Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mad Women: The Ladies of Mad Men

Betty Draper Francis

Betty Draper Francis is the proverbial desperate housewife. Beautiful and ornamental, Betty was raised to do exactly what she ultimately did: she married a handsome, successful and wealthy man and had children with him. Her mother, stringent in her training, taught Betty all of the fine aspects of nurturing a husband, and when Betty, who started her life as a print model, married Don, I’m sure she felt she had landed the jackpot. However, wife-and-motherhood has proven to be a letdown, leaving pretty, empty-hearted Betty dejected, alone and confused as to where her life went wrong.
       At the beginning of the show, Betty shows all the signs of being fairly  content with her life. She dotes on Don, as much as her rather unfeeling nature will allow her anyway, and she pays at least halfhearted attention to her children. However, Betty is all to aware that while her husband is a great provider, he is a serial and unrepentant philanderer, and it is never fully revealed exactly how much she knows about her Don’s affairs. She is tight-lipped, silent, and cooperative, making her an seem rather like a catatonic person who moves around every so often. She has been rigidly trained against seeming whiny or needy or demanding of her husband, and so keeps any and all legitimate emotion to herself. She seems icy and unfeeling due to this, regardless of the fact that at the beginning of Season 1, she has just lost her mother and the loss has grieved her sorely. Because of her ideal of a wife, she is unable to reach out to Don to console her and comfort her, and so sits and seethes and drowns in her despair. Even when she reaches out to a psychiatrist for help, she is treated like a second-class citizen. The psychiatrist repeatedly reports what Betty says to Don, since there were no confidentiality laws that covered women in that time, and the psychiatrist offers Don the standard diagnosis for women at the time: ‘hysteria.’ He likens her to a child with raw, irrational emotion, even though Betty’s issues (grief over the loss of her mother and a feeling of emptiness due to lack of a purpose and a loving support system) are entirely legitimate. As Don and Betty’s marriage collapses, Betty seems to become colder and more bitter- even during the good times, she he only seems half invested. When a spark of happiness arrives- Betty is offered another modeling contract, a profession that she always loved- Don shoots it down and forbids her. In his mind, it isn’t the sort of profession someone with a wife and children should pursue. This is the nail in Betty’s coffin. Her despair worsens and grows until finally she begins giving Don a taste of his own medicine.
       Betty eventually has an affair with and marries Henry Francis, a local politician. During their brief affair, Betty feels that she has simply married the wrong man and that the life she was trained for could be blissful if she only was with Henry. Because of this, she ultimately divorces Don and marries Henry, only to face the same problems over again. While Henry is more faithful and more doting than Don was, Betty still carries quite a chip on her shoulder from her previous marriage. She broods, sulks, and makes demands, all the while not feeling any less gypped in her existence.
       Don and Betty have three children: Sally, Bobby, and Gene. Betty is a cold, unfeeling mother who snaps at her children and dismisses them easily, never seeming to get any enjoyment out of them. She is particularly harsh on Sally. Sally looks remarkably like her mother, and often feels the brunt of her mother’s disapproval and disdain. Sally is frequently spoken ‘at’ instead of spoken ‘to’ by her mother, and is treated as a general nuisance, although to the audience, she seems like a pleasant child.
        For me, the definitive Betty moment came during the middle of the third season. Betty has just been offered the modeling contract and forced to turn it down, at the same time that she has discovered more about Don’s affairs. During the middle of the day, she wanders out into the yard wearing her housecoat and smoking a cigarette. She carries a gun under her arm, looking around the yard with a mixture of disgust and complete apathy. She looks up into the sky and notices birds flying overhead. Never dropping her cigarette and as quietly and smoothly as anything, she raises the gun and starts firing openly at the birds. If she can’t fly out of here, neither can they. 

