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?”

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LAURA BOGART is a writer/editor who can't seem to find it in her heart to leave Baltimore for too long. Her work has appeared in Wazee Journal, 34th Parallel, Xenith, Glossolalia, and Full of Crow, among others. Her piece "The Seduction of Lobster Boy" appeared in the inaugural issue of Ne'er Do Well magazine. In 2009, she was awarded a Grace Paley Fellowship by the Juniper Institute at UMass Amherst. She is currently working on a novel she can only describe as Kill Bill meets Lolita at the sideshow. She's also piecing together a collection of linked stories. Laura relies on her dog Tova to nudge her away from the laptop when she's been staring at the screen for too long.

30 responses to “What About Peggy Olson?”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    A fascinating read, Laura and Arielle.

    Arielle has captured a perceptive truth:

    “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.”

    Females, a majority of the world’s population, remain minority-statused in all countries and cultures. In USAmerica, they are consigned to various inferior states depending upon their skin colour and economic class. Typically, the whitest, wealthiest and better educated females come the closest to receiving comparable treatment with most males. For that reason, those women have enough clout to change the sexist treatment of all women.

    I therefore appreciate your analyses, very much look forward to more of your and Arielle’s discussion, and am eager to read others’ (males’ as well as females’) comments.

  2. Meg Worden says:

    This is so smart, timely and well written. Laura and Arielle, you have articulated exactly the well of frustration I feel watching this show. While we are supposed to be watching the limiting sexism present in the time frame of the story, it echoes current attitudes in it’s very existence.
    I do love this show, the writing, the clothes, props…etc… I’ve fallen for it for all requisite reasons. But it leaves me unsettled. Peggy and Joan’s struggles make me ache in a way you just defined.
    Would this show enjoy the same popularity if Peggy were the main character and Don a subplot? I find it highly unlikely.
    Really enjoyed reading this!

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Laura and Arielle, I forgot to say that I can’t weigh in on some of the specifics of this discussion because I don’t have a television. However, I am super-interested in the issues you’ve both raised.

  4. Gloria says:

    This was really great and you ask a good question. The answer to which is: Yes. I would totally watch Mad Men if the central character were female. But not the actress who plays Peggy Olson because I don’t engage with her enough (that said, I haven’t watched the show since midway through season 2). If a woman could tackle it with the same panache and gusto as Hamm – and be that damn engaging – I’d be all over it. I’ve been looking for the female hero myself, so I would watch with pleasure. I think you’re right – I think that Peggy’s story is too damn uncomfortable. And I think that anything that highlights that – that really puts it up there as a central story point – quickly becomes chick lit and we lose half our audience. There’s no way it would be popular the way Mad Men is. Most of the straight men I know are instantly turned off by the F word, or anything that may even look or smell like feminism.

    I would like to point out that this isn’t just interesting and thought-provoking, but you have some really great lines in here: “…this isn’t her Kodak Carousel moment…” for instance. I enjoyed this very much!

  5. zoe zolbrod says:

    Love this smart essay. I think your claim about the series not being as popular if the main plot focused on a woman is one of the most crystal-clear examples of the gender blinders discussed and debated in Franzen-gate.

    I’m trying to think of celebrated TV dramas that center around a female point of view, and I can’t. (I’m not that well-versed in TV, but I’ve watched the big series, the Wires and Sopranos and Six Feet Unders and so forth. Six Feet Under, I guess, is split on its perspective, wouldn’t you say? Or is it ultimately Nate’s show?)

  6. Greg Olear says:

    I had to wait till today to read this because I couldn’t watch on Sunday and needed to catch up first.

    Really interesting piece. I never thought about Draper As Advertising, but of course you’re right, that makes perfect sense. Of all the fascinating characters on the show — Don, Peggy, Pete Campbell, Roger — this season’s most compelling has been, to me, Sally Draper. Sally Draper could carry a show.

    Here’s a show with a strong female center: Weeds. I almost gave upon it after the turd that was S3, but S4 and S5 were better than even the first two seasons — much more so. S4&5 are almost up to Mad Men snuff. Almost.

  7. Arielle Bernstein says:

    I’m so glad that our conversation inspired such interesting discussion!

