Finding feminism in 'Mad Men'
Don: "Let me ask you something. What do women want?"
Roger: "Who cares?" - Mad Men
It is easy for feminists to hate Mad Men, the acclaimed television series now in its fifth season (FX, Wednesdays, 8.30 pm). It revolves around the chain smoking, hard drinking, womanising, unabashedly sexist men in the advertising world of New York's Madison Avenue (hence the title,) in the '60s. The first episode begins with Don Draper, the protagonist, in his mistress's bed and ends with him looking down with an inscrutable expression at his two sleeping children. Draper is played with dexterity by Jon Hamm, whose chiselled features mark the return of a Cary Grant type of male beauty. Draper has everything: a dream job, a dream wife, two dreamy children, a dream home. But he cheats on his wife with both regularity and impunity, and Betty, his glacial, Grace-Kelley-swallowed-an-iceberg wife (January Jones) moves from wide-eyed adoration to chain-smoking depression to a sexual encounter with the washing machine to therapy to divorce. The indifference with which Don and his boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery,) treat most women as objects of lust, to be used and discarded, would make any feminist's blood boil. Roger's only meaningful relationship is with his secretary, Joan (Christina Hendricks); but he is content to meet her in hotel trysts and give her impossible gifts like a pet bird, complete with cage, and marry the first attractive, long-legged young secretary who enters the office. He chooses to leave his wife of many years, Mona, for just such a woman, 22 year-old Jane, rather than for Joan. Joan too is a problematic figure. She is a tall, voluptuous, heavily made-up redhead who dresses in cleavage-flaunting crimson, sashays through the office and never speaks above a whisper. She is ready with a glass of neat whiskey to soothe an injured ego or a bucket of ice to soothe an injured fist even before it is asked for-and of course the ever-sympathetic ear to listen to the outpourings of male pique.
The above description might make the show seem like a collection of clichés and stereotypes. However, that is not the case. Don is able to find love and fidelity in a second marriage; Joan goes ahead and has Roger's child instead of aborting it and bids her soldier husband goodbye when he enlists for further service in Vietnam; and, above all, the show has Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) who begins as Don's dumpy, over-earnest, pony-tailed secretary but moves on to being his star copywriter. It is through Peggy that the show focuses on the incipient feminism of the times. It is Peggy who is a precursor to the American Women's Liberation movement. She has her co-worker's child and gives the baby up for adoption without bothering to inform the (married) father; she painstakingly tries to improve her appearance so that she is not dismissed as a child and is taken seriously by her male colleagues; she experiments with marijuana and agrees to live in with her Jewish boyfriend even though her middle class roots make her yearn for a proposal of marriage. Her mother walks out in disgust on hearing the news, saying that her boyfriend will use her for "practice." Peggy is caught in the cusp between the traditional woman of the '50s and the new woman who would emerge after the Women's Liberation movement. And the show deals with her conflicts with exemplary honesty. She wants Don to be attracted to her, to praise her contribution to the advertising campaigns; she wants a boyfriend and, in due course, marriage; but she also realises that for her life is much more than any of these things. It is her work that gives her enormous satisfaction and the show does not present her as some sort of freak because of this.
There is something for the feminists even in the figures of Joan and Betty. Joan, with her generous curves, provides an alternate, fuller body image to women obsessed with being thin. This is probably the first time on an American TV show that a generously-endowed woman is shown to be desirable rather than a butt of ridicule. And Joan has a sympathetic ear not just for the men in the office but also for Peggy. She is the only one who applauds Peggy's decision to live with her boyfriend. Betty, with her meticulous but empty mothering, stresses the fact that not all women are natural-born mothers and nurturers as patriarchy would have us believe. And there is nothing wrong with that. Even though she graduates from Bryn Mawr, an elite women's college, she is doomed to spending her time in the kitchen with the children, or entertaining, or appearing as Don's arm candy. The boredom and futility of the lives of American women before the Women's Liberation movement, depicted so eloquently by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, are evocatively expressed through Betty Draper.
Ultimately, even figures like Don and Roger are like a breath of fresh air because they are not interested in being politically correct. There is nothing hypocritical or condescending in their treatment of women even if they lack sensitivity or consideration. And isn't it a fact that many men today mistake condescension for respect in their effort to be politically correct towards women? When Peggy complains that Don never praises her, he yells, "That's what the money is for!" And Don Draper brings some of the mysteriousness of the male species back. We want to hate him but we can't (admittedly his almost perfect face helps, but women today want a little bit more than just a pretty face). It is not easy to put a label on him.
And, of course, if nothing else there is the superb styling of the show-every household appliance, every costume, every hairstyle is painstakingly detailed to fit in with the period depicted-America in the '60s. The costume designer is Janie Bryant, and she makes sure that characters' change in outlook or social/professional position is reflected in their dress. The most notable change is in Peggy, who is minus the flab, the fringe, the ponytail and the drab outfits. She now sports a chic, short hairstyle and dresses in fetching, feminine but businesslike suits and short heels, not stilettos, to show the men that she is her to work, not flirt.
More about Shormishtha Panja
Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
- + In DU, grievous harm befalls an actor while performing a street play!
- + International Women's Day and PEHEL
- + Remembering Amrita Sher-Gil
- + India's capital and its unique 'Koi Baat Nahi' culture
- + Delhi gangrape: Need for change
- + Pandit Ravi Shankar - the rock star of classical music
- + Four more years!
- + Frankenstorm!
- + Hail to the goddess!