Whether or not it was a “feminist show,” Mad Men broke ground by spending so much of its time zooming in on the experiences of women, specifically experiences related to misogyny. From office hostility to restrictive roles in suburbia to power dynamics on dates and in marriages, the show left no stone of sexism unturned. As a result, recaps, essays, and water-cooler discussions about the show became an entryway to talking about all kind of gender-related issues. For a large group of writers — one that included but was not limited to TV critics — Mad Men helped fuel discussions on sex, rape culture, harassment, internalized sexism, race, class, reproductive rights, sex work and more.
As the show draws to a close, we asked some of our favorite feminist writers to name a moment or plot arc from Mad Men that resonated with their experience or understanding of gender relationships and roles — whether it was a positive development, like a character finding affirmation, or a disappointment that felt incredibly real. Find their answers below.
For the record, my own most treasured moments all involved Peggy feeling free and powerful enough to cut loose, whether she was rollerskating, making out with her (soon-to-be) Jewish boyfriend at a hippie gathering in a loft, carrying Burt Cooper’s provocative art through the halls of McCann,or, of course, smoking some marijuana.
Peggy trying to be a boss, sometimes more successfully than others:
The moment that shot right through my heart was after Peggy fired the freelancer, Joey, for drawing lewd pictures of Joan. When it was happening, I was like, “FUCK YES!” but then Joan deflated both me and Peggy with the realest of proto-feminist realtalk: “All you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.” It just so painfully illustrated the futile battle of 1960s sexual harassment (before it was called that), and now I see it foreshadowed Joan’s departure from McCann-Erickson.
In terms of feel-good moments, though, it has to be when Peggy literally dressed down Stan in that hotel room. Not only did she win the night but she also somehow parlayed that into a best friendship!
Peggy and Stan:
I loved the dynamic between Peggy and Stan, especially their phone calls. She confounded his expectations from the start (when she calls his “nudity-is-man‘s-natural-state” bluff in “Waldorf Stories” and insists they work naked) all the way up until the end, with her, “Just like a man does” moment in “Time & Life.” When Stan started at SCDP, he was a full-on chauvinist who didn’t seem to get that women were people — like Harry in When Harry Met Sally, he didn’t think men and women could be friends. I’ve always had great guy friends, and have had a lot of people misunderstand that and assume there was something more going on, so Peggy and Stan’s friendship resonated with me. That said, I would not be mad if they ended up together. (I was born in 1972, so in my pop-culture fantasy world they’re my parents.)
Joan sleeping with the Cadillac guy for a partnership:
That unforgettable Joan moment that I wrote my one and only Mad Men piece about (saying, “it’s a rational choice that will give her much more autonomy than anything else available to her”). Since then, the plot line has only confirmed that Joan was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t, but at least she got to walk away with some of the cash she was owed.
Joan climbs the ranks, and men still suck:
Joan’s career arc has been the most salient and devastating of all for me, even worse than Betty — it’s so disheartening to watch this incredibly capable, smart, driven woman be reduced to her silhouette time and again, from the early days of running the secretaries’ schedules and bedding Roger Sterling to the most recent arc wherein she is a millionaire SC&P partner who can’t hold a meeting about an account without being undermined or objectified. It is resonant because it is still happening. The worst part, though, was when she thought she had to sleep with that drooling hambone to secure the Jaguar account; it was real on the show but also incredibly symbolic of all the degrading exchanges women often have to entertain just to get a leg up in the corporate sphere. The handsy Jaguar hambone is the persistent glass ceiling, and our faces smushed up against it.
Peggy in her hotel room, alone:
It was you, Peggy, in your hotel room alone on your first real business trip. You got in, kicked off your shoes, ordered a drink from room service. Thought about calling up someone to visit and send away before you have to go to your first meeting in the morning. But for now, you just want to take in the view, the city, the night, and everything that comes after, full of promise and adventure and fulfillment. Only it’s not yet. Right now, it’s just dogs humping.
Peggy and Don’s friendship:
Peggy has always intrigued me because, while she certainly had her share of office affairs — she had more than Joan — she was not eroticized or manhandled in the same way. If anything, she seems to either be regarded as one of the guys on her best day, or castrating when rightfully assuming authority over her all-male charges. When men, especially colleagues, are attracted to her, they’re often taken by surprise.
