Behind Every Man: Gender Roles at Play in Mad Men

The first time we meet Betty Draper (January Jones), wife of protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) for the first three seasons of AMC’s critically acclaimed, 1960s-set drama Mad Men, she lies in bed peacefully, outfitted in a pale pink nightgown. She’s one of three women introduced in the show’s pilot who seems to play an important role in Don’s life; along with Betty, viewers become acquainted with Don’s bohemian mistress, Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt), and his new secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). Only two of the three ladies have staying power—Midge fades into the fast-growing mass of Draper mistresses by season’s end, but Betty and Peggy have remained important characters throughout the show’s five seasons. Interestingly, despite their consistent presences in Don’s life, Betty and Peggy have only met once during the show’s run. In “5G,” episode five of season one, a panicked Peggy must problem-solve when Betty brings the Draper children to Don’s office for a family portrait, only to learn he’s not in. Peggy rightly suspects that Don is with Midge, and must vouch for her cheating boss in front of his seemingly unsuspecting wife until he arrives and thinks up a lie to cover for his whereabouts on the spot. The scenes between Betty and Peggy are short, taking up less than five minutes of the episode, but even their brief exchange illuminates their differences. Searching for a topic of conversation with her husband’s nervous secretary, Betty goes to what she knows best. “Do you have a boyfriend, a steady?” she asks, lighting a cigarette. “No,” Peggy replies. Then, after a pause: “I work a lot.” In this interaction we see women who inhabit two separate spheres—the home and the office—collide, to awkward results.

Don Draper is undoubtedly the center of Mad Men, the sun around which the other characters orbit. And yet, the show is unafraid to explore the interior lives of people Don has relationships with, spending sizeable chunks of screen time on his bosses, his mistresses, his employees and his children. In trying to capture a specific era in American culture, Mad Men focuses not just on the men who ran things, but the women who surrounded them while standing on the cusp of the women’s liberation movement. Writes scholar Kristen Hatch in an essay on the escapism period shows like Mad Men provide to modern-day audiences: “…the executives’ excesses depend on the support of women—primarily secretaries and wives—who will soon be burning their bras” (“The End of the World as We Know It”). Mad Men’s female characters are integral to the show, and their storylines are some of its most fascinating, chronicling the rise of women in the workplace through Peggy, and the gender norms that she eschewed to get there. In The Madwoman in the Attic, literary theorists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar write of the woman writer’s struggle to gain autonomy in the face of male-constructed images of femininity and womanhood. “[A] woman writer must examine, assimilate, and transcend the extreme images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ which male authors have generated for her…Women must kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been ‘killed,’” they write (812). Peggy, too, must “kill” the roles that men have defined for her in order to achieve professional success; these roles, the “angel” and “monster” that Gilbert and Gubar define, are typified by the deceptively complex Betty Draper, who is far more than the image of the docile blonde wife in her delicate pink nightgown connotes.

For Peggy to “kill off” the feminine ideal Betty Draper represents, she needn’t cross paths with Mrs. Draper often. Despite the lack of one-on-one interaction between Peggy and Betty throughout Mad Men’s run to date, the two women’s shadows seem to hang over one another. Consider the following conversation between Don and Betty in “5G”, after Betty’s meeting with Peggy:

BETTY. I liked your girl Peggy; she’s fresh.

DON. As the driven snow.

BETTY. You sound disappointed.

DON. Did you read some terrible article in Look magazine that I should know about?

BETTY. (Giggles.) I like her. A woman can’t just not remark on her husband’s secretary.

Here Betty indirectly references the suburban housewife’s ultimate worry: that her office-bound husband is being taken care of by his secretary in realms professional and personal (a not uncommon practice in Don’s office). Plain, modestly dressed Peggy does not fit the bill, though, assuaging Betty’s fears. And yet, Peggy comes to represent something even more damaging to Betty’s livelihood than the mistress/secretary: the liberated woman. As the show progresses, Peggy becomes more and more powerful in the workplace, gaining the autonomy Betty Draper dreams of from her suburban abode. Conversely, as Peggy scales the corporate ladder, the image of the beautiful Betty Draper-esque housewife is always in her rearview mirror.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar list the traits attributed to the angel-woman: “modesty, gracefulness, purity, delicacy, civility, compliancy, reticence, chastity, affability, [and] politeness” (816). These terms are the building blocks that make up the prison Betty Draper resides in. Don expects her to embody all of them. Perhaps his expectations of her are best typified by the many client dinners Don brings Betty to. During these dinners, Betty must be beautiful and affable, able to laugh at every joke, but never command too much attention.

