With the finale episodes of Mad Men currently airing, it’s a no brainer to take a look back at the impact of the series. Mad Men was the first original program from AMC and set the standard for cable dramas. While the show’s primary focus is on Don Draper, it’s really two women who have progressed the most throughout the show’s run.
Mad Men is set during the 1960s (and just the start of the 70s) which was a very important time, especially when it came to the feminist movement during the late 60s. Though there are enough men and their problems written in, the show has been noted for their portrayal of complex females who are driven in terms of their careers (and their relationships). The two standouts are Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson who paved their way in the male-dominated world of advertising. Not only do they deal with the Mad Men, they’ve joined them.
Despite their strides in the business, they aren’t depicted as the poster women of the feminist movement. In fact, they too make the same horrible choices as the men…even when it comes to supporting each other as women. In a way, this makes them even more real in their portrayal. Yes, Joan and Peggy are progressive for the time but they are still of the time and therefore react the way everyone else does. This might be why actresses Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss have never identified their characters as examples of feminism. Feminist qualities, yes. Self identified feminists, definitely not.
Peggy Olson started as Don’s secretary and moved up the ranks to become one of the most effective copywriters at [insert really ridiculously long firm name here]…all because of her talent and nothing else.
Joan Holloway went from head of the secretaries to one of the partners of [insert really ridiculously long firm name here]. While she got there using other (questionable) methods that Peggy didn’t, Joan has proven herself to be an asset to the firm while being confident in her own body and isn’t afraid to speak up for herself.
That being said, both characters have their shortcomings. Peggy is extremely career-driven and in turn, tends to look down upon other woman. She has a holier-than-thou attitude and seems to believe that no other women could do what she did. She only cares about her job and nothing else.
Joan is also concerned about advancing in her career. Her motives are selfish and rarely does show any regard for someone besides herself. She wants to be taken seriously and fights to be treated a certain way by her colleagues but arguably not in a “feminist way”. At least for that period of time.
What’s most interesting is how these two strong female characters interact with one another. They have moments where they tear each other apart for all the wrong reasons. Peggy constantly shames Joan on her choice of clothing (she even says in the mid-season premiere that Joan gets treated the way she does because of “how she’s dressed”) and Joan tends to fire back and comments on Peggy’s decision to not care about her looks. Even with all the name calling and low blows, the women do end up sticking up for one another even if it’s not to each other’s faces.
What does this all mean? Well we’re in 1970 now in the Mad Men-verse and it shows how far we still haven’t come in terms of women. Even with the confidence of Joan and the ambition of Peggy, neither can find the courage to stand up for themselves. Have we progressed any further since the era of Mad Men? Yes and no. We now have women who are proud to identify themselves as feminist (just check out our friends over at Smart Girls) but then at the same time there is still a reluctancy to even post things like this…or this. I’m sure there will even be a not-so-nice comment about the constant use of the term “feminism” in this article.
Regardless of whether or not you think Joan or Peggy or any of the women on Mad Men are great representations of feminism, there is one thing that is certain. The show celebrates the complexity of the human psyche and has rewarded us with rich, complicated female characters. Damn, we’re going to miss this show.