But it’s her friendships with men that I am most intrigued by, especially with Don, in part because it reminds me of friendships I’ve had with emotionally reserved men. I’ve long marveled at the unique bond that can develop between straight men and lesbians — which I’ve privately and jokingly called “lezbro” relationships — part sisterly confidante, part locker-room buddy, part wingman. Of course, Peggy is not a lesbian, but Don and Peggy do share a “lezbrotic” relationship, which we saw perhaps most clearly in “The Suitcase.” Now, Don got the better end of that deal, for sure, but he’s as good a friend to Peggy as he’s capable of being to anyone. And he’s demonstrated as much as a man of that era can that he respects her and actually listens to her (and managed to resist seducing her, perhaps the only woman he’s resisted making any kind of pass at).
I think about that moment she put her hand on his her first day of work because she thought she had to — and he pulled it off. Sure, she was dowdy then, and we couldn’t foresee how she’d evolve, or indeed how their relationship would. But I don’t know that any of us could have anticipated that they would make us plead for them NOT to sleep together, and instead pull for him to show us repeatedly that he regarded her as a peer, and push it further to get him to revere her as, dare I say it, an equal.
Bobbie Barrett gives Peggy advice:
I love the Bobbie Barrett sequence, when Peggy goes to pick up Don from jail and the two women awkwardly bond. “This is America,” Bobbie says in that episode. “Pick a job and then become the person that does it.” And: “Don’t be a man. Be a woman.” That bookends well with Roger’s final advice to Peggy this season which was, essentially, “Be a badass.” Shades of Cheryl Strayed: Don’t write like a man, don’t write like a woman; write like a motherfucker.
Bobbie’s one of my favorite feminists on the show, shown in all her complexity. The noble, queen-like Rachel Menken is almost a little too good, like she was based on someone Matt Weiner had a crush on at Camp Ramah. But Bobbie is brassy and funny and flawed and smart, like my beloved daughter-of-a-Jewish-mobster Faye. (All the ballsiest feminists on Mad Men are Jewish, have you noticed?)
Don dumps Dr. Faye:
I feel like Mad Men has had so many iconic feminist moments where the female characters talk back to the patriarchy: Joan kicking her husband to the curb, Peggy quitting SCDP, Betty having sex with that guy in the bar… and then there was Dr. Faye.
Dr. Faye Miller was my kind of woman – brilliant, beautiful, fun, equal to Don — and could get a last-minute table at any NY restaurant. Don seemed happy and relaxed around her, so naturally he (by which I mean the show’s writers) dumped her for Meghan. The addition of a “bad-with-kids” narrative was the icing on my anger cake. I hope she, like Rachel Menken (RIP), found someone worthy of her gifts.
Peggy and Dawn:
It actually took me a while to figure out what Matt Weiner was doing with Mad Men, and at first I was just appalled at how terrible the conditions were for women and people of color. I have always been wary of attempts to glorify (even if subconsciously, vis-a-vis how fashionable and beautiful you create something) a time in history that was terrible.
The moment I really felt resonated most with me and I saw clearly the cultural importance of Mad Men was when Dawn spends the night at Peggy’s house — till that moment I had identified most with Peggy and her office struggles. But that, to me, highlighted the difference of experience between white women and women of color, and in this case black women — and how vastly that difference impacted your experience in that time. It’s unfortunate that Dawn’s character wasn’t developed more.
Joan, Peggy and Faye:
Joan’s speech in “Lost Horizon” was one of the most exhilarating moments the show has ever done, made all the more so because she was never, until that point, an especially political character. As Matthew Weiner has said, Joan was a woman in the Helen Gurley Brown mold, so hearing her name-drop Betty Friedan felt like a huge win for feminism. (Never mind that she took the crummy buyout in the end.)
Another favorite is the Season 4 episode, “The Beautiful Girls.” Best remembered as “the one where Miss Blankenship dies,” it’s a funny, poignant, and insightful episode that shows Joan, Faye, and Peggy each facing similar challenges as working women, and yet somehow unable to connect with each other. (An idea captured perfectly in a closing shot of the trio riding the elevator together in silence.)
—Meredith Blake, Entertainment Reporter, LA Times