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Writes Linda Holmes, NPR’s entertainment writer: “Betty knows that she bas been trained to do nothing but decorate her husband’s house and life. She knows this is her job, and she knows it’s the key to getting respect, but she chafes constantly at the fact that it requires her to pretend to care about things she doesn’t care about” (“Complexity, Beauty, and the Underappreciated January Jones”). Don’s client dinners underscore Betty’s decorative role, and place her squarely in Gilbert and Gubar’s angel-woman territory. Writing of angel-woman Honoria from English poet Coventry Patmore’s “An Angel in the House”, Gilbert and Gubar say: “Honoria’s essential virtue…is that her virtue makes her man ‘great.’ In and of herself, she is neither great no extraordinary…Honoria has no story except a sort of anti-story of selfless innocence based on the notion that ‘Man must be pleased; but him to please / Is woman’s pleasure’” (816). Like Honoria, Betty Draper is wholly defined by how good she makes her husband look. When Betty steps outside of the angel-wife’s boundaries, or is perceived to step outside of them by her husband, she is demonized by Don and swiftly put back in her place.

This power dynamic is clear in season one episode “Red in the Face.” Don’s boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) feels particularly needy and gets Don to invite him over for dinner. Don calls home to let his wife know there will be a guest. “You’re kidding, I don’t know if I have enough food,” a harried Betty says. “Birdie, what do you put in that freezer I bought you?” Don replies, subtly establishing his dominance and reminding Betty of her wifely duty. Things go south after Don, Betty and Roger’s alcohol-filled meal. Roger gets too friendly with Betty as she does the dishes, wrapping his arms around her waist and claiming she’s been “making eyes at [him] all night”.

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Sensing awkwardness when he reenters the room, Don wastes no time berating Betty once Roger is gone. “You made a fool of yourself. You were throwing yourself at him, giggling at his stories,” Don sneers, grabbing her threateningly.

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Don revels in his wife’s attractiveness when it is convenient for him, but as soon as Betty’s beauty draws unwanted attention, he is threatened by it, by any shred of power his wife might possess. Don and Roger’s violations of Betty both take place in the kitchen—a room over which even the oppressed housewife can usually claim ownership. But even in that space, Don and Roger are able to assert their power over Betty, ensuring that she’s the trapped angel in the house

Betty isn’t the only one that has to do extra work in “Red in the Face.” Peggy stays at the Sterling Cooper office long after Don’s exit to work on copy. Though she hasn’t yet been hired on as a copywriter, some of the firm’s higher-ups have noticed Peggy’s knack for catchy copy and enlisted her to develop ideas for a lipstick account. One of only two Peggy scenes in the episode underscores Peggy’s burgeoning independence, especially when compared to the Betty scenes that follow it. Accounts man Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) approaches Peggy and addresses her condescendingly as a “busy little girl.” He cautions: “Burning the midnight oil is not good for your skin,” further demeaning Peggy, but is shocked when she reveals that she’s working on copy. “On your own?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. Unlike Betty, Peggy is beginning to break out of the constricted gender roles assigned to her. Peggy’s unique position is made clearer when another secretary approaches Pete to let him know his wife called to say she’s been seated for dinner at the Four Seasons, widening the gap between Peggy Olson and the wives who are waiting for their men. Though Betty Draper is never mentioned during Pete and Peggy’s conversation, on a second viewing one line pops out: “Draper pushing you around enough?” Pete asks when he first approaches Peggy’s desk. Peggy doesn’t catch his meaning, but for the viewer there is a certain dramatic irony given Don’s physical handling of Betty later in the episode. The line highlights Peggy and Betty’s increasingly divergent paths.

Part of Don’s violent reaction to Betty’s alleged flirtation with Roger stems from a common male insecurity that Gilbert and Gubar discuss:

For every glowing portrait of submissive women enshrined in domesticity, there exists an equally important negative image that embodies the sacrilegious fiendishness of what William Blake called the ‘Female Will.’ Thus, while male writers traditionally praise the simplicity of the dove, they invariably castigate the cunning of the serpent—at least when that cunning is exercised in her own behalf. (819)

The “negative image” of Gilbert and Gubar’s angel-woman is the monster-woman, a woman capable of undermining men, often through displays of sexuality. The monster-woman is expert at “coaxing and cajoling” men (Gilbert and Gubar 820). Of two literary monster-women Gilbert and Gubar write: “Both women use their arts of deception to entrap and destroy men, and the secret, shameful ugliness of both is closely associated with their hidden genitalia—that is, with their femaleness” (820). The monster-woman is the angel-woman’s diabolical double, and thus we find her in Betty. She arises later in “Red in the Face,” when Betty viciously slaps a neighbor—notably, a divorced woman—who offends her in another shrine of domesticity, the grocery store.

