Mad Men & Misogyny
Updated: May 21
A contextual analysis into Mad Men's famous episode "The Wheel." How does this episode portray women and existing stereotypes within on-screen gender hegemony? (Contextual Analysis for Pop Culture Course, Vic U Wellington, 2020)
On the media’s function as a form of representation and information, Ila Patel writes, “[it] plays a decisive role in reinforcing gender stereotypes and in reinforcing patriarchal culture by constructing new meanings and images and by setting the agenda for public opinion through selective themes and viewpoints,” (Patel). With this, the creative success of AMC’s Mad Men derives from its critical commentary on the supposed societal roles throughout the 1960s and using this as a mechanism for self-reflection for modern social norms and representation. Mad Men’s season one finale, The Wheel, follows the characters as they engage in work at an Ad agency, suburban house life, and personal sacrifices and triumphs relating to 1960s culture during the Thanksgiving holiday season. More than this, juxtaposing portrayals of femininity within the episode distinguishes the role of women through two distinct lenses: that of the classic housewife versus a modern, working woman. The varying depictions of these characters are used to both challenge and reinforce lasting gender hegemonies, thus perpetuating myths and concepts about femininity as it relates to media representation and perception.
While forms of media and digital consumption are perceived to be for entertainment purposes, such sources also serve as a medium for societal reflection. To see women working in offices and using their minds for their work is to suggest to young female viewers that their intellect is just as important as their bodies. Alternatively, if viewers are to see a young, beautiful housewife caring for her family and tending to her husband’s desires, this image of femininity would become one of homemaking and more traditional roles. Yet in both of these instances, the female character seems to be subject to the will of a higher authority or institution all the same. This form of representation can be referred to as gender hegemony, where the preconceived notion of the female role within society is perpetuated within the media, allowing these concepts to then dominate society’s beliefs about such roles. Justin Lewis writes of hegemony, “[it] often involves masking or solidifying various forms of inequality so that they seem part of everyday life, making customs and contrivances that favor some people over others appear to be common sense,” (Lewis, 88). Through physical appearance, emotional resilience, or interpersonal interactions, an image of femininity and the female role is perpetuated through forms of media which ultimately become the dominant belief of audiences themselves. Patel notes that, while gender stereotypes and representation do change with varying models of communication and media tools, “women’s issues [are] often co-opted and re-constructed in the mainstream media to establish the hegemony of dominant social classes,” (Patel). This method of altering the messages associated with gender roles to fit the mode of communication assures a patriarchal narrative within society, as it meets the needs of both a theoretical and commercial marketplace as a result of an ideological society based on capitalism. With this, the role of women becomes one of two archetypes: that of the conservative-but-tortured homemaker whose life is dedicated to her husband, or the independent-yet-lonely working woman free of homely duties but never satisfied as she ascends upwards on a ladder towards commercial success. These myths as they apply to the female role continue to be perpetuated within the media, furthering the hegemonic narratives associated with them as it relates to a patriarchal society.
Consider Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom from Want painting and how the matriarch is portrayed; a solemn smile crosses her face as she presents food that took hours to make and her husband stands over her authoritatively. This is the reality in which Mad Men’s Betty Draper finds herself living in, in which her role as a housewife is one of personal sacrifice for the wellbeing and functionality of her family. “Thanksgiving, it’s very nerve-wracking to deal with getting the family together,” Betty reluctantly reveals in therapy. This simple statement reveals gender hegemonies being reinforced in its simplest form: Betty serves as a visual depiction of the psychological perils of married life in suburbia, perpetuated within the media and believed to be the accepted lifestyle of all women. Her purpose is to care for her husband and her children, in which Lewis writes, “advertising tends to reinforce expectations that domestic duties are performed by women rather than men,” (Lewis, 88). Throughout the episode, Betty is portrayed as being cognizant of her husband’s known affairs and belittled by confidentiality as she discovers her husband has been speaking with her psychiatrist about her sessions. In an instance of desperation and loneliness, the audience watches Betty as she confronts a young boy of her problems, “I can’t talk to anyone. It’s so horrible. I’m so sad. Please tell me I’ll be okay.” Betty serves as the simplest representation of female aspiration derived within the media, which Patel writes consists of using women, “as a commodity and [presenting] traditional and stereotyped images of women as passive, dependent and subordinate to men,” (Patel, 7). Betty seemingly epitomizes the role of the subdued housewife represented within the media, thus furthering a hegemonic narrative associated with gender roles.
