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‘Mad Men’ returned for its fifth season last month, and executive producer Matthew Weiner seems more interested than ever in exploring how his female characters cope with the myriad of personal and professional challenges American women faced in the 1960s.
From race and employment, to marriage and motherhood, the women of ‘Mad Men’ are in increasingly independent positions, while some male characters are struggling just to stay relevant. Here is how the series’ three principal female characters are faring this season:
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss): Peggy entered the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper in the first episode of ‘Mad Men’ as the naive secretary who soon worked her way up to a Junior Copywriter position, forcing her to contend more bluntly with the patronizing attitudes of her male colleagues and clients.
At the end of Season 3, Peggy was one of only two women at the agency to transfer over to the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency, and in last Sunday’s episode she bartered with founding partner Roger Sterling in a remarkable show of power play:
Roger: What do you make a week, sweetheart?
Peggy: You don’t know, huh? That’s helpful.
Roger: You know, I could fire you… Fine, how much you want?
Peggy: How much you got?
Peggy: Give me all of it.
Roger: Jesus! You better be good.
Peggy: Do you want me to take your watch?
Roger’s desperate bargaining with a female subordinate several decades his junior is indicative of the power and importance Peggy is gradually beginning to wield in her professional life.
Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks): Joan can be described of something as a ‘Queen Bee,’ as she mediates between the workers and the partners while confidently exhibiting her sexuality in her role as Office Manager. This would explain why she has been frequently frustrated with Peggy, initially when she was a meek secretary, and later when she ascended the career ranks so swiftly.
Late last season, Joan discovered that she was pregnant and has been on maternity leave through the first four episodes of the season. Joan initially feared that motherhood meant the end of her career at the agency, but this was put to rest when she was told that they “couldn’t operate a parking meter” without her.
Yet, it was in Sunday’s episode that Joan’s development took a significant turn: after finding out that her husband Greg, a soldier newly returned from overseas, had volunteered to re-enlist after being away for over a year, she told him that their marriage was over and finally confronted him about being raped by him in Season 2:
Joan: I’m glad the Army makes you feel like a man, because I’m sick of trying to do it.
Greg: The Army makes me feel like a good man.
Joan: You’re not a good man. You never were, even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.
At this, Greg left and the series will now move forward with Joan as a single, working mother – a situation wholly unique in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices of 1966.
Betty Francis (January Jones): During the first three seasons of ‘Mad Men’, Betty was the archetypal unhappy suburban housewife of the 1960s. She repressed her unhappiness about having no life outside of the domestic sphere, and represented the antithesis to Peggy, a woman who gave away her own baby in order to secure her independence and career opportunities.
After separating from Don Draper at the end of Season 3, Betty remarried in the hopes of leading a happier life. However, when Season 5 began, Betty was shown to have undergone a significant weight gain and asked for diet pills from her doctor:
Dr. Horton: Mrs. Francis, when a housewife has rapid weight gain, the cause is usually psychological. Unhappiness, anxiety, boredom, things that cause us to lose our self-control.
The doctor lists all of the issues which have plagued Betty since the series began, revealing that trading one husband for another has not led to her becoming either a fulfilled or secure woman.
‘Mad Men’ features several other female characters, and this season has seen the introduction of Teyonah Parris, as the agency’s first African-American employee.
However, it is these three women who serve as the principal female figures on their series: Peggy, who represents independence and ambition; Betty, who represents domestic isolation; and Joan, who represents somewhat a combination of the two as she strives to meld motherhood and her career. Their development will undoubtedly continue to play a key aspect of the series in this season and beyond.