism, in fact, is an outgrowth of. Because Peggy chooses against being a supporter of other women, a mother, a girlfriend, and a daughter, she in turn, unknowingly chooses against being a feminist.

On the other hand, Don is often a disaster at work, sabotaging his firm’s bid to go public and sinking major pitches like the one to the Hershey Corporation. Unlike Peggy’s, his is a blurred double-consciousness. If feminism is a political consciousness about the condition of women in the workplace, Don is the show’s most likely feminist. He empathizes with women because he sees them as flawed, kindred spirits. Yet, while he supports and promotes women at work, in the realm of his personal life he uses women like rags to sop up and wipe away his long-standing feelings of inadequacy, guilt and pain.

Don can be “Don Draper” without having to ultimately disown Dick Whitman, which is the show’s revelation about the elasticity of masculinity, and, also, it’s most deeply feminist statement. The “all” that Don gets to have includes his past, on his terms—because he is a man. His sins, however great, are pardonable on that basis alone. Masculinity, with its open borders, grants him the freedom first to invent himself and then to lay claim to his origins.

In mid-20th century America, women couldn’t have it all, or do it all, female experienced was stigmatized as something “private” and “taboo.” While the Ad Men all openly live their dirty laundry — Roger is probably the worst offender with all his office affairs—the women cannot. Could you imagine Peggy sitting around at a diner after midnight on a double date rehashing a funny anecdote about how she didn’t know she was pregnant? Or Joan recounting some of the she sex she’s had at the office, especially since it includes being raped by her ex-husband? A successful woman in a sexist context doesn’t get to integrate all the circumstantial pieces of her identity openly. The men of Mad Men undervalue women’s experiences, especially if those experience don’t land the firm new accounts.

The audience, however, buoyed by vapid Twitter “feminism,” fiercely look for signs of the dawning of feminism in these characters, under which they can file the facets of women’s experience represented on the show. For the time being, “feminism” is it. Yet, describing Peggy’s career-mindedness or Joan’s drive and ambition or Betty’s unhappiness as evidence of how those characters are feminist negates feminism as a political stance, making it less important and more amorphous.

The 1960s was a sexist shitstorm for women trying to “lean in” at the workplace. The female characters of Mad Men are each trying to navigate the world to better their own lives. The collective consciousness of feminism, which hits its stride in the 1970s when women take to the street to advocate for equality and fight violence against women and gender discrimination, is absent from their minds. Becoming powerful is not feminist when done in the name of the individual—in fact, it’s pretty much patriarchy.

Yet this strategy is not surprising when women were fighting to just get a seat at the board table. What’s important to remember now, in 2015, when feminism means everything and nothing at once, is that the adjective “feminist” is not some airy-fairy modifier one appropriates to be on fleek. While Mad Men’s female characters function as prototypes of a feminist ethos of empowerment and independence, they are far from being feminists.  

And it is critical that we discern the difference, lest we allow the beast of Capitalism to continue to sell “feminism” just as it sells toilet paper.

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