Peggy Olsen

Peggy Olsen is in many ways very much like Joan, and yet fiercely unlike Joan at all. Both are strong minded career women who have the intelligence and charisma to keep up with the boys. The difference is that while Joan thrives on keeping her ladylike demeanor intact, and therefore is stuck in the secretarial pool, Peggy willingly chunks her feminine side out the door and breaks the glass ceiling in two.
      At the beginning of the show, Peggy starts as a secretary; she’s awkward, unattractive, and gawky, and quickly becomes a joke amongst the philandering male employees of Sterling Cooper. Joan takes the girl under her wing, telling her to ‘get undressed, and put a bag over your head with eyes cut out of it. Stand in front of a mirror and determine what your biggest strengths and weaknesses are.’ For Joan, the only way to get ahead is to be sexy and appealing. Joan attempts this for a while, but finds she isn’t good at it, and so takes a different approach. For a while, she tolerates the catcalls and  blatant sexism in the office, wearily but patiently, but never seems to be much good at being a secretary. She finds their lifestyle strange; the higher ups at the office drink all day, smoke excessively, come and go more or less as they please, and seem entirely hedonistic in their approach to business. To Peggy, who has been raised a staunch Catholic, this is a strange world. She begins an affair with Pete Campbell with leads to an unexpected pregnancy. This is a defining moment for Peggy. Her mother wanted her to go away and raise the baby. Peggy chose to give the child to her sister to raise, and therefore returns to Sterling Cooper as before, worn and regretful, but determined.
      During a random poll of the secretaries in a lipstick campaign, Peggy shines. The men in the office realize that she is excellent at copywriting, and rather against character, agree to give her a copywriting position. Peggy is the first woman to take this job in the history of Sterling Cooper, and this rankles Joan. Now not only is Peggy Joan’s superior, but Peggy is much younger and less attractive. That she should succeed where Joan has been unable to angers and shames Joan to the core, and the two of them have a tense, professional-but-certainly-not-friendly relationship.
      As the show progresses, Peggy becomes bolder in her relationship with her male cohorts. They treat her with respect, but only so far as feels necessary. They acknowledge that she is good at her job, but still look at her as if she is a duck who has learned to speak French- a novelty, not the standard. She continues to take their teasing with a kind of passive patience, but chooses to fight back when she feels it necessary. After a while, Peggy begins to assimilate into the group. She drinks as heavily and as frequently as they do, she becomes interested- although someone vaguely- in the burgeoning hippie/beatnik scene, and she has several relationships with men and even a slight fling with a woman from Grenwich Village. She also becomes an obsessive workaholic. She stays at the office hours after the others leave, drinking and smoking pot all the while. Everything else has to take a back burner, particularly her relationships with men. She has lost more than one lover over her inability to leave work at the office, and it hasn’t seemed to make her any happier.
       Don treats Peggy as one of the boys, but seems to be harder on her. He constantly pushes her to do better, keeping his praise minimal and his criticism handy, even as he secretly admires her talent. This is hugely frustrating to Peggy; she admires her boss and wants his approval, and his seemingly constant rejection irks her. However, it drives her to work harder and to do more, which was Don’s intention in the first place. In many ways, Peggy is the modern woman, or the beginnings of the post-modern feminist. In the era before the women’s liberation movement, young Peggy Olsen is on the brink of change, and I feel that as the season continues, she will become a very polarizing character in her attempt to be a small woman in a big man’s world. 

   Joan Holloway Harris

My favorite character is far and away Joan Holloway. Although they are all complex, interesting characters, Joan carries a certain complexity that is rarely offered on television, particularly in female characters, and her rise and fall in the industry are quite fascinating to watch.
     Joan is the office manager at Sterling Cooper, and later at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Aside from being the head of the secretarial pool and the general ruler of any and all females working in the office, Joan is also the resident sexpot. She is always impeccably dressed to show off her ample figure and she shows no qualms in using her sexuality to advance her career or her personal goals. However, she is far from an ‘easy’ character. There is a method to Joan’s madness. She uses her feminine wiles because she knows it works. She is fully aware that this is a man’s world, and in order to succeed in it, a woman must cooperate and play her part to the fullest. She doesn’t argue or pursue confrontation, due to the acts being ‘unfeminine’, and is ever ready to assist the men in the office regardless of what is going on in her personal life.
      This is a double edged sword for Joan; for one thing, the men at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce trust her and rely on her wholeheartedly. They genuinely respect her knowledge and her power, and openly acknowledge that not only is she good at her job, but that they cannot function without her. They collectively love and admire her and are more open with their praise of her work than of any other woman in the office. However, this does come with a price. Joan has hit a glass ceiling that she cannot break out of. Aside from being extremely efficient, Joan is also highly intelligent. At one point, she shows legitimate talent during a pitch for a television advertisement, and due to a lack of staffing, is put on the job. Unfortunately, as soon as man is hired to take on the job, Don quips, “You don’t have to do this anymore, Joan. We have Freddy for it now. Thanks a lot.” It never occurs to Don that Joan may have liked this position, or to hire her to keep doing it. She is the Secretary, and while she’s a damn good one, that is all she will ever be. For the men in the office, not only is Joan needed in the position she is in, but there should be no reason for her to want to do anything else. In her pursuit of her ambition, and yet her willingness to remaine ‘feminine,’ Joan has slammed against a ceiling she will never break.
       Joan isn’t without personal demons as well. Though she begins the show in a passionate affair with Roger Sterling, leading to an illegitimate child, Joan eventually marries an army doctor and for a while, is proud of her decision. She is a loving and doting wife to him, despite the fact that he is often cold and abrupt, even abusive, towards her. In her mind, marrying a successful, abusive man is far better than not marrying at all, and this continues throughout her husband’s deployment in Vietnam. When he returns and states that he is choosing to re-enlist, Joan has had enough. She acknowledges that he doesn’t love her, and that she would be better off without him. For Joan, this is a remarkable breakthrough. Despite being sharply intelligent and cunning, Joan is trapped in a ‘woman’s role,’ and during this season, is learning the perks and consequences of the choices she has made. 


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