In the seven seasons of “Mad Men,” which ends its run on Sunday night, creator Matthew Weiner delivered big time.
He gave us charged drama, where the tiniest glances and looks of betrayal provided the best fireworks. He gave us a broad social history of 1960s America, with each character’s fashion and attitude evolving across the decade (except for the eternally buttoned-up ad man Don Draper). He showed us the porous relationship between public history and personal identity. And he took us inside the mind of “the man in the gray-flannel suit” who, like his country mid-20th century, was fractured, post-traumatic, and looking for purpose.
But perhaps Weiner’s most powerful, least romanticized, and most tenacious theme was sexism.
Weiner was relentless on the topic dating back to the first episode of AMC’s “Mad Men,” set in 1960, when Don stormed out of a meeting with client Rachel Menken saying, “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this.” Through the experiences of the female characters — Peggy Olson, Betty Francis, Megan Draper, Joan Harris, and the many lovers Don cycled through — Weiner explored again and again how deeply sexism and misogyny have been embedded in our culture, how they can emerge both brutally and also in very subtle ways.
The series’ secret code name could be “Mad Women.”
To Weiner’s credit, the scenes of gender inequality, of female objectification and humiliation, both at home and at the office, never let up. As the years passed by, some of the show’s other Big Themes, including anti-Semitism and racism, appeared more sporadically and were dealt with less satisfyingly. But Weiner did not buy into lazy clichés about feminism, which suggest that women were liberated once and for all around the time Virginia Slims appeared in 1968 with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” He continued to stir up rage about chauvinism and male entitlement right up until the final episodes, gesturing toward a present tense still struggling with the problem.
In recent weeks, as the show moved into the early 1970s, we saw how office-manager-turned-partner Joan, so responsible and professionally poised, once again found her career teetering on whether she’d capitulate to one man and sleep with another. In the small world of Sterling Cooper & Partners, she’d forged respect, but as soon as the firm was eaten up by the massive McCann Erickson, she was knocked back down to zero, just a beautiful, shapely woman in colorful dresses that men openly leered at. While the new bosses drooled over having the legendary Don Draper in their midst, they pushed Joan out the back door.
We saw Joan and secretary-turned-copy-chief Peggy face lewd insults by the McCann men — “Why aren’t you in the brassiere business?” one said to the amply busted Joan — and then turn on each other later like starving animals battling over morsels of food. “You can’t have it both ways,” Peggy says to Joan about Joan’s unconcealed femininity.
Those and other scenes were infuriating, more effectively so because of their subtleties. The critics who’ve argued that the politics of “Mad Men” were dulled by the period glamour and seductive surfaces can’t have watched Don and his then-wife Betty’s therapist colluding behind her back, or the rape of Joan by her husband, or the lunch where the agency’s head of TV, Harry Crane, offers Don’s ex-wife Megan acting jobs in exchange for sex, and not have been nauseated. Weiner refused to turn “Mad Men” into a feel-good story of how women fought their way out of subordination during the era of change and Betty Friedan. He also refused to show the men in charge miraculously accepting the women’s movement building around them.
The sense, after 91-going-on-92 “Mad Men” episodes populated with sexist men, some of them ignorant robots of their time, others just creepy (such as Harry, account executive Pete Campbell, and too many more to name), is that women were on a long journey of progress, one that continues today over concerns about the wage gap.
The thing is, “Mad Men” was never about smugly looking back at how awful the past was simply to feel better about the present. The show was written as a portrait of a time against which we could compare and contrast the way we live now. It was an opportunity to notice that much has changed for the better, now that we openly talk about and have legal recourses for workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, but also that much hasn’t. Only a fool would suggest that just because we live in an era when a woman is a serious presidential contender, our sexism problem is over, just as only a fool would say that America’s racial issues are gone now that we have a black president. Weiner is no fool.
If gender disparity was a thing of the past, the spikey humor of “Inside Amy Schumer” — which recently had an all-male jury debating whether Schumer was hot enough to be on TV — wouldn’t ring true as resoundingly as it does.
In the final season of “Mad Men,” Peggy, the show’s second lead and Weiner’s proto-feminist figure, talked movingly to a colleague about the price she had paid for being a working woman. She’d given up a baby boy for adoption, largely to focus on her career ambitions. Her trade-off seemed dated, a relic of a time when mothers couldn’t also have professional lives. And yet working mothers continue to face a complex balancing act, which is why Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” caused such ripples in 2013.
“Mad Men,” which has won four Emmys for best drama, will be remembered for many things — its literary scripts, its indelible performances (particularly by Jon Hamm as Don), its glimpse at how people build their own identities, its period dazzle. Its rich depiction of what it meant for a woman to have lived in a man’s world will certainly be a critical part of its sparkling legacy.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.