As Mad Men returns for its seventh and final season April 13 on AMC, theories are flying about the fate of the show's flawed ad man and main character Don Draper. Whether you love him or hate, we're all wondering: Will he change?
But pay close attention to the women on the show, said Erika Engstrom, a UNLV communication studies professor. She's been analyzing the show's messages since its 2007 premiere and is a co-author of Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness. She has observed how the show depicts 1960s societal pressures on women to brush aside professional ambitions and fit the mold for the perfect housewife or mother. Mad Men's women have pushed the boundaries and sometimes surprisingly found support and respect from male characters (Kenny encouraged Peggy's creative talent and Don turning her into his prot?g?e).
Engstrom says women today relate because they're still struggling with workplace patriarchy and expectations to settle down. "Having it all" is still a difficult, if impossible, goal for many women.
Here, Engstrom gives us her take on how key female characters have stood up for what they want -- a common theme throughout the show. (Warning: If you're not caught up on the show, spoilers ahead.)
Betty, the former and first Mrs. Draper, should get the benefit of the doubt. Even though people think she's shallow or mean, said Engstrom, we've seen Betty's perfect suburban, white-picket-fence world come crumbling down when Don's real life came into light. She pushed for a divorce, volunteered for a woman's civic group (where she gets close to Henry Francis, husband number two), dealt with body image issues and weight gain, and she learns to step out of the perfect corporate wife shadow of Don Draper, who wouldn't be where he is without Betty's support. While she's now a political wife, Engstrom hopes Betty will continue to find her place and embrace her second husband's encouragement to become more civically engaged.
Don may have found his equal in Megan when she became a copywriter, but her acting ambitions got in the way of his idea of a perfect equal. Megan, who started at Don's agency as his secretary, exhibited soft, motherly qualities to his kids -- something he found attractive and the opposite of Betty. But Megan couldn't fit into all the roles he wanted. Although her copyrighting skills won an award, she set her sights on acting. The idea of a working wife doesn't settle well with Don, as we see in season six, so it remains to be seen if Megan stays on the career route with or without Don by her side.
Don Draper's prot?g?e moved up from Don's secretary to copywriter and then left her "work husband" to become a creative director at another ad firm. Throughout the years, Peggy and Don have shared close, private moments and protected secrets about each other's lives. Don at times treats Peggy like a man, and pushes her to take risks and toughen up. Peggy sometimes bristles at Don's hypocrisy but often emulated Don's managerial style, to mixed results. In the last season, their respective firms merged, so Peggy is back to bumping into Don and to a world of thankless contributions. We're not sure if she's harboring pain over giving up a baby for adoption as we see her float from relationship to relationship. "She's trying to find an equal partner," Engstrom said. "The audience wants her to be happy." Peggy is an everywoman -- competent and living life on her own terms -- but climbing the ladder and finding a partner is a challenging journey. She's really asking for someone to who will support her work and who will not be insecure of her salary.
Ah Joanie. We're rooting for her because "she hasn't broken out yet," Engstrom said. "Peggy has, but not Joan." Joan said it herself: After 15 years at the ad agency, her co-workers still consider her the secretary. Engstrom said Joan thought she'd have it all once she married a doctor, but he turned out to be threatened by her assertive and progressive ways. She eventually realizes her husband is not her equal, dumps him, and goes back to work to support her son. She lands a client by relying on her body and then regrets the move and faces its consequences. Though made a partner, Joan still plays second fiddle despite attempts to sign clients (will Avon be made hers officially?). While her path to getting ahead differed from Peggy's and the two don't always see eye to eye, they also shared each other's workplace battles. We're now waiting for Joan to be rewarded for her intelligence and ambition and wondering if Joan's "equal" is still out there, Engstrom said.