    You make the point that,

    “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.”

    I feel that the fact that Peggy’s secret is about gender, rather than something “universal”, is emblematic of the problem of gender in Mad Men in general.

    I think the reason we can “all” relate to Dick Whitman (I put “all” in quotes since I think that is something Mad Men wants us to feel, but I don’t know if, in reality, we do “all” relate to him) is partly because the show posits him to be the central figure in this series, but also has to do with the fact that we are acculturated to perceive white male characters are universally relatable figures.

    What if Peggy was presented as someone who stands for a larger central metaphor? Would an audience go with that? Would an audience resist? Would it depend on if that audience was male or female?

    • Laura Bogart says:

      I know! You and I should totally start a Mad Men viewing club for TNB the way Slate has their viewing club. Well, for next season at least.

      I agree with you that the way Mad Men is very transparently about gender, and that in many ways, the kind of car-wreck rubbernecking it inspires (“Those poor women! I can’t believe what they had to put up with!”) does distance you from the actual stories. However, if they didn’t call attention to the conditions of the time, we’d call them on it in much the same way Mad Men has been called to task for its lack of racial consciousness. It’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t position. I also wonder if, since time and place bears so heavily on the (even unconscious) foundations of an individual, as writers, we must factor that into the inception (even unconscious) of our characters.

      As for Dick Whitman-as-Don Draper being our entry-point into the show, I think in some ways, you’re right–a white dude in need of some serious redeeming is just what we’ve become comfortable with. However, shows like “The Wire,” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” before it, challenge us to think beyond this, so maybe there is hope. On a personal level, and gender issues aside, I’ll go out there and say that I do relate to Dick Whitman. I get what it means to be someone who hustles and strives to look like someone who doesn’t have to hustle and strive. I find great path in a figure who can’t even acknowledge that his greatest creation is himself. The created self is such a powerful narrative–think of the lasting appeal of Marilyn Monroe. In a way, Dick Whitman/Don Draper is kinda like Norma Jeane Mortenson/Marilyn Monroe. Oooh, yet another topic!

      Our g-chats are most fruitful indeed.

  8. Laura Bogart says:

    Wow, thank you for the amazing commentary everyone. I love the discussions on TNB.

    Judy, I agree with your point about a certain class of woman being privileged enough to change the treatment of women across the board (or at least make an earnest go of it). The show made a similar point when Abe went on his rant about the auto company that refused to hire blacks. Peggy, though treated hideously unfairly (as she rightly pointed out), is in position to at least attempt to lobby for the disenfranchised class here (and she does, though limply). And she does stand up for Joan in a very clear, direct way; the show made us (or at least me) wonder, in that scene in the elevator, whether Joan may have been correct about what the impact of Peggy’s actions would be. I was relieved that we saw Peggy getting on with her crew just as she had before, maybe not better, but surely not worse.

    Meg, I think Joan’s story is becoming the truly tragic one for me. I ache for Peggy as you do, but I think she’s adaptable and ready to charge ahead with the changing times. Joan is the one who, despite doing everything she thought she should, has ended up unhappy and without much recourse. I think it’s interesting how we, as viewers, were positioned to see Roger–yet another man–as the antidote to her situation with Dr. Greg (aka Dr. Rape). And yet….the whole recent chain of events between them has just been brutal.

    Gloria, a-freakin’-men to this “I think you’re right – I think that Peggy’s story is too damn uncomfortable. And I think that anything that highlights that – that really puts it up there as a central story point – quickly becomes chick lit and we lose half our audience.” And I think that is what Picoult and Weiner were getting at in their critique of the hoopla over Franzen, that stories by and about women get ghettoized, either as chick lit or as “after school special” lit.

    Zoe, I can’t honestly think of another long-running, critically acclaimed show that centered around a woman. I’ll have to check out “Weeds per Greg’s suggestion. The only show I can think of is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and that show never got the props it deserved–in part because of its sci-fi content, but in part because of its orientation toward “the F word” Gloria alluded to. I think “Six Feet Under” was pretty evenly split between the siblings in terms of whose show it was, but I was pleased that the closing episodes were really heavily from Claire’s perspective. The closing montage (my god, how I criiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiied during that) was from her p.o.v.