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Betty’s darker double also makes herself known later in season one in an episode aptly entitled “Shoot.” The episode begins with Don and Betty running into a rival advertising executive, who tells Betty she would be perfect for a commercial they’re about to shoot, given her Grace Kelly-esque looks. Flattered, Betty tells Don, who theorizes that the executive is only using Betty to woo Don to his agency. Still, the offer reignites Betty’s need to break free of the restrictive mother and housewife roles. When she floats the idea of going back to work to a skeptical Don, she assures him of her wifely devotion, saying, “There will still be ham.” When Betty gets a call saying she’s earned herself a modeling job, she follows it up by initiating sex with Don. It’s no coincidence that Betty’s sexuality emerges as she gains a measure of agency in the household—the job will result in a paycheck. But displays of sexuality and the pursuit of agency are characteristic of the monster-woman, not the domestic angel-woman, and Don reacts by subtly jabbing at Betty for not being with the children all day. When Betty is essentially fired from the shoot—“more Audrey Hepburn, less Grace Kelly,” the style director says—she instinctively slips back into the role of the angel-woman. “I don’t think I want to work anymore. I don’t like you coming home to some whipped-together mess of whatever’s left in the fridge, and frankly I don’t like Manhattan on my own. It’s harsh,” she says, perfectly playing off of what she knows Don longs to hear. Beaten back into the patriarchal ideal, Betty reacts by taking a shotgun onto her front lawn and shooting her neighbor’s pigeons, a less than angelic move. She perfectly fits Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis of the mutually exclusive angel- and monster-women. “A sweet heroine inside the house…is opposed to a vicious bitch outside,” they write (819). For the angel-woman to exist, the monster-woman must exist, for she is the fierce extremist born of the oppressed angel-woman.

As Betty vacillates between the two patriarchal images, Peggy forges her own path. In “Shoot,” Peggy finds herself on the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from Betty; she rips a skirt thanks to a significant weight gain. Office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is an expert at navigating the sexual politics of Sterling Cooper. As a firm believer in the looks-as-leverage ideology, Joan extends a helping hand to Peggy, lending her a dress that fits better. When Peggy tries to return it, she’s met with some unwanted advice from Joan:

PEGGY. (Handing Joan her dress.) I’ve been meaning to give this back to you. I had it completely dry-cleaned.

JOAN. Why don’t you keep it? Have it taken in here and let out there.

PEGGY. It’s your dress.

JOAN. (Glancing at office kitchen counter.) Hot tea, that’s a good idea.

PEGGY. What are you talking about?

JOAN. Peggy, you are falling prey to a very common situation for new girls.

PEGGY. I’m not new anymore.

JOAN. Well that’s just it. Don’t you want to do well here?

PEGGY. I’m the first girl to do any writing in this office. Since the war. Marge told me.

JOAN. Writing? Is that what this is about? I thought you were doing that to get close to Paul.

Joan, like Betty, defines herself largely by her attractiveness. She cannot fathom that Peggy is uninterested in her looks, and is even more shocked that Peggy aspires to be a copywriter. Peggy’s willingness to eschew social norms and focus more on her professional ambitions than her looks places her in stark contrast to Betty. We can easily compare Betty and Peggy when the writers pair their story arcs together in episodes like “Shoot,” making Peggy’s rejection of Betty’s value system even more pronounced.

The weight-gain storyline in “Shoot” also lays the groundwork for what may be Peggy’s defining rejection of the Betty Draper lifestyle. It turns out that Peggy’s weight gain is not simple overeating at lunch—it’s the result of a surprise pregnancy. In season one’s season finale, “The Wheel,” Peggy gives birth and refuses to even hold her child, presumably putting it up for adoption.

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“The Wheel” revolves around the characters’ domestic ideals—in Don’s triumphant pitch to Kodak, he uses pictures of his beautiful, apparently flawless family to make the sale.