If familial prosperity and the nuclear family are the cornerstone of a society driven by gender norms, then Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen would serve as the foil to this notion. As one of the only women working in a male dominated profession, Peggy’s role as a junior copywriter leaves her as the voice of female consumption. In reference to an exercise machine for women, Peggy shares, “what we are selling is confidence - a better you.” The process in which consumerism “connects the good things in life to the purchase of goods” is reflected here as it relates to marketing towards female audiences, (Lewis, 90). This is almost meta in nature, as the advertising put forth by Peggy Olsen is most likely to be received by the likes of suburban housewives like Betty Draper, dissatisfied with their lives and looking towards some external form of happiness. Thus, the creators of such hegemonic societies as it relates to gender are opposed to its actual effects, and rather favor messages which benefit themselves, as seen through Peggy’s independence as a woman and in the industry that drives such narratives. This can also be referred to as ‘pariah femininity’, as Carrie Paechter writes, “such behaviour is seen as contaminating the relationship between masculinity and femininity by refusing to conform to the complementary relation of male dominance and female subordination,” (Paechter). Neither bound to any societal definition of femininity, nor to a consumerist perspective of what it means to be female, Peggy Olsen defies the relationship between gender and its oppressive nature by higher institutions and by dominant masculinity. In this sense, she serves as a counter to hegemonic gender roles purported through the media.
Despite the female characters of Mad Men being written with apparent preconceptions of what femininity is, Betty Draper and Peggy Olsen’s roles within the episode appear to challenge these hegemonies just the same. What this would mean is that Betty Draper is not defined by her solemn housewife status, nor is Peggy’s role as an independent working woman void of subordination from a society dominated by masculinity. Where Betty has the freedom to care for her children and her home, Peggy must choose between her career or an unwanted child. As Peggy succeeds at her work of the quality of her mind and her intelligence, Betty is sent to see a psychiatrist for the very same reason. Paechter further develops this concept, “not everyone is in either a hegemonic or some sort of subordinate or otherwise degraded position, but that some people’s takeup of gender can be simply non-hegemonic, rather than being caught up in a hegemonic/subordinate relation,” (Paechter). There is a spectrum of femininity that the media often avoids, as it is difficult to market content and relatability to an audience far removed from basic identities like gender.
Just as Mad Men puts forth concepts of gender oppression, it uses this very oppression to counter itself as a medium for informing and entertaining. Betty’s husband expects her to remain consistent in love, affection, and support with little regard for her well-being and satisfaction with life. Societal norms would tell us that as a loving domestic wife, she does not have reason to be dissatisfied with life. Yet Betty takes it upon herself to go to therapy and gain independence in her marital situation. Peggy, contrastingly, sees herself promoted by the end of the episode for her ability to create content using her experience as a woman. This position allows her to utilize both her mind and her gender for the sake of consumerism, further perpetuating dominant institutions’ control over gender oppression. This independence is then challenged when Peggy learns of her unknown pregnancy, to which a doctor asks her, “want us to call your husband.. Or boyfriend.”. Despite gaining freedoms and success at work, Peggy’s reluctance to accept her unexpected child is a testament to the betrayal of her gender and as a caretaker, at the same time doing this without a man by her side. It is clear that hegemonic societies cognizant of gender differences and dominances are not stagnant in definition - a good caretaker may not be a good mother, nor a satisfied woman, just as an independent woman may not be free from the constraints of domestic life as presumed. Paechter writes, “hegemonic gender relations are thus deeply embedded in people’s understanding of themselves, of who they are, and who they ought, or aspire to be,” (Paechter). Mad Men offers an antidote to this dilemma, in which gender hegemonies are not just a social construct but a matter of personal choice and identity, allowing for variation in how we define the female role in society.
Freedom from gender roles and the responsibility of feminine duties are not exclusive to one another, nor are they dependent on each other. To represent a singular narrative of feminity is to reduce the rights and perspective of other possible representations. Shows like Mad Men are used to confront this comparative dilemma as it relates to gender hegemony and the way in which female characters are presented to audiences. This form of media is used to bring multi-dimensional narratives to characters that would otherwise be stereotyped and presumed to fit one singular storyline under classic media theories, and challenges these preconceptions entirely. Further, marketing an ‘image’ of inclusive femininity towards audiences assures a collective female attentiveness towards changing societal norms which then dominate a commercial market of consumerist-driven behaviors.
Lewis, Justin. “Hegemony.” Keywords for Media Studies, edited by Laurie Ouellette and Jonathan Gray, NYU Press, New York, 2017, pp. 88–90. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1gk08zz.30. Accessed 8 May 2020.
Paechter, Carrie. “Rethinking the Possibilities for Hegemonic Femininity: Exploring a Gramscian Framework.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 68, May-June 2018, Pages 121-128.
Patel, Ila. “Representation of Women In Mass Media.” Institute of Rural Management Anand 388 001, December 1995. https://www.irma.ac.in/uploads/randp/pdf/1020_53632.pdf
“The Wheel.” Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 13, AMC, October 18, 2007. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/70143391?trackId=14170286&tctx=1%2C8%2C39df5b1a-92b3-4f1e-a967-ab98bbb6363a-14686812%2Cb77a26bd-8da2-4106-a2c6-f55c12a804ea_57864399X3XX1588950723209%2Cb77a26bd-8da2-4106-a2c6-f55c12a804ea_ROOT