Published on 23 May, 2015 in Scroll.in
Struggling to claim their rightful place in a world dominated by males, the women of the iconic TV show had their own unique stories too.
The landmark television show Mad Men has just come to an end, closing seven splendid seasons of honest, unadulterated drama that made every Mad Men fan undergo a somersault of emotions. A perfect representation of the advertising circuit of Madison Avenue, New York City, in the 1960s,Mad Men gave us many things to ponder over – scarred relationships, characters we loved to hate, and events that we’d want to turn around. (I don’t think I know my relatives as well as I know the characters).
Mad Men lured us to not just get used to, but actually take to, the cigarette-smoking, whiskey-sipping culture rather fondly. It also helped us realise that not much has changed in the present day corporate world, especially with regards to sexism and gender inequality. Of course, there are glaring incidents of sexism in the show, along with obvious cases of homophobia and racism too, though no everyone is as shallow and heartless as Peter Campbell and Harry Crane. But that’s a different story.
Let’s first put the spotlight on the mad men. There’s Don Draper, the advertising genius – you can love him, you can hate him, but you cannot simply ignore him. There’s Roger, the rich and cool brat (even when he’s a grandpa) with a genuinely nice heart, always in need of affection and attention. There’s Peter Campbell, the self-centred, albeit hardworking, client-servicing guy who measures his success in terms of others’ failures.
But what about the women who make or break them? They’re used, abused, and cheated on, but what I like most about them is that they don’t go about crying for sympathy. While some know their rights well enough to squeeze a handsome sum out of their unfaithful partners (Roger’s second wife, Jane, agrees to nothing less than a handsome apartment as alimony), others know how to make themselves content with a little less (Joan Harris, who decides to keep Roger’s baby for her sake and no one else’s).
Each female character is different, but they have one thing in common – they’re all women and they’re all struggling to claim their rightful place in a world dominated by men. So, before I begin to mourn the end of Mad Men – perhaps the most amazing thing to have happened to television – let me draw your attention to the womenfolk in the show. Obviously, I have favourites and you’ll know who they are.
From a demure and confused secretary, she works her way up to become the copy chief, and soon she gets a cabin with her name on it – if that’s not awesome then what is? Peggy is perhaps the only woman on the show who doesn’t need a male partner to complement her. She goes through her share of blips – Pete, Abe and Ted – but no one is able to make her feel dependent in any way. That, I feel, is a huge factor that makes us love Peggy Olson, especially in 1960s America when the term gender equality had mixed connotations.
Don, of course, plays a different ballgame altogether. There’s nothing romantic between him and Peggy and thank god for that. The unspoken bond they share is pure and lovely. The mentor-protégé relationship loses track midway and perhaps it was best because, after a point, people do move ahead in life, and so did Peggy – she was the one who needed to detach from his sometimes friendly, sometimes authoritative supervision, which she does with aplomb.
But Draper does call her from Los Angeles. He remembers to say a final goodbye to her in the Season 7 finale. For me, it was a sort of closure, a reassurance that their bond didn’t lose colour after all. And of course, Peggy and Stan end up together. I couldn’t be happier for her. She deserved every bit of what she earned!
To most, Betty is heartless. At first, you try to sympathise with her, especially in the first two seasons where she’s happily ignorant about her philandering husband. Then comes the phase where you try and relate to her bitterness, again blaming Don for her misery. Eventually you start to dislike her – her intentions, actions, everything.
It’s ironic that while you slowly begin to like Don despite all his flaws, Betty’s character grows unlikable, even though she is mostly at the receiving end. She gives up her modelling career to be Don’s wife, she is the one being cheated on, and she is the one being lied to about the ultimate truth about Don’s forged identity. It’s not until Season 6 that we begin to be okay with her being around again.
One can call Betty independent, but to me she remains the quintessential suburban wife, first to Don and then to Henry. She doesn’t mind that position because she doesn’t have to work her way up to the top because, well, she’s already there. 1960s America and 2015 India – it’s always about getting to the top irrespective of the era, by hook, look or crook.
She was just another employee until quite suddenly she became Mrs Don Draper. Innocent, innocent Megan! She never realises why Don chose her and not any other woman, such as Faye Miller, who seemed to have a mind of her own.
Remember when Megan seduces Don and then later tells him that she’s eager to learn from him and Peggy? Don’t know about Don but I took her seriously and thought she’d give Peggy tough competition – that there would be something to look forward to. But she took the easy way to climb the secure social ladder. (I didn’t think she was in love with Don until he proposed to her).
In her defence, Megan did manage to bring some stability into Don’s life, at least for a short while – I don’t really know what that means, but it seemed that Don was happier with her. Acting took precedence and that’s when her character started fading away into a there-but-not-there kind of state. Don Draper wants his women to himself and I believe that’s what went wrong with Megan too.
If there’s one person who has been treated most unjustly in the show, it’s Joan. She faces sexism at the workplace like no one else does. She’s bold, magnetic and is damn good at her job.
Add to that the fact that she’s got the looks to kill and we’ve seen how it turned out to be a curse for her. Her devil-may-care attitude with which she dates Roger in the beginning of the show is appealing. She appears strong and seems to know what she’s doing until she decides to find herself a nice man, Greg Harris, who turns out not so nice after all.
Perhaps Joan was dreaming of the knight in the shining armour dream and thought Greg would be her rescuer. She knew her relationship with Greg was a flawed one – why she chose to suffer with him is beyond my understanding. Her most defining scene is when she gives it back to her spineless and worthless husband – “You’re not a good man. You never were; even before we were married and you know what I’m talking about.”
How they treat her at McCann is heartbreaking, but all said and done, I am happy that she too manages to put her skills to good use in the end and manages to break free – personally and professionally. It’s a relief that she didn’t end up being with Roger.
Sally Beth Draper
Sally is the quintessential daughter who loves Don despite his uncountable flaws. She tries her best to understand him, at times drawing parallels with her own life. We see her weighing the good from bad during several significant moments – Don and Betty’s divorce, the painful encounter of walking in on Don’s affair with Sylvia Rosen, finding out about Betty’s lung cancer, and so on. The headstrong teenager that she grows up to be is remarkable. We all love Sally to bits.