From the sedulous to the surreal in cultural context

Mad Men’s New Season and Feminism

“You’ve come a long way”: 

Feminism and Season 7 of Mad Men 

 Peggy Olson

 

Have you heard the good news?  The acclaimed TV drama about advertising in the Sixties, Mad Men,returns Sunday, April 13 for Season 7, a fact AMC has energetically broadcast through a flurry of photos and, well, advertisements.

joan ad

 

As usual, much of the anticipation and speculation for a new season of Mad Men centers on the enigmatic Don Draper, who endured a nightmarish Season 6.  However, a compelling story that could unfold in the new season is the ascent of two of the show’s other popular characters, Joan Harrisand Peggy Olson.

 7 peggy and joan

 After years of running the office without wielding much high-level decision-making authority, Joan emerged in Season 5 as a partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (though only after agreeing to sleep with the disgusting Herb to win the Jaguar account).  In Season 6, like everyone else, Joan found her position potentially less secure after the merger with Cutler Gleason and Chaough.  That seemed to change, however, after she used all of her initiative, charm and savvy (and a timely assist from Peggy) to land the Avon account.  By the finale, Joan sat in icy judgment of the now-disgraced Draper, casually and authoritatively batting aside his claim that he could not be suspended with Ted Chaough headed to Sterling Cooper & Partners’ new office on the west coast, noting that Ted “feels confident he can oversee Peggy.”  Our last glimpse of Peggy reveals her comfort taking over Don’s office and, perhaps, much of his job.  The student has become the teacher.

7 joan and peggy

Back and in charge?

Avon’s marketing director told Joan and Peggy that his company was unsure if it should become “groovy or nostalgic” in response to a changing society and slumping sales.  Well, he – and we viewers – should expect some version of “groovy,” albeit one filtered through Madison Avenue’s cynical opportunism more than genuine feminism. In his influential look at Madison Avenue’s response to the cultural ferment of the Sixties, Thomas Frank showed how advertising co-opted the slogans and styles of youth culture, the New Left, the counterculture and other movements, such as feminism and women’s liberation.  “The advertising of the sixties was, by and large, astonishingly sexist stuff,” writes Frank, and “sexism was one arena in which advertising made virtually no advances until the end of the decade: the stereotypes of femininity in which it dealt were, for the most part, forthrightly repellent, without subtlety or regard for feminine tastes.”  Mad Men has certainly emphasized both the rampant sexism, sexual harassment and even sexual assault (remember Joan and her then-fiancé Greg in Season 2?), as well as the sexist imagery of some of the campaigns (in Season 3, Sterling Cooper hoped to ask female consumers bluntly, “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?”).

 

Joan 7

Neither a Jackie nor a Marilyn, Joan landed Avon

and lands in Season 7 with new opportunities

 

“But then everything changed, and quite suddenly, in 1969 and 1970.”  Matt Weiner, the showrunner, has disclosed in interviews leading up to this season that it will not go beyond 1969.  That makes Frank’s observation pertinent: advertisers in the real 1969 saw “women’s liberation as a freeing of consuming potential.”  New campaigns for a wide range of products urged women to trample on now dated fashions and social conventions, while the mandarins of Madison Avenue identified liberated women as the ideal targets of advertising.  As one executive put it,

“Isn’t this new woman, this free and loving-every-minute-of-it woman, the heavy user every industry must find and cultivate and multiply?”

No industry sought “heavy users” more avidly than Big Tobacco.  It was the ads and commercials for Virginia Slims cigarettes that popularized the late-Sixties feminist-inspired slogan, “you’ve come a long way” (or, “you’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you’ve got to today”).

Therefore, as so often with Mad Men, we should see a mixed bag:  a continued improvement in the careers (though perhaps not the lives) of Joan and Peggy, and perhaps an onset of pseudo-feminist advertising, with the prospects for real social and political change remaining elusive.  Critics who have been allowed to preview the new season and write about the first episode have noted the sense of promise in the air for Joan and Peggy.  In his review of the forthcoming episode 1, James Poniewozik writes:

So we see Peggy, apologetic and tentative back in 1960, now singularity confident and competent (but not without obstacles to bump her head up against). Joan, who won her partnership through a night with icky Herb from Jaguar, is now finding ways to show a value to the firm beyond keeping the books and keeping up her appearance. 

However, in her review for The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley reveals:

 In the premiere, a condescending client lectures Joan (Christina Hendricks) about the four P’s of marketing (price, product, place, promotion). At her agency, though, the Peter Principle thrives: Male ad executives are constantly being promoted beyond their competence level, often over women better suited to the job.

False starts and misfortunes might yet befall the characters this season, Stanley concludes, “But one thing has to get better, even on ‘Mad Men,’ and that is the lot of women.”  Slate’s TV critic Willa Paskin just wants this season to see Peggy land a position as Creative Director.  Who can argue with that?  Whatever happens, the delicate dance between historical fact and evocative historical fiction will continue this spring and, in the second half of Season 7, next spring, too.  The long wait is over, let the show begin!

 

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  1. Joan and Peggy in the New Episode of Mad Men | MATTERS OF SENSE
  2. MAD MEN: The Final Countdown Begins | MATTERS OF SENSE

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