The Mad Women of Mad Men actually represent us all

 

Behind every successful Mad Man is a female character that any actress would audition every day for a year to play. Mad Men may be set in a world where gender equality is a distant dream, but it's written and produced in the future: by the third season, more than half of its writers were women, which is a vanishingly rare statistic.

It's the first office-based show I can ever remember seeing where the home lives of our characters jump up and invade their work lives; not just for the odd episode here and there, but all the time. If we imagine Don Draper, he might be in the office, sharp-suited, half-cut, smoking a Lucky Strike. Equally, he might be at home with the icy Betty or the thwarted Megan, trying to negotiate his way through an increasingly complex family life. The show switches seamlessly between the business and domestic spheres.

The convention when a marriage breaks up in a workplace drama is that we never see the divorced partner again. Maybe the occasional fight over custody, conducted largely by phone. The writers of Mad Men, however, realised that viewers had invested in Betty: her neurosis, her calculation, her infidelity, her appalling mothering skills (who can forget the moment where she yells at her kids for playing with plastic bags over their heads? She couldn't care less if they suffocate, but she's furious that her dry-cleaning might get creased).

We didn't lose her when Don lost her, because the drama worked better if she stayed. She's also responsible for one of the show's most iconic moments: standing in her yard, dead-eyed, cigarette stuck to her bottom lip, shooting pigeons out of the sky.

The women of Mad Men operate in a sexist world, and they're defined by their struggle to gain parity at work and in their homes. Peggy Olson (who I like to believe is named in homage to Jimmy Olsen, the super-keen kid at the Daily Planet), is the obvious career woman: she comes in to the show as a secretary and drags herself, chewed fingernails all the way, to being a star copywriter with her own office. She never stops fighting to be valued at her own sense of what she's worth.

And all this happens under the ever-watchful eyes of Joan. Literally miles of column inches have been dedicated to the radiant Christina Hendricks, most of them transfixed by her extraordinary beauty. But that undersells her character: Joan has proved as enigmatic and unpredictable as Don Draper.

When we first meet her, she's having an affair with her boss, Roger Sterling: so far, so predictable. But gradually, we see her queen bee status is based on more than beauty and connections. She's a contradictory figure – bitchy yet maternal, sexy yet withdrawn. She's clever, but she doesn't challenge the status quo until she sees Peggy succeed by doing so. She longs to be married, has her pick of potential partners, yet she still picks the duffer. She's torn between being a stay-at-home wife and a career gal. She plays the accordion, and remains cute while doing so. And, best of all, she picks herself up from a bad marriage and carries on with her life, like an actual person. Joan is both unattainable, and yet she's an everywoman (unless you really focus on the accordion).

And that is the secret to Mad Men's success: it treats all of its characters as whole, multi-dimensional human beings. Even the minor characters couldn't be described in a sentence. And it's this complexity which keeps us tuning in, week after week.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy