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'Mad Men,' Strong Women

The ladies of the AMC series might seem to conform to 1960s gender stereotypes. But the show invites viewers to look deeper.

July 20, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer
  • EARLY-?60S VERSIONS: From left, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones and Christina Hendricks, in their constricting garb.
EARLY-?60S VERSIONS: From left, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones and Christina… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

In ITS first season, "Mad Men," AMC's glossy series about a group of guys on Madison Avenue, received critical raves for its finely drawn portraits of the employees of Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. Set in 1960, it focused on Don Draper, a glamorous up-and-comer with a double life and a secret past, and the smart, politically incorrect men around him.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 24, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
'Mad Men': The caption with a photograph in Sunday's Calendar section of cast members of the TV show "Mad Men" incorrectly identified actor Mark Kelly as Rich Sommer.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 22, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
"Mad Men": An article about the series "Mad Men" in Sunday's Calendar section said that cast member January Jones would appear this summer on NBC's series "Fear Itself." It will be fellow cast member Elizabeth Moss on that show. Also, the article said that "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner wrote that series' pilot while he was a writer on "The Sopranos." He wrote the pilot before he worked on "The Sopranos."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
"Mad Men": A correction that appeared Tuesday about the TV series "Mad Men" misspelled the first name of actress Elisabeth Moss as Elizabeth.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 27, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
"Mad Men": Last Sunday's article about the series "Mad Men" said that cast member January Jones would appear this summer on NBC's series "Fear Itself." Cast member Elisabeth Moss will be on that show. Also, the article said that "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner wrote the series' pilot while he was a writer on "The Sopranos." He wrote the pilot before he worked on "The Sopranos." Finally, the caption with a photograph showing cast members of the show incorrectly identified actor Mark Kelly as Rich Sommer.

But watching from a different perspective, there's a whole other story going on. And it's all about the women: Peggy, Betty and Joan.

In their pointy bras and flouncy petticoats, the leading women -- a secretary, a housewife and a sexy office den mother -- might look like stars of television shows in bygone years. They exist in a nonchalantly sexist world where men slap fannies or ask the new girl to shorten her skirt. Agency partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), for instance, advises Draper: "Remember, Don: When God closes a door, he opens a dress." In pondering the question of what women want, Sterling sneers over a cigarette and a drink, "Who cares?" (And he's the classy one.)

But while they are marginalized, the women of "Mad Men" are no mere archetypes. They are complicated, glamorous, ambitious and stifled in a way that women in 1960s television never were. With 48 years of hindsight behind their creation, they are marginalized in a particularly subtle way, so that viewers might not even realize they are riveted by their struggles.

One reason, according to the actresses who play them and their creator, Matt Weiner, is that they are really about women now. Even in 1960, viewers couldn't relate to Ozzie and Harriet, Weiner said. "The truth is: A lot of people were laughing at those shows then, at how unrealistic they were." Perhaps it takes a show like "Mad Men" to allow viewers to appreciate the subtle conflicts of women's roles in the workplace and the family. "You have to do it retroactively," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

In "Mad Men," which will launch its second season next Sunday, the women as well as the men have public, private and secret lives. Most dream of a fairy-tale life, married to a strong man and living in a country house. To that end, the women always look lovely, in neatly coiffed hairdos, makeup and form-fitting dresses requiring military-strength -- and, as the actresses said, sometimes painful -- undergarments. As January Jones, who plays Draper's wife, Betty, noted, "when you take the girdle off at the end of the day, everything sort of falls."

The stakes get higher

Veteran television writer Weiner said his main interest in writing the show was Draper (Jon Hamm). He read authors of the period such as J.D. Salinger and Norman Mailer to inform Draper's world. But he also read Helen Gurley Brown and Betty Friedan. And as his mother, sister and wife are professional women, he said he quickly realized how dynamic the conflict in the female professional experience would be. "I said, 'This is the rest of the show.'

"Don has a lot in common with all these women," he said. "He's unable to express himself; he wants to be a different kind of person than he is. His image of himself is not really who he is. All these women are like that: If you buy into something, you have to live by the consequences."

In Season 2, the story will shift to 1962 and the mood will darken, the actresses said. With five of 13 episodes left to shoot, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, a secretary who rises to junior account executive, said: "There's a sense of the stakes being higher for all the characters. Everyone has new or the same struggles, but everything is a bit more intense," she said. "Later in the season, there's definitely a sense of, man, this gets dark."

So far, the show has been one of those cult favorites with fewer viewers (1 million average per episode) than its rave notices would suggest. But none of the actresses is complaining. "Even if it gets canceled, we'll still be doing it," Jones said, half-jokingly.

Weiner penned the series while he was still working as a writer for "The Sopranos." The filmed pilot sat on a shelf for a year while he finished work on that show's final episodes. When the actresses auditioned for the pilot, they knew little about the roles. Each auditioned for the role of Peggy. "I signed on with the promise I would have a role," Jones said. Christina Hendricks, who plays office manager Joan, said, "I was, like, whatever one gets to stay is the one I want to play. They were all written so beautifully."

As more episodes were written, Weiner said he employed an unusual number of women for a television show, including Lisa Albert, supervising producer; Robin Vieth, staff writer; Marti Noxon, consulting producer; and the husband and wife writing team Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, supervising producers.

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