    Greg, Draper as advertising became clear to me as I watching some of the earlier episodes again. I mean, think about it, Betty–representing the suburban housewife who is by and large the primary target of most ad campaigns (even today)–becomes enamored of the promises offered by the facade, clinging to it even when it can’t give her what she really needs (in part because she can’t even identify her own needs). It is only when the facade is ripped back, when there is no more “product” and only reality, that she leaves. I find it interesting that she replaces him with a politician, given that politicians are ad men in their own ways, ad men who openly own themselves as “product” even though part of their packaging insists on their own authenticity. So, Don-like, but, um, not. Damn, I think you just inspired another essay.

    And yes, I can’t wait for the show that takes Sally Draper through the swingin’ seventies and the Reagan era.

    Thank you all for your insights.

    • Matt says:

      Re: the Henry Francis character. My first impression of him – which has yet to be contradicted by any of the developments of S4 – was that he played like the perfect cross between Don and Betty’s late father Gene in terms of his age relative to hers. Betty’s a terrible parent because, in a large part, she still wants to be a child herself, and doesn’t really know how to be an adult.

      Not sure if if I entirely agree with you regarding the Joan/Roger/Greg dynamic. Yes, the goal of marrying a successful husband she explicitly stated in S1 hasn’t exactly worked out the way she thought it would (as with Betty), but unlike Betty she seems much more conscious of it, and far more capable of actually doing things about it; Lane Pryce certainly has enough respect for her business saavy to leave her in charge of the firm’s finances. And I think she’s spotted Roger for the clay-footed pampered child he really is; her rejection of him when he sought comfort in her arms (read: between her legs) had me cheering for her.

      One of the most interesting moments for me this season has been the elevator conversation between Joan and Peggy regarding Peggy’s firing of the artist who drew that profane cartoon of Joan. I think there’s an argument to be made that neither of their approaches to the situation was entirely correct, and that the middle ground route is something that women, collectively speaking, are in the process of defining at that particular point in time.

      And regarding the other women: wow, poor Midge, huh?

      And thanks for bringing up Buffy, since it didn’t look like anyone else was going to. Strong female lead in a show ultimately about collective female empowerment (which the series finale took to the most literal extreme possible) which regularly garnered a diverse demographic. It was my only must-see TV during my college and grad school years. There are whole swaths of Twilight fandom I want to give DVD sets to, since Bella Swan really is a terrible, terrible female role model.

      • Laura Bogart says:

        Matt, I totally agree with your analysis of Betty. It was so appropriate that she wanted to keep seeing Dr. Edna, a child psychiatrist.

        As for Joan, I agree with you that Joan is, in many ways, an anti-Betty. My Joan-Greg-Roger comments were sparked more by what I was reading on fan boards (::coughcough::not that they’re the first things I read Monday morning::coughcough::), where the prevailing wishful thinking was for a Roger-Joan reunion that might lead her to leave Greg. Sadly, I think her pride may keep her from doing it herself, but I hope I’m proven wrong.

        And yeah, poor Midge. That line “Don, what am I gonna with a check?” was just so heartbreaking. The actress nailed it; we heard a touch of the old Midge’s effortless cool, but weighted with such shame.

        Don’t even get me started on Bella frickin’ Swan. I do believe Buffy should become mandatory viewing for all teenagers, for precisely the reasons you’ve mentioned. I don’t think I’ve ever related to a TV heroine as strongly as I did with Buffy. I hope the Twihards are at least being directed to other, more positive titles in YA, like The Hunger Games trilogy.

  9. Marni Grossman says:

    Part of the issue with having a TV show that revolves around a female character is that there’s an implicit assumption that men won’t watch shows about women. Just like we assume- and men tend to vindicate this- that men won’t read books about female characters. Because we’ve always had to, women are able to identify with either gender. Or at least to find enjoyable/interesting stories about the opposite sex. But because in this society we still tend to think of Man as the stand-in for humankind, men have never had to. Moreover, a show expressly about women is often dismissed as “chick” fare and less likely to receive the critical praise something like “Mad Men” has. And then there’s the demographics issue: how TV execs are still catering to 18-45 year-old men.

