Millennials, Mad Men and Feminism

I’m addicted to Mad Men. I’m not sure if it’s the strangely enlightening angle of the American High Era, or the fashion.  The first season is drenched with sexism that leaves me baffled as a post-Cold War Era kid. Of course, I was taught the values of feminism growing up, but feminism never seemed relevant. “We’ve solved all those issues, right?” I would think. Having a stark look at some of the real issues previous generations of women faced leaves me wondering how Millennial women should value feminism. Does feminism still matter? I’ve heard the term post-feminism, which makes me wonder if feminism was only a response to a certain era? Or are there universal principles of feminism that need to be valued by women of all generations?

I want to take a look at a few of the female characters of Mad Men to sort out some of the issues they represent to me. If you haven’t watched this show, beware of spoilers.

PEGGY OLSON represents the struggle to be heard by her male colleagues, in an era when men only wanted to look. She uses her brains instead of beauty to make her way up the company from lowly secretary, to valued copy-writer.  She puts up with false rumors of having had an affair with her boss for a promotion. She hides a pregnancy of a child she gives up for adoption, instead of facing being a single mother. She represents the few and far between of that era who managed to maneuver the gauntlet set before her with hard work, and patience.

From Peggy, I learn that it’s possible for a culture to value women for only their appearance and not their character, intelligence and hard work. So as Millennial woman, I hope to not take that for granted. Even in 2011, it may be easier to catch a man’s eye to get his attention rather than his mind, but let’s strive for the latter. Show them your cleverness, not your cleavage.


Peggy, Betty and Joan

JOAN (Holloway) HARRIS represents the women who bought into the stereotype of the time. She strives for standard goals: Be beautiful, find a rich husband, quit work, and have babies. She is a Marilyn Monroe-type beauty, which give her an edge in everything a woman is supposed to be in the 1960s. By conforming to the most convenient stereotype, Joan makes the struggle for respect more difficult for women like Peggy Olson who are striving for professional accomplishment.

Joan realizes all of her dreams: marrying a handsome doctor, and quitting work. She finds that nothing has worked out as planned. Her husband isn’t smart enough to make it as a doctor and Joan is forced to go back to work. Their relationship is also less than healthy. When her husband realizes he’s never going to be a doctor he says “You don’t know what it’s like to want something you’re whole life, and not get it.” Joan responds by breaking a vase over his head.

Of course, choosing a family over a career isn’t a bad thing. Either is the desire to be beautiful. The important idea here is that we as women should decide how we are valued instead of trying to squeeze into a stereotype to feel a sense of self-worth. We should continue to question the mold presented to us, and not give in to stereotypes, regardless of how beautifully we fit that mold. As long as we as women have a need for self-worth, we’ll need to battle stereotypes that determine for us, what is worthy.

BETTY DRAPER represents the suffering-in-silence housewife.  She’s dealing with the loss of her mother, a distant husband of whom she suspects infidelities, and the isolated life of a housewife. All the men in her life from her husband and father, to physician and psychiatrist advise her to get over her anxiety and stress without letting her express the reality of her circumstances. She is disrespected and stereotyped throughout the show, which adds further mental distress. She is seen as a weak woman, even though her emotional trauma is understandable from a present-day perspective. In a ‘boys will be boys’ culture that hushed up the indiscretions of men, there was little room for letting girls be girls.

Emotional honesty isn’t a weakness, but an ability to be truthful about disappointments, loss, etc. Because of this, women should be protected, not looked down upon as weak. As Millennials I think we need to embrace the bit of ‘girls will be girls’ understanding that exists in our culture. As long as men don’t understand women, we’ll need to defend our right as women to be complicated.

What are your thoughts? Is feminism an issue for 21st century women? How do Millennials continue to value feminism?

8 thoughts on “Millennials, Mad Men and Feminism

  1. Yes, feminism still matters. In some ways, the forward movement created in the 60’s has opened up more opportunities. But if women continue to see themselves as only having worth by their appearance or what media says men “want”, I’m afraid that the pressure to form ourselves outwardly to that strange standard continues to haunt most young girls. The pressure for beauty has only intensified to unreachable standards. So we cut here and poof out there with surgical procedures to impress….who are we trying to impress? Our “competition” is unrealistic images that aren’t real anyway. Sigh. We need to make sure our daughters and granddaughters don’t believe all the things they “see”, otherwise I’m not sure how much progress has really been made. Who decides what beauty is anyway?

    • Right, it seems pretty universal that women are measured by cultural standards. This leads me to believe that feminist issues are not just issues of the past, but issues that need to be thought through by women of all generations. Thank you for the comment!

    • Thank you! I agree that Joan’s character is complex. She’s definitely not a Betty, so I think she’ll become more representative of the Women’s Lib movement as the series continues. Also- I’m pretty sympathetic in my analysis of Betty in this post. Later on the series I think she is completely childish, and she loses a lot of my sympathy. This is a great show for generational comparisons! And very enlightening for Millennials.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, it’s an honest account of Mad Men.

    My opinion isn’t just about Mad Men, it’s directed in general at the ‘acting industry’. I think its crucial that feminist engage more with Television/Cinema. Sometimes it seems that women are often belittled in movies, in comedy films women are usually portrayed as weak/unable to understand humour or just plain stupid — these negative portrays of women reinforce sexism and normalise it within our society.

  3. Pingback: Un(der)employment & The New American Dream | So-Called Millennials

  4. Pingback: Millennial Moms: Fearless, Creative, Ambitious (thanks to our foremothers) | So-Called Millennial

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