By: Kate Harveston
When AMC's Mad Men premiered in 2007, there was an undeniable attraction to the artistic direction and methodology of the show. Somehow, AMC — a network new to original programming — produced one of the defining dramas of the Golden Age of Television. Made of equal parts sophisticated cinematography and grimy realism, the shows historical setting was steeped in the nostalgia of 60s Americana.
Despite the historical backdrop, with every passing season of Mad Men the themes and character drama grew more familiar to its current day audience — especially the consistent themes of sexism in the workplace and the growing concern for women's rights. Creator and show runner Matthew Weiner used the advertising industry as a way to display the trials and tribulations professional women struggled with during the mid to late 1900s, and still even struggle with today. While the show has a historical setting, there are benefits in viewing Mad Men as a current day case study for workplace ethics and gender discrimination. From an analytical view, employers can benefit from watching this show and facing the realities of what discrimination and sexism look like. This is accomplished especially well through the experiences of one of the main leads of the show, Peggy Olson,who is played by Elisabeth Moss.
Examining Peggy's character and experience serves as a wonderful encapsulation of the women's rights struggle in the professional world in the 60s, the 70s and even the current day.In the first episode of the first season, we meet the character Peggy Olson on her first day at the Sterling Cooper ad agency. She is portrayed as the virginal waif of the office and new secretary for main character Don Draper. We begin to repeatedly witness chauvinistic and sexist interactions between the male staffers and the female employees through Peggy's freshman lens.Throughout the first season, we see her discover her "place" in the office, which is pre-ordained due to her gender and accepted by her fellow secretaries; but her unique drive and creativity sets her apart and brings her to the attention of her boss. The importance of this relationship as it progresses into the following seasons of the show becomes significant, not just for further character development and story drama, but for women's rise in corporate America. At season four of the show, Peggy's character has gone from the freshman secretary of the office to grown copywriter. As the first female writer at the firm since World War II, Peggy struggles to prove herself as a contributing member of the creative team. Even the men in the office who are technically beneath her rank are a constant threat to her input, authority and self-esteem.
Episode seven of season four serves as a wonderful portrait of corporate America of that time. Peggy desires recognition for her ideas and intellect, not from her boyfriend or family, but from the man who best represents her path toward professional success — Don Draper. Her loving and attentive boyfriend attempts to surprise her with a birthday dinner at a restaurant with her family, but when Don, played by Jon Hamm, calls her in to work late on a pitch idea, she cancels on the dinner and ends up breaking up with her boyfriend. During the work session, Peggy and Don immediately begin raging at each other, spilling out four seasons of resentment and bottled up emotions, but she does not leave.The episode seems to visually dramatize the effect work and success has had and continues to have on professional men and women. Both Don and Peggy become very emotional while working together through the night, but when daylight arrives and the world returns to normalcy, Don's shown refreshed and neat, prepared to face the business of the day, while Peggy still has the vestiges of their dramatic work session on her face.Conceptually, the visual of Peggy and Don at the end of this episode serves as a perfect representation of what it costs a man to succeed in the business world in relation to a woman. While men are expected to succeed and seemingly rise effortlessly, women are forced to struggle and prove themselves consistently.The demands of their professional ambition include personal and emotional sacrifices for the same reward.
By season seven — the final season of the show — women's rights have vastly improved from how they were in season one, and Peggy's position in the new agency serves to illustrate this. While not spoiling too much of the final season for new viewers, Peggy essentially becomes Don's professional superior. She has grown into the new head of the creative department and has achieved the position and success that she always desired. Meanwhile, Don Draper has been reduced to the role of cheerleader and subordinate— what was historically a woman's role.
But in episode six, we see that despite this demotion in his official status, Don still benefits from the advantages of his gender. He's still the choice the agency makes when it's time to land a major client, despite Peggy's proven ability, casting her right back into the familiar and frustrating role of a background player.The episode allows a glimpse into the frustrating cycle of advancement and demotion women have experienced in corporate America — no matter how high you rise, no matter how able you prove your self to be, as a business woman you have to face the possibility of being society's second choice. The episode does allow for a glimmer of hope to shine through. Rather than tearing Peggy down further and advancing his own agenda, Don embraces Peggy's growth and takes a mentorship role to help her rediscover her confidence as a professional.The ending of the episode shows that while society can reduce women despite their accomplishments,the individual acknowledgment women receive as equals will continue to push necessary change forward.
For this reason and many others, employers should be eager to watch Mad Men and absorb its message,especially in the divided world we are facing today. The more that we can push change forward, the better. Nowadays, there are stricter guidelines for employers to follow in regards to workplace discrimination, which is great. However, recent cases of discrimination coming to the surface, such as the controversies taking place within the company Uber, show us that we still have a ways to go.There were plenty other female characters in Mad Men, such as Joan Harris, who served as brilliant representations of women's issues in society and business.
The show has also been criticized as not being intersectional enough. This meaning that the show did not include a strong enough depiction of racial issues, which surely is a problem since we know that women of color still systematically make even less than white women (who already make less than what a man makes). However, there are some takeaways that anyone can learn from this show, and it's a great watch for anyone who would like to have a better understanding of the various ways the discrimination presents itself in the workplace, even when it's subtle.
Kate Harveston is an online journalist from Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing about political and social justice issues. If you like her work, you can visit her blog, Only Slightly Biased or follow her on Twitter for updates.