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Who wouldn’t buy into that, after all? Peggy too must confront the domestic ideal. Since Pete, who is married, was the father’s child, Peggy never would have lived the domestic ideal of baby, mother, father and white picket fence, but her decision to give up the child for adoption cements her choice to pursue career over family, another sharp rejection of the angel-woman role that Betty embodies (note that Betty left her job as a model to become a homemaker).

In season two, the contrasts between Betty’s increasing oppression and Peggy’s increasing freedom are made clear not just through their parallel story arcs, but through mis en scene and framing. “Maidenform,” an episode that aired at season two’s halfway point, is Betty and Peggy-centric, following both women for the bulk of the airtime. At this point Peggy has been promoted to copywriter, and is struggling against the power structure in the office, a microcosm of the power structure in the larger culture, as the episode makes clear. Peggy and the creative team are formulating a pitch for Maidenform bras, and the men come up with a Jackie vs. Marilyn conceit. “It’s about how they want to be seen by us—their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands,” Don says in the pitch room, revealing an image of one model styled like Jackie and Marilyn. The marketing strategy assumes that all women fall into one or both of these male-constructed ideals—a perfect synthesis of Gilbert and Gubar’s angel-woman and monster-woman argument. Throughout the episode Peggy pushes back against the idea that a woman is simply a “Jackie” or a “Marilyn,” for she, working so hard to transcend these archetypes, cannot relate. Betty, on the other hand, is still being suffocated by her inability to transcend either image. When she buys a revealing yellow bikini at a country club auction, Don balks at the idea of his wife revealing so much skin—becoming, essentially, the Marilyn, or the sexualized monster-woman. He verbally abuses Betty in their home’s hallway. “You want to be ogled?” he asks accusingly. “It’s desperate.” He leaves a dejected Betty standing in the hallway, framed within the Draper’s dining room door. Betty looks tiny and helpless in the frame, her suburban home an imposing prison. The image is mirrored in the next scene, when Peggy struggles to assert herself in the male-dominated workplace. She too is left standing alone in front of a doorframe, but it’s a door she’s eventually able to pass through.

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At the episode’s end, Betty is in the exact same position as the beginning; she covers herself up in a nightgown, still framed in front of a doorway to emphasize the structures holding her in.

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Peggy, on the other hand, decides to invite herself out with the fellas. She joins them at a burlesque club, breezing through the entrance and making herself known in a revealing dress; as Betty adds layers, Peggy literally sheds them, becoming more and more autonomous.

While Peggy may know how to work a dress when necessary, she is not praised for her beauty on the show the way characters like Joan, Betty and Don are. In an article titled “Don Draper’s Inferno”, Wall Street Journal journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz floats an interesting thesis on the show’s treatment of beauty:

There is something intriguing in the show’s tendency to portray beautiful women as lacking in depth. What passes for substance in females is strictly limited to workaday types, women distinctly unstylish, sweet looking enough, perhaps, but no head-turners. Women, in short, like the talented and ambitious Peggy Olson. The moral of the story—or, more precisely, of this kind of casting—is perfectly in keeping with the clichés of every era as regards to women, not just the era “Mad Man” has taken up.

It’s true that the show has a punishing relationship with beauty—it takes place in and deconstructs the world of advertising, after all, a field built upon prettying up the ugly—but Rabinowitz’s premise fails because Betty Draper has as much depth as any character on the show. She may be vain and materialistic, but she is also complex. Holmes gets it right when she argues, “It is part of the conceit of Mad Men to contrast aesthetic perfection with underlying ugliness. That is why it stars supernaturally attractive people, including January Jones—‘model-turned-actress.’ That’s part of why it’s so important that it’s beautifully shot, beautifully costumed, and beautifully lit. Everything on the show would look beautiful in an ad if you didn’t see it in context, including Betty” (“Complexity, Beauty and the Underrated January Jones”). Where Rabinowitz perceives a lack of depth, Holmes sees Betty’s underlying “ugliness,” the monster-woman within. The “substance” that Rabinowitz sees in Peggy is her intellect, her charm, her drive—traits Betty either does not own or does not tap into—but Peggy is not allowed these things, by the show’s logic, not because Elisabeth Moss is “no head-turner” (a very debatable claim in itself); she has that “substance” because she is the only main female character on the show who does not exist within the angel-woman and monster-woman roles.

