I wanted to come up with some grandiose literary analysis that explained the women of “Mad Men,” and provided insight — you know, that shiny little nugget of knowledge that stands out above the rough, but always winds up begging more quests? I had to be funny though, or I’d come off as too serious about the whole thing, and who likes a complainer, am I right?
The truth is, I don’t know that “Mad Men” is more emblematic about the complicated identity issues that women face every day than any other show. Even the shows that falter and fall into the stereotypical concept of a woman as being a “liberated” air-headed flirt — ahem, “Whitney” — shine light on the complicated relationship many women have with themselves. In fact, even the shows that “showcase reality,” aka the worst human beings known to mankind, portray women as bizarrely distorted images of themselves. The fighter/vixen, the girlfriend, the chubby obnoxious one, her even more whiny and obnoxious friend…are there any more of them? I think that’s about it. You know who I’m talking about though…the “Joyesy Girls.” The ones that get excited to bring a “juicehead” into the “smush room.” Sounds like every girl’s dream. No wait, that’s empowerment. Ahh, I still love watching it and gasping in amazement as they humiliate themselves for my amusement.
“Mad Men”‘s women are different as night and day, but not in the cookie cutter identity sort of way that even some real-life women are guilty of subscribing to. Naive Peggy aspires to be great by working hard. You’re gunning for her the whole way and wishing her luck, as she paves the way deeper into the shady, creepy world of grabby guys. And as she struggles to climb the totem pole, she finds the ability to believe in herself. You can actually see the courage well up inside her, to ask for a raise, to buck the trend. It’s heart-breaking and admirable, all at once.
“Joan is such a Marilyn,” everyone says. Really? I have to admit, I haven’t seen My Week with Marilyn, so I don’t know much about the actress, but Joan is very much her own woman. She’s not some two-dimensional pin-up. She’s sad, mostly, and lonely. For as easy as men make her out to be, I still have yet to see her let her guard down, even with her husband and Sterling. The biggest slap in the face for me (who, dorky over-achiever as I am, identifies most with Peggy) was when Joan met Peggy’s act to defend Joan’s integrity with icy resentment.
As much as I love to hate Betty Draper, aka Nightmare Mother, I do empathize with her. She was brought up believing that everything would always be perfect and never gotten the common sense to realize that just isn’t true. I’d almost prefer her as a plastic doll — timeless and existing only to be looked at. Was that harsh? Girls are awful. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. Check it.
To say that Peggy, Joan and Betty play characters isn’t entirely accurate. They play people. Women who are stuck with the cards they’ve been dealt, in a chauvinistic world that expects perfection. Unbridled as we seem in today’s society, it’s the same expectation of picking a persona like picking a nail polish that “Mad Men” women faced that leads us to ask, “Which one are we, a Peggy, or a Joan?”
I guess I don’t watch the show to learn about life as much as I revel in the world it’s created to learn about people. We’re too quick to forget that we’re not perfect, and seeing a cast of characters as flawed and distraught and elated as any person I might pass on the street reminds me that we’re all born with a unique set of advantages and disadvantages. We play our cards the best we can and hope for the best. Sometimes we’re childish, like Betty, sometimes, we’re admired, like Joan, and sometimes, we’re defiantly independent, like Peggy. We could categorize and characterize all day. But in the end, we’re always entirely ourselves.