You Can’t Keep the Lid On Forever: A Mad Men Salon

Amanda Marcotte

"Mad Men" is all about the hard truths, and the hard truth is that being a woman forging her own path in the early 60s was very lonely indeed.

Last week, Sarah Seltzer, Amanda Marcotte and Pamela Merritt held a spirited salon in anticipation of Mad Men’s season premiere on Sunday. This week, join us for the debrief — starting with Sarah’s response to the premiere

think Sarah’s right that the third season of "Mad Men" is going to be
about how you can’t keep the lid on forever.
  You see that with Don Draper’s joyless cheating, and his sad
statements that imply that he’s simply accepted that faithlessness may be built
into his character.  But now he’s
trying to deal by sleeping with women who don’t threaten his primary
relationship.  I suspect by next
episode, we’ll be seeing this theme employed in examining the shifting gender
dynamic of Sterling Cooper.  We got
some hints in the first episode–the first male secretary in the office is
throwing a tantrum because being a
man doesn’t buy him special privileges, and the first female copywriter Peggy
Olson is finally exercising her privileges as a senior member of the
staff.  Let’s just say the word
"gynocracy" was tossed out.  The
show won’t be pulling its punches in showing the angst that attended the shift
towards more workplace equality for women.

I’ll take on Sarah’s question about Peggy–what sacrifices will Peggy make to make it to the boardroom?  Peggy’s in a sad spot, unable to be
accepted by her male peers because she’s a woman, but unable to fit in with the
women because she’s not a member of the secretarial pool.  I was intrigued to read that
Matthew Weiner is inspired quite a bit by female poets like Sylvia Plath
who especially embodies the sense of the time that a woman could have ambition
or avoid loneliness, but not both at the same time.  Even though Weiner was using Plath’s problems as a template
for the character of Betty Draper, I actually see a lot of The Bell Jar in Peggy’s story.  Both the character of Esther in The Bell Jar and Peggy are ambivalent and more than a little
overwhelmed by the hedonistic Manhattan lifestyle, and both have mental
breakdowns.  Granted, Peggy’s
breakdown is predicated by giving birth after not realizing that she’s pregnant
(though it’s implied that she was just in denial), but the atmosphere of the
hospital, and the pain she suffers resembles that of the broken, overwhelmed
Esther of The Bell Jar.  Both characters struggle because they
don’t want the lives of housewives (Peggy openly tells Pete she couldn’t have
shamed him, but didn’t), but nor are they happy with being stuck in the
secretarial pool. Peggy, however, seems to be on the road to a happier ending,
being a step forward for feminism instead of lost in marital hell as Plath
ended up.

That said, "Mad Men" is all about the hard truths, and the
hard truth is that being a woman forging her own path in the early 60s was very
lonely indeed.  Plath knew it,
Weiner knows it, and I fear that Peggy Olson is going to continue to learn it.

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