The seeds for Peggy’s professional success are planted in the season one episode “Babylon,” which begins with Betty lamenting the aging process on Mother’s Day. “My mother was at least two years older than whatever Joan Crawford says she is, and she was still very fetching,” Betty posits. “I like to think that she’d stand up very well as a prediction of my eventual appearance.” Because she grew up with a domestic mother who taught her the ladylike traits of the angel-woman, she fell into the same box as an adult. Peggy displays a different set of priorities during a “brainstorming” session for Belle Jolie lipstick among the secretaries, wherein all of the ladies try on different colors for marketing research purposes. Peggy is noticeably alienated amongst the preening group, and later explains to ad-man Freddy Rumson (Joel Murray) that she didn’t select a lipstick because someone had taken “her color.”

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Explains Peggy, “I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box.” And there, the start of an advertising campaign. Writes academic Laura Tanenbaum: “Everything about Betty—her femininity, her childishness, her beauty, her money—has been constructed to make her resistant to anything resembling true self-examination” (“Looking at Betty Draper”). The pressure on Betty to conform to the angel-woman ideals requires that she perfect her femininity and beauty in a way that Peggy Olson needn’t do, allowing Peggy to self-reflect in a way that Betty does not. That self-reflection is the quality that leads to Peggy’s professional success.

In her reflection in Feminist Review on feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s legacy, Ann Curthoy’s writes:

I was part of the rapidly growing number of [1960s-era] young women entering university, many the first in their families to do so. It was hard to know how to be a woman at university an beyond—there were few models, and there was a marked contradiction between the freedom we experienced in our educating and the strong social conventions that threatened to pull us back into traditional female gender roles after graduation. Were we to be ‘as good as the men’ and pursue a life of economic independence, dedicated to intellectual activity and pursuits? Or were we to reject our education for marriage and motherhood?

Curthoy’s struggle mirrors Peggy Olson’s, and there are certainly times that Peggy questions her rejection of gender norms. When her boyfriend seems to be on the cusp of a proposal, she, the progressive working woman, is giddy with delight. He ends up asking her to move in with him, and Peggy, perhaps feeling the tug of her religious roots, is insecure about taking such an unconventional step. She does it anyway, eventually even purchasing a home for the two of them (though the female realtor assumes her boyfriend is the buyer). While Peggy continues to take steps forward professionally and personally, Betty goes in circles. Five seasons after her introduction in the pink nightgown, she’s no longer Betty Draper—she’s Betty Francis. Though the home and the husband have changed, Betty’s role as the domesticated angel- and monster-woman has stayed the same, as has her discontent.

Curthoys, Ann. “Adventures of Feminism: Simone de Beauvoir’s Autobiographies, Women’s Liberation, and Self-Fashioning.” Feminist Review 64 (2000): 3-17. JSTOR. Web. 13 May 2013.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 812-825. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004. Print.

 Hatch, Kristen. “Downton Abbey and Mad Men: The End of the World as We Know It.”  FlowTV. University of Texas, Austen, 5 March 2013. Web. 13 May 2013.

 Holmes, Linda. “Complexity, Beauty, And The Underappreciated January Jones.” Monkey See. National Public Radio, 25 Oct. 2009. Web. 13 May 2013.

 Mad Men. Matthew Weiner. AMC, 2007—.

— “5G.” Mad Men. Writ. Matthew Weiner. Dir. Lesli Linka Glatter. AMC. 16 Aug. 2007. Web

— “Babylon.” Mad Men. Writ. Matthew Weiner, Andre Jacquemetton. Dir. Andrew Bernstein.   AMC. 23 Aug. 2007. Web.

— “Maidenform.” Mad Men. Writ. Matthew Weiner. Dir. Phil Abraham. AMC. 31 Aug. 2008.    Web.

— “Red in the Face.” Mad Men. Writ. Matthew Weiner, Bridget Bedard. Dir. Tim Hunter.           AMC. 30 Aug. 2007. Web.

— “Shoot.” Mad Men. Writ. Matthew Weiner, Chris Provenzano. AMC. 13 Sept. 2007. Web.

— “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Mad Men. Writ. Matthew Weiner. Dir. Alan Taylor. AMC,        2007. Web.

—“The Wheel.” Mad Men. Writ. Matthew Weiner. Dir. Matthew Winer. AMC. 18 Oct. 2007.    Web.

Tanenbaum, Laura. “Looking at Betty Draper.” Open Letters Monthly: An Arts and Literature Review. Open Letters LLC, 12 July 2010. Web. 13 May 2013.

Rabinowitz, Dorothy. “Don Draper’s Inferno.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Co., 4 April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.

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