Like most women whose hopes and passions reside in this business of the written word, my friend and fellow Nervous Breakdown contributor Arielle Bernstein and I have been following Franzen-gate with interest. In chat after chat, we wondered if this was merely sour grapes on the part of Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, if their criticism of gender-bias within the “literary establishment” (as represented by The New York Times) would’ve had greater heft had it come from a woman whose talents might be considered more on par with Mr. Franzen’s (like, say, Mary Gaitskill, Marilynne Robinson, or Jhumpa Lahiri). We had no real answers, but our questions lead us down the rabbit hole of gender parity in popular media.
Arielle observed that the showrunners for some of the most influential and acclaimed television programs in recent history are men. The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad, and the new Boardwalk Empire (to name a few) are largely preoccupied with archetypal masculine troupes like personal and familial honor, ethical and unethical exertions of violence, and strategic maneuvering to power. These are capital-S Serious shows, just as Franzen’s Freedom is capital-S Serious literature.
But what about Mad Men ? I countered. Mad Men is unarguably one of the most respected shows on TV, and it’s pretty concerned with women.
But, Arielle asked, would Mad Men enjoy such lofty standing if the central character was Peggy Olson and not Don Draper?
She wondered if, as an audience, we have become so accustomed to experiencing main story lines through a masculine vantage point, that we find ourselves unable (or, rather, unconsciously unwilling) to view the stories of women, though no less compelling, as anything other than subplots. Surely, those moments in-between Peggy’s moments on-screen, moments where all those seemingly small yet heartbreakingly significant indignities at the office are allowed to percolate, would be as compelling as any earlier scene of Don Draper brooding on the commuter train.
Even Peggy’s ascent as a copy writer is by and large viewed in tandem with her trajectory as “the female Don.” Watching her home run-at-first-swing presentation to the Playtex executives in the season four episode The Chinese Wall, one can’t help but by reminded of Don’s style: lyrical-yet-precise in its narrative of the product’s innate ability to elevate everyday life into the transcendent. In a lovely twist on the traditional woman-as-muse, Peggy speaks with a passion inspired by her new lover, Abe.
However, this isn’t her Kodak Carousel moment—it isn’t allowed to be. One of the Playtex execs tries to alert her to the lipstick on her teeth with a gesture he believes to be discreet, but its unfortunate reference to cunnilingus flashes back to all the harassment Peggy has endured. Shock flits across her face, but she forces herself into composure. This expression of swallowed-down indignation reminds us that Peggy still shares an office with many of the men who’ve maligned her. Indeed, sitting across the table from her is account executive Ken Cosgrove, who, in an early episode from season one, fondled her rear end as she attempted to leave a diner.
This scene is a potent reminder of the fact that despite her Draperesque prowess, Peggy will always struggle for the respect that the raw talent she shares with her mentor easily affords him. Despite any personal quibble with him, nobody at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (or even back at Sterling Cooper) would’ve allowed Don to go into any pitch meeting with so much as a water-stain on his jacket. I was eager to see what Peggy’s response to the boorish art director who set her up to be embarrassed would be, but the story shifted its interest back to Don and a possible love triangle with Megan and Faye.
While we see the impact of Peggy’s struggles to assert herself in the office, I can’t help but wonder how maintaining—of needing to maintain—a constant vigilance over her feelings effects her personal relationships. The push-pull Don feels to tentatively connect with and violently detach from the women in his life gives the show its emotional heft. We read grand statements about masculinity, femininity, Oedipal complexes, and the American dream (among other things) into his attachments and infidelities.
Peggy’s attachments are no less rich with meaning. The most pressing question might be how women are supposed to negotiate positive relationships with the opposite sex when a great deal of their personal and professional well-being involves side-stepping the land mines planted by men (who sometimes even have good intentions). So far, Peggy’s solution (not unlike Don’s) has been avoidance—she’s been hung up on the unavailable (married-man Pete Campbell, floundering alcoholic Duck Phillips) or the just-plain unsuitable (whiny milquetoast Mark). Her current pairing with aspiring journalist Abe is fraught with an erotic friction akin to Don’s opposites-attract affairs with Rachel Mencken and Faye Miller.
Even though these men do care for her in their own ways, they’re still beholden to their times (and their own immaturity) and treat her with spectacular ugliness. Pete shows up on her doorstep before his wedding night only callously rebuff her when he returns from his honeymoon; Duck, in a drunken stupor, calls her a whore. Mark wheedles and pleads his way into her bed, and assuming she’s a virgin, treats her with a condescension he tries to pass off as tenderness. Even Abe, with his unfortunately titled manifesto Nuremberg on Madison Avenue, demeans Peggy’s work.
Arielle asked me why I think we might need Don to be the sun around which the show revolves. I think, on one level, it’s because Peggy’s story might be too damn uncomfortable. As the lipstick-on-the-teeth scene shows, even when she’s at her creative peak, she’s still so easily leveled. And the boulder she has to keep pushing up that hill—her gender—is something completely beyond her control. At least Don’s low points—the loss of his marriage and the down-slide accompanying it—are the culmination of his own actions: He has nobody to blame for his philandering and his drinking but himself. This sense of culpability, ironically enough, gives Don-as-a-character an agency that feels empowering.
Even the mantra he uses to coach Peggy back from her postpartum breakdown—“This never happened”—presents her with an option she didn’t know she had: to not be devastated by failure to comply with traditional expectations. “I could have shamed you into being with me,” she tells Pete in one of the most vindicating TV kiss-offs. With the exception of Don Draper’s real identity, Peggy’s pregnancy is the show’s most significant secret. After flashbacks in season two, it emerges most prominently again in season four—in the moment when, after congratulating Pete on Trudy’s pregnancy, Peggy taps her head against her desk in silent frustration; and in her heartbreakingly simple response to Don’s question in The Suitcase about if/when she ever thinks about it: “playgrounds”.
I frankly don’t want Peggy to angst over the baby she gave up; I applaud the writers for giving us an unsentimental portrait of a woman who chose her own life over traditional mores. Her choice literalizes the compromise she—and countless other working women—have had to make.
What I find interesting in comparison, however, is how Don’s secret becomes a central metaphor for advertising itself. In becoming Don Draper—war hero, family man, man in the gray flannel suit—Dick Whitman—the impoverished son of a prostitute—takes something gritty and lowly but nonetheless authentic, and, through brute strength of will and a kind of heartless savvy, polishes it into an American ideal: seemingly independent yet easily defined.
While the very nature of Peggy’s secret makes it expressly about gender, Don’s becomes about something more expansive. About advertising, yes, but more importantly, about what we need advertising to accomplish for us; how we need our products and our affairs, our houses and our jobs to make us more than merely who we are. We can all, on some level, relate to Dick Whitman; I question whether Peggy’s life and choices are as relateable on such a grand level.
As season four of Mad Men rolls to a close (as of this writing, there is only one more episode left), I have to say I’ve found myself asking “What about Peggy Olson?” and opposed to “Who is Don Draper?”