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Women or Objects? A “Mad Men” Salon

Amanda Marcotte

True, second wave feminists didn't burn their bras--or their girdles or their garters--but "Mad Men" suggests that they probably should have.

Welcome to our Rewire roundtable on Mad Men, featuring staff
writers Pamela Merritt, Amanda Marcotte, and Sarah Seltzer. Sarah kicked
off our salon yesterday
, and Amanda adds her thoughts below. After the premiere (August 16),
we’ll start a second round of conversation!

with Sarah
that the mostly-female writing staff of "Mad Men"
somehow manages to make the uber-patriarchy of the 60s feel fresh and
I don’t know how they do it; it could easily have slipped into, "They
were bad then, but it’s all better now," but instead we’re forced
to contend with the fact that all these happenings are related to our
culture now.

I think the moment for me on
"Mad Men" that made me realize the strong feminist bent of the show
was far from accidental was the opening sequence of the masterful episode
"Maidenform."  You see the three main female characters Peggy,
Joan, and Betty getting dressed and see how even Peggy, who is low maintenance
by 60s standards, has to go through intense amounts of work just to
be considered worthy of stepping out the front door.  You also
see Joan rubbing her skin where her bra strap cuts into it. True, second wave
feminists didn’t burn their bras
their girdles or their garters–but the show argues with this visual
imagery, that they probably should have.  As the actresses on the
show have complained repeatedly, underwear for women then was a potent
symbol of how painfully restrained women were, how their personalities,
ambitions, desires, and very flesh and to be pinched and molded to fit
male demands.   

Indeed, for the rest of the
episode, female copywriter Peggy Olson fights to have her male colleagues
take her opinions on bra advertising seriously.  You’d think
that a woman’s input on how to sell women’s personal items to women
would be considered valuable, if your main priority is actually selling
bras.  But as the show demonstrates, with surprising subtlety,
the men especially don’t want to hear from women on the issue of how
women should dress.  They can feel their control over female bodies
slipping, and want to hang on just a little longer.   

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The male copywriters come up
with a campaign to sell bras that basically posits that all women are
either Jackies or Marilyns–that is, male sexual fantasies, complete
objects.  Peggy quietly protests, asking which one she is, and
the men are baffled, because they have to admit that Peggy is not an
object, because she’s a colleague and for some, even a friend. 
It’s only after you flick off the TV that you realize that Jackie
Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe weren’t Jackies or Marilyns, either, but
real people with careers, tragedies, and lives.  That’s
the power of the show’s deft turn at storytelling.