    Now you have me riled up!

    But you might think about checking out “Nurse Jackie.” It does some interesting stuff and Edie Falco is, as per usual, fabulous.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      All I can say here is a-fuckin’-men, my friend. Women have always had to identify with and empathize with either gender precisely because Man (or, rather, this abstract idea of “man”) is the exemplar of humankind. Sadly, men who are interested in real stories about women are widely demeaned, viewed as being effeminate (which, of course, translates into “less than”). So nobody wins.

      It’s interesting that male writers who offer sympathetic, or at least fully-realized, women characters are praised to kingdom come. Women writers who create fully-realized male characters are just seen as par for the course. It’s endemic of the way our culture insists that anyone in a position of privilege (I’d extend that to race as well) shouldn’t have to bother with learning anything about how the other part of the population thinks and feels.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Marni, your comments are wonderfully provocative.

      Not a tv-watcher, I’ll instead relate your comments and issues to what I’ll call literature.

      Some generalisations:

      1) Females and males, in general, prefer different kinds (i.e., subjects) of literature, and possibly this is not just a cultural dynamic. I’m willing to accept that it is chemical/biological, just as females’ brains are hardwired for multi-tasking but males’ brains are not.

      2) All cultures present male-written literature as more valuable than female-written literature. (Read this to mean, as well, lit written about males and lit written about females)

      3) As you’ve said, females have had to identify with either sex (in literature), whereas males have not had to do so.

      4) Thus, the male-dominated machinery that determines which kind of literature is chosen and marketed remains in its solidly dominant position—-unless females choose not to continue buying “male” lit and decide to buy “female” lit, instead.

      5) As with “minority” or other oppressed populations, females have *unconsciously* accepted the “majority” values; that is, they’ve internalised those values and deem them superior to their own.

      6) Women, therefore, may have trouble figuring out what kind of lit is valuable to them bcuz they haven’t a clean slate upon which to write their ideas. They may try to replicate male lit subject matter, valuations and characterisations, using superficial “female” characteristics.

      I’d love to hear your comments!

      • Becky Palapala says:

        5) Is problematic for me. If they’ve internalized them, especially unconsciously, aren’t they their own?

        Or are you suggesting that women are born with a set of values unique to women? I mean, how can we even begin to talk about such a thing? If so, what are they, or who decides what they are and tells women when they’re betraying/being led away from said woman-y values?

        But if someone else (even a woman promoting woman-y values) tells another woman that her values aren’t her values (something she just “got in her head”) or that her values aren’t valid because they’re contrary to a gendered social goal, how is that different from pressure to internalize “male” values?

        My head is spinning.

        • Judy Prince says:

          I first heard about internalising values while prepping to teach a class on African-American lit (yes, me a white woman, chosen by a black male author and his black author wife, to teach black students about “their” lit!). It was back in the 60’s, and I read every possible African-American book, essay, poem or tract I could get my hands on in the space of 6 months.

          Aside from the obvious aid those writings were to my teaching and views on blacks’ experiences and thoughts, they were very useful to me personally and professionally, bcuz the comparisons between black lives and females’ lives was analogically evident throughout them. I was, in effect, learning from blacks what it was to be a “minority.”

          One of the ideas, of course, was that blacks had internalised majority values thoroughly, thus thinking of themselves—-being not-white—-as inherently inferior. So “good=white” and “bad=black.” Unconscious. Not even at the questioning, the debatable level of the mind.

          I wish I had noted the name of the author who said that racism was ubiquitous, that it was like everyone had the flu all the time, and therefore no one noticed that they had “flu.” It all felt normal.

          Even before my readings, my world-view had been turned upside down by black-think, so that I never again saw things the same. Every accepted thought/fact/action I had had was turned into its opposite.

          When I, reasonably and easily, translated black-think to my own woman world, naturally all hell broke loose. In a good way. heh.

          So now to your questions and doubts:

          What literature is “naturally” preferred by females? By males? I don’t know. I’m even unsure that I know what I, myself, prefer. I *think* I know what I prefer……but am aware and wary enough to know that a lifetime of internalising others’ preferences in all areas of my life surely has affected my preferences for literature as well.

