Women of 'Mad Men' try to seize control

Jordin Althaus/AMC

Peggy Olson made her bold move this past week on 'Mad Men.'

So, it wasn't exactly "The Feminine Mystique," but somewhere between Season 1 and this past week's episode, the women took over "Mad Men."

The show has always followed the arc of history, and circa 1967 the times are changing, particularly when it comes to women. When we met advertising executive Don Draper and his bourbon-swilling fellow ad men, women were the typing, coffee-fetching types, easily overlooked until the rush of the third afternoon cocktail. Well, hello ladies.

It's a scenario that may bear some resemblance to a few modern workplaces (in particular, say, if you happen to work for the CIA). But this week, two of the show's women took control in the ways most available to them.

Peggy Olson watched the lunch lobster tray roll into the conference room for the junior account men working on the much-coveted Jaguar account. None for her. "I can't put a girl on Jaguar," Draper said.

What the who?! Call the EEOC, Peggy! Charge him with discrimination! Call OSHA and rat him out for smoking in an enclosed office! Remind him that in a few years the fat ties he will be forced to wear will look awful!

The fact that this actually happened so blatantly in corporate offices everywhere less than 50 years ago in some ways seems more fantastic than one of those "Star Trek" episodes where Captain Kirk beds Martian twins, or at least that's how I remember it.

Back then, your father or husband would have had to co-sign your credit card application; your application to medical school could be denied; you would have to squeeze into a cone bra, one of those wiggle dresses and make your hair look like cotton candy just to go get the paper in the morning. Now, bosses have to be much more subtle if they want to keep you off the big account.

Forget Title IX. 1967 was the year officials tried to grab Kathrine Switzer as she ran the Boston Marathon -- no girls allowed. She got a number only by obscuring her gender by registering under her initial "K" on the entry form.

So, back to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The firm acts like Woody Harrelson when some paunchy Jaguar dealer-king comes calling to see if Joan Harris will be Demi Moore to his Robert Redford. (Which reminds me, how did Harrelson get cast in "Indecent Proposal," anyway? I mean, Redford trumps Harrelson any day of the week, even without the million dollars.)

Here's how creepy Pete Campbell sells the idea to the redhead who serves as a living reminder of what women looked like before we had to have arms like coat hangers:

Jordin Althaus/AMC

Joan Harris was faced with a potential life-altering decision in 'The Other Woman' episode.

"I'm talking about business at a very high level." Pete said. "Do you consider Cleopatra a prostitute?"

"Where do you get this stuff?" Joan icily retorts.

"She was a queen. What would it take to make you a queen?"

Sadly, Campbell has a point. Harris, in the middle of a divorce and raising her illegitimate son in a small apartment with her mother, doesn't have a lot of tangible power, despite the fact she has proven herself indispensable to their business for more than a decade.

When another partner suggests Harris and her enviable curves should ask for a stake in the business, it is clear this is her opportunity to take what will never be given to her. Her assets are, to use a metaphor, her best assets. And she has always been a practical woman. She's also smarter than the Jag dealer, who mixes up references to "Arabian Nights" and "Iliad."

"Those are two different stories," Joan said as he stares at her chest, proving again that not everything has changed since 1967.

Draper can't even get away from dissatisfied women when he goes home to his trophy wife. (And have his children moved to Borneo? Children are such an inconvenient plot line, right moms?!) Wife No. 2 wants to be an actress rather than go into her isolation pod during the hours between Draper leaving for work and when he comes home drunk. When her ambition actually affects his comfort -- rehearsals are in Boston -- it's not nearly as cute.

Peggy, meanwhile, finally cuts the cord with the brilliant boss who first recognized her talent, and has spent the subsequent years giving her the shaft. When Draper didn't give her credit for saving an account, she went into her office.

"I'm not crying," Peggy said, crying.

(Peggy, of course, made the crucial error of crying in her office. As many of us know, the only place you should lose it in an office building is in the women's room. Preferably the single stall kind that locks.)

But then Peggy acts very much like a modern woman who can't mesmerize Jaguar dealers with 36DDs and uses her brain to get a better job albeit away from the dismissive patriarch who cannot fathom she would leave him. Of course, her departure doesn't come without Don reminding Peggy who is ultimately boss:

"Let's pretend for a minute that I am not responsible for every good thing that has ever happened to you," he said.

It's sad, but in that kind of father-daughter, middle school-dance kind of way, where the dad looks down like, "My little girl is growing up," and the little girl looks up like, "I wonder if any of my friends brought cigarettes."

This episode is so totally about women that even the tagline for Jaguar plays with the idea of what men want:

"At last, something beautiful you can truly own."

Of course, they're talking about the car. For the last millennia, women were property and they promised to love, honor and obey their husbands. Or at least obey. But the genie was out of the bottle in 1967.

The old gender roles are starting to crumble in "Mad Men" just as they did for many in American society. We've been trying to figure out ever since just what comes next.

Related Content