Show Case Post #1 – Mad Men: a social commentary of women in the 50s and 60s

The women of Mad Men vary greatly in their personalities, attitudes and beliefs, offering a social commentary of what life was like for women in America during the 1950s and 1960s. Considering this, the characters of Betty Draper and Peggy Olson reveal opposite ends of the spectrum, with Betty a typical housewife, and Peggy trying to pave her way in a mans world. Through these two distinctly different women, Mad Men is able to highlight debates around feminism and gender roles in American society during this period. As a period drama, based on extensive research, Mad Men has great appeal to audiences wishing to understand and be educated on the cultural and political norms of this period, whilst equally being entertained. TV critic Jason Mittel believes that it is this sophisticated form of social engagement unique to such serial forms of ‘quality’ TV that allow us to follow characters, and understand them on a deeper and more personal level. Mittel argues that “Mad Men’s genre of period drama is lodged not only within its style, but also shapes its cultural commentary, spanning both its visual and interpretive pleasures” (Mittel, 2010).

In the first season of Mad Men we see Betty Draper as a typical 50s American housewife – husband, two kids, a dog, a nice home and so on. Like many women during this time, Betty is yet to adapt to the changes occurring in society around her. Betty seems to lack her own personality. She’s a hard book to read, and while she’s generally always polite, we sense this is a façade and that she doesn’t mean a lot of what she says. It is then not surprising that when you search “I hate Betty Draper” into Google you will come across hundreds of pages with fans of the show slamming her cold nature, and childish ways. Having watched all five seasons I tend to agree with such claims, however I think it’s worth looking at what role a character like Betty plays.

For all the criticism Betty’s character receives people need to remember that she is representational of many women in her socioeconomic demographic during this time. For this reason, sympathetic views towards Betty are justifiable. In her article for the Washington Post Jen Chaney acknowledges this sympathy for Betty asserting “I have, on more than one occasion, carried a measure of sympathy for her. Betty is a product of the era that preceded her current one, a simple housewife of the ’50s attempting to move through the ’60s in impossibly flouncy skirts and high heels. She has no sense of self and an existence stifled by the daily suburban grind of backyard parties, cocktail hours and, at least when she was with Don, a perpetually adulterous husband. I have felt for her. I really have” (Chaney, 2010).

Chaney touches on, and rightly so, Betty’s non-existent sense of self. Betty is often depicted as an incompetent mother, a cold wife, and disingenuous with her friends. However, it’s fair to say much of this stems from deep insecurities, fuelled by her husband Don. For despite how charming and sexy Don many appear on the surface, his upbringing has left him a deeply troubled man, who resorts to strings of affairs with women, all the while neglecting his wife.

The season one finale ‘The Wheel’ reveals just how insecure and troubled Betty is. The episode chronicles her suspicions that Don is having an affair, and shows Betty at her most vulnerable. In fact, “Betty is so broken and lonely she turns to a nine-year-old boy for comfort in an agonizing scene” (Miller, 2010). I can’t help but think this moment was inappropriate, for a grown woman to place her emotional burden so heavily on a child. Betty lacks maturity, and at times struggles to show empathy towards others. During the scene in which Francine inconsolably breaks down about Carlton’s affair, we see little genuine care and compassion from Betty, who remains cold and contrived. Hello Betty, she’s just confiding to her best friend that her husband has been having an affair. Don’t you think a hug would be reasonable at this moment? Then again, as an ‘object’ of her husband Don, Betty hasn’t exactly had a chance to mature; again reflecting women during this period.

TV critic Dawn Shanks argues that “most episodes becoming dreary chronicles of Betty’s bratty ennui” (Shanks, 2009). Playing the housewife role, Betty reflects the boredom probably experienced by many women in the 50s and 60s. Betty’s meeting with her psychologist in this episode reveals just this. On the surface she has it all, however deep down she is frustrated and feels helpless. This episode shows Betty knows exactly what kind of a man her husband in, but also shows Betty is helpless to act on this. It can be seen that Betty’s character is never developed beyond this point. We often assume Betty might be upset, but behind her cold stare, and immaculate manner and persona we are given very little evidence to go by. It can be seen that Betty “pantomimes through struggle and strife some women of that time may have experienced in that era, but we never see any deeper character development in her than a flash in her eyes like she’s some angry repressed phoenix” (Shanks, 2009)

And now to Peggy, a female who represents everything Betty is not. Peggy is determined to make it in a man’s world; to succeed in the advertising industry based on talent alone. However as Mad Men so often reveals, this isn’t easy with Peggy constantly subjected to harassment from men in the office, and often deemed incapable of tasks based purely on the fact she’s not a man. Monique Miggelbrink, writer for visual culture journal InVisible Culture, argues this point that “at work sexist and discrediting (speech) acts characterize a regressive atmosphere…apart from the hierarchical structures, which exclude women from any position other than secretary, it is obvious sexism at the women’s work place that identifies the regressive milieu” (Miggelbrink, 2012). She argues that despite Peggy being able to work her way up to become to first female copywriter at Sterling Cooper, “her long and hard professional ascent illustrates women’s precarious situation” (Miggelbrink, 2012).

Peggy is a strong female character and representational of the feminist movement. TV critic Jason Meindersee argues, “strong female characters that act and succeed like mean are important, but strong female characters that are brutalized for their strength and yet somehow persevere are rarer and more inspiring” (Meindersee, 2012). Peggy is not just an excellent social and cultural commentary she is an excellent character, created by excellent writers. Meindersee believes “the most beautiful thing about Peggy as a character is that in a series filled with so much disappointment and failure, she is someone we can look up to and want to be like” (Meindersee, 2012).

Summing up it is worth noting the social and cultural commentaries reflected in Mad Men’s characters would not be possible if it weren’t for the shows “narrative complexity”, allowing storylines to unfold over an extended period of time, and characters to really be developed. Director Matthew Weiner has been vocal about his feminist ideals, and was keen to convey this through Mad Men. This is highlighted through the contrast of Joan and Peggy in the work place, which reveals Mad Men’s feminist intentions within the text which steadily deconstructs the female objectification it so famously showcases, but also strongly feminist critical possibilities contained within the very format of the series” (Cox, 2012).

Thanks to Mad Men’s extended narratives viewers become emotionally vested in the show, sympathizing with characters, in particular those who are female. Themes of feminism come across strong through the cultural commentaries of the various women on the show. Mad Men is in many ways more than just a enjoying viewing experience, it educates people on a time gone by.


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