          But I don’t find the thought daunting; quite the opposite. There’s no rush, after all, to think about what I like, to create my own art forms, to experience others’ art forms and to think about alternatives, to have a joyful ride through it all.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Right. But what is “black think?”

          Like, is it shared by all black people?

          Or just some black people?

          And if all black people don’t share it, is one group holding the “correct” or organic or “natural” black stance? And where does one get that kind of accreditation? Who’s got the stamp, going, “This is natural blank think and this is internalized white think” and so on…? I mean, presuming it’s more complicated–in cases of both race and gender–than good/bad.

          If EVERYONE has the flu, how can they possibly ever know when they’re “cured?” They couldn’t. They would not know what it even is to be “well.” They could only know that they felt different than they once did or than other people appear to. But they would always run the risk that their “well” was actually just a different kind of flu.

          This is getting into the interminable discussion area of perception and questions of whether or not the mind is capable of comprehending itself. It just strikes me that the presumption that all women are universally brainwashed makes an ominous argument for “righting” their thought in some way. Which sounds, in turn, like brainwashing. It’s an age-old question. Feminists seem united in their assertion that men shouldn’t tell women what to do or think. But the response is a bit more mixed when it comes to whether or not women should be able to tell women what to do or think.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Indeed, Becky.

          And it’s fascinating to imagine how groups, majority and minority, come to hold shared values.

          Rodent suggests that it begins with individuals, growing up, assuming that the way people around them behave is the way everyone behaves, and it never occurs to them (us) that there isn’t a society in which people inevitably eat their grandparents when the grandparents reach the age of 65.

          I had said to Rodent that Eric Berne, in _Games People Play_, had posited that all groupings come down to a dyad (i.e., 2 entities), inevitably. At that juncture in our chat, Rodent said that Berne is essentially a cartoon version of Ervin Goffman’s work _The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life_.

          I hadn’t read Goffman, so Wiki’ed him briefly, and his main point seems to be that we all present ourselves like actors do before an audience, trying to influence them to view us in particular ways. Resonates, that. Here’s the link to Wiki on Goffman:


          Wiki says that Shakespeare’s writing influenced Kenneth Burke who influenced Goffman who influenced Berne. I’m off to check this out further.

        • Judy Prince says:

          That link wasn’t what I intended. Here’s the right one:


        • Becky Palapala says:

          I vaguely remember Goffman (and/or Burke) from a dalliance with sociology when I first transferred to finish my B.A. and thought briefly, in that moment of opportunity, that I might change my major. I didn’t. I may still have some of his essays/excerpted work somewhere.

          I remember disliking him, but I can’t remember why, exactly. Probably something to do with a perceived incompatibility with evolutionary theories of human behavior…cultural constructionist superorganic dogma or whatever I was prone to calling things I didn’t like back then.

          Anyway, we didn’t spend much time on him. He was a sort of a sidebar in the PoMo discussion. Or proto-PoMo or whatever his overall deal was. I don’t have time for the reading right now (toiling away in the workplace), but when I do, I will get back to this.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Will meet you back here, then. Me toiling at other research right now.

          I want to follow up on Eric Berne’s notion of everything ending up to be a dyad. And something about the passive one of the dyad having the actual power. I think Rodent hasn’t fully appreciated Berne’s concepts and conclusions. But I’ll have to read Berne again in order to show that. I’ll also, unfortunately, have to read Goffman and Burke and the bits in Shakespeare that wiki claims influenced them.

          Rodent suddenly says, “Tell Becky to read _Cards of Identity_ by Nigel Dennis. It’s an incredible sendup of the whole business of role-playing, and it includes an entire cod-Shakespeare play as the climax of the novel.”

          He continues: “As the book begins, you gradually realise that a national psychiatric conference is taking place in an English village where the psychiatrists re-program the entire village in order to conduct their annual conference on the cheap by using the villagers as unpaid servants. It’s very much of it’s time—–cold war, psychological programming, the whole ball of wax.”

          Rodent’s got the book, so I’ll give it a go, always eager for laffs.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    I was thinking today about a similar thing, but in regards to TV and youth.


