1968 is often used as shorthand for the counterculture, recalling images of massive societal change and hair of the “shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen” variety. Although Mad Men is clearly celebrating the latter with a preponderance of beards, sideburns, and mustaches, season six is mostly covering ground already trampled to death by the Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price brigade. Mortality! Mommy issues! And guilt, so much guilt! But the new season features one notable, and rather prescient, sign of the changing times. The women of Mad Men are leaning in.
While everyone’s favorite domestic sociopath, Betty Francis, continues to represent the “problem with no name,” it’s difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy for a woman who uses adolescent rape fantasies as pillow talk. So the writers are instead focusing on the female characters whose drama occurs outside the home—and doesn’t involve ball gags. Workplace sexism has long been a Mad Men staple, but the show is now highlighting the problems faced by women who not only want to work but who also want the proverbial seat at the table–and the power that comes with it.
Peggy is slowly transforming into a version of Don Draper that can pull off blue eye shadow. Unfortunately, all the eye shadow in the world can’t provide her with Don’s effortless ability to lead and inspire because this gift is directly related to his ability to pee standing up. In a somewhat obvious depiction of the managerial double standard, Peggy is despised for using the same stern techniques that make everyone adore Don. Don can withhold praise and dismiss his men like a disappointed father, and they show up the next morning with fresh ideas. When Peggy criticizes her copywriters, they mutter under their breath, prompting even her secretary to suggest that she might try being a little nicer. But after she attempts to be less dictatorial, her copywriters respond by leaving feminine hygiene powder on her desk, reminding her that, despite her title, she’ll never be anything more than a smelly vagina.
And nobody likes a smelly vagina. Despite her steely demeanor, Peggy is concerned about being liked at the office. Who can blame her? Her boyfriend is a hairy tool, and her lesbian friend is busy breaking up with Ray on Girls. She may be a workaholic, but even a workaholic needs some companionship.
The personal cost of Peggy’s professional growth is underscored when she “accidentally” leaks information about Heinz’s meeting with SCDP. I doubt Peggy would have blabbed about a major account without realizing the implications, but this plot point is necessary in order to highlight the apparent incompatibility of loyalty and female ambition. Her ethical dilemma may mirror Don’s concern about pitching to Heinz behind the back of the baked beans client, but there is one marked difference: Don isn’t worried that people won’t like him. He’s concerned that his disloyalty might reflect poorly on the firm and potentially cost them an account, but he isn’t calculating the potential personal costs. Because he doesn’t have to.
Peggy pays for her betrayal in a much more profound way than SCDP pays for pissing off the baked beans man. Her friendship with Stan may have survived her departure from SCDP, but his middle finger in the bar suggests that this betrayal may mark the end of their late night calls. Don stays behind to listen to Peggy steal his line, and he may respect the intensity she shows selling ketchup, but he barely speaks to her. By angering the only people whose respect she values, she’s isolating herself even further. Maybe this is making her even more like the solitary Don Draper, but I’m not sure this is entirely a good thing.
Although Peggy may have birthed Pete Campbell’s illegitimate son, she has never had to deal with the complications faced by a working mother because said child was shuttled off to an undisclosed location years ago. But Peggy’s bizarre, secret pregnancy and subsequent “motherhood” literalize the situation faced by most working mothers in the 1960s: pregnancy and children had to remain invisible. Women might have children, but if they wanted to keep working, they better act as though they hadn’t. Work/life balance was not yet a problem because it didn’t exist as a concept. Megan deals with her own version of this “invisible child” after an unplanned pregnancy ends in a miscarriage. She censures herself for feeling relief following this loss but ultimately comes to the realization that she’s likely going to have to select either a family or a career, and she appears to be leaning toward the latter.
Don’s impromptu proposal to Meagan at the end of the fourth season was provoked by a single image: Megan calmly cleaning up Sally’s spilled milk. With Mad Men’s typical knack for symbolic subtlety, this scene made Megan a stand-in not only for Betty but also for Don’s lost mother, whose absence perpetually renders her the most significant woman in his life. Don didn’t ask Megan about her maternal plans before proposing, and perhaps he should have. He simply assumed that if she acted like a mother, she must certainly want to become one. In 1960, this might have been an accurate assumption, but the decade is coming to a close, and Megan isn’t content to remain merely a symbol in Don’s Freudian narrative.
Don’s annoyance at Megan’s hulu dancing in the season six premiere underscores how far their marriage has fallen since the halcyon days of “Zou Bisou Bisou.” Don no longer enjoys watching his wife make a spectacle of herself because this spectacle is no longer for his benefit. I had initially thought Don wanted Megan to be more than another pretty face on daytime television and that his desire for her to be a copywriter at SCDP was a sign of his enlightened interest in her mind and creative potential. But it now seems as though he merely wanted to remain her boss.
Megan may only be playing an adulterous maid on a soap opera, but this cheesy set is far outside Don’s sphere of influence. Don’s hypocritical, nasty response to her tame love scene is obviously prompted by his own guilt, but it also can’t be divorced from his misguided need to control her. She’s refusing to be a Madonna, so he needs to make her a whore. It’s the only way he can wrestle back the sliver of power she’s carved out in that silly maid’s uniform. Megan, like Peggy, is rendering Don superfluous with each tactical career move, and he doesn’t know how to make it stop. Her delight in performing that love scene suggests that she won’t be surrendering her independence anytime soon. She’s just likely going to be a bit more careful with her birth control.
Joan’s decision to prostitute herself last season may have secured her a partnership, but it also appears to be a scarlet letter she can’t cover with even the most fetching scarf. Although she has a seat in the partners’ meeting, she doesn’t yet command the same respect. She isn’t allowed to fire a lying secretary, and none of the partners truly defend her when Harry barges into the meeting and insults her—claiming that, unlike Joan, he earned his position in the daylight. You can almost hear Pete Campbell thinking, “Well, Harry has a point.” Except he doesn’t.
Perhaps Harry has earned a partnership, but Joan has been the functioning COO and CFO of this company for years and was the only person able to coordinate their break from Sterling Cooper. Lane admitted as much last season when he noticed that Joan understood the company’s finances better than he did. But Joan never would have been offered a partnership, or even a promotion, if the car salesman hadn’t been such a letch. She’s been at the company for fifteen years, and she could likely have worked another twenty and still only been considered a pretty sharp office manager. The prostitution wasn’t how she earned the partnership; it was simply the only way she could prove she deserved it to men who can’t see beyond her breasts.
Although Joan spent much of last week’s episode lamenting this lack of respect, she ultimately concluded that she can’t change these men, but she can change herself. Sheryl Sandburg would be proud. Some men may continue calling her a slut and treating her like a twenty-year-old. In a world without gender discrimination laws, she can’t do much about this. But she can stop acting like a glorified secretary and take full advantage of the executive title she’s earned. When Joan tells Dawn that Dawn must now guard the time cards as “punishment” for allowing her coworker to leave early, Dawn says that she doesn’t care if everyone hates her as long as she continues to have Joan’s approval. Dawn may recognize that the more powerful a woman becomes, the more likely it is that everyone will despise her. But she doesn’t begrudge Joan her position or her authority. It’s slight progress, but it’s a start.