    Is Nurse Jackie still going? I’ve sorta lost track of TV.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Simon, I believe Nurse Jackie is still going strong. I’ll have to check it out. I’d be really interested to hear more about your thoughts regarding TV and youth.

  11. Becky Palapala says:

    “Mad Men,” like “Lost,” has the curious quality of being exceptionally appealing–it seems to me–to people who otherwise hate TV. Though I don’t dispute the quality of the show, I don’t think the answer lies solely in the quality of the show.

    I really have no idea where the answer lies.

    I mean, it has nothing to do with Peggy Olson, I don’t think, so this is a bit of a tangent, but whenever people bring up Mad Men, I have to pose this question, just in case someone listening has a theory.

    • Laura Bogart says:

      Becky, I think you’re totally right here. I have never seen Lost, so I can’t speak about it. What I will say is that there’s something about the way Mad Men has become a cultural touchstone that is about more than the show itself. I think it simultaneously indulges our nostalgia for “a simpler time” while also giving us a much-needed slap in the face over that nostalgia (I doubt any of the characters, especially the women, would tell you they were living simple lives in simple times). Also, in characters like Don (and even, to a certain degree, Peggy), we get to see people who get away with breaking the rules and breaking out of their station in life. I think that elevates our common desires to the heroic.

  12. lucas says:

    I Love Lucy?

  13. I love Mad Men. Love Peggy. And love Don. Really love Don. Am happy to be following him. The best scenes are Don and Peggy together. But, yes, I’m really interested in what you’ve said here. Don’t you think that women are as responsible for this as men? Isn’t it an audience of women who drawn to the TV for Don alone?
    Women who star in shows:
    Weeds. Mary Something or Other Parker has virtually abandoned her newborn baby or left him in the care of her homicidal younger son, she goes to hick bars drinks shots, beers, and then has hot sex with a hot married bartender on and against the bar.
    The C Word: Laura Linney refuses to tell her husband she has cancer and allows him to torture himself as he tries to please her while she runs around with the smelly old lady across the road and a hot painter with whom she has hot sex.
    What does this mean? What does it mean when our female characters are all verging on total lunacy? And, are they any worse than Don-alcoholic-philanderer-hidden identity-very sexy-Draper?
    And, would these shows be at all interesting if these people had their shit together?

  14. […] 15, 2010 Upon reading a recent article about the role of women as central characters in TV shows, specifically Mad Men, it got me thinking about the show and work and life and what the show is […]

  15. Laura Bogart says:

    Oh Jessica, my sister in the love of Don. And I do, despite myself, love me some Don. I agree with you that the best scenes are really between Peggy and Don (“The Suitcase” is my personal favorite episode of this season, if not the series itself). I also agree that women can be as responsible for gender parity issues; I mean,so much of Don’s appeal (beyond the nearly surrealistic handsomeness of Jon Hamm) is the fact that he gets away with so many of the things we want to be able to get away with. I’ll admit that in the earlier episodes, before Peggy’s star was truly on the rise, I did watch almost entirely for Don.

    I’m really going to have to check out “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie”, based on all the recommendations here. As to the flawed nature of all these anti-heroes and anti-heroines, I wonder if there is some kind of push-pull between a collective desire for wish fulfillment (these people do live out their Ids in ways most of us just wouldn’t dare) and a backlash against striking out against expectations (these people do suffer for their actions). I think that’s the appeal of a redemption story, we get to experience all the debauchery and then the resurrection. It’s kinda like getting cake and spinach at the same meal.

    And no, I don’t think these shows would be terribly interesting if all these people had their shit together. I mean, can you imagine how boring “The Sopranos” would have been if Tony was a monogamous family man who really did work in waste management?

  16. I’m going to come back and comment properly, when I’m not exhausted and can contribute not only to your post, but the comments as well, but I couldn’t let even another second pass without telling you, Laura, how much I love, love, loved this!

    And some food for thought before I crash: Damages has, not one, but TWO incredibly strong female leads – and that’s a brilliant show, despite (or perhaps because of) airing on the smaller, and heavily male-dominated FX network.

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