Feminism in Mad Men

The 2000s AMC television series Mad Men, though on its surface is simply about an advertising agency in the 1960s or a meditation on a troubled antihero, Don Draper, it’s also been lauded as “TV’s most feminist show” by multiple media outlets like the Washington Post, LA Times, and now.org. This label is simultaneously accurate and problematic & can be examined in the female characters of Joan Holloway, Peggy Olsen, and Betty Draper, as well as how the program addresses (or rather, fails to address) intersectional feminist issues. Though Mad Men accurately represents the lose-lose scenario women face no matter how they act & how they use their sexuality, it also shows aspects of white, straight, cis, upper-class, second-wave feminism that bell hooks and other intersectional feminists argue is alienating, exclusionary, and even harmful to women who don’t fit in those categories. When viewed through a critical, intersectional feminist lens, the show can illustrate oppressions privilege white women faced as well as the exclusions of those excluded groups of women; without that lens, Mad Men communicates an idea of feminism that is at best incomplete and at worst exclusionary to a majority of women.

Joan Holloway recognizes her inferior status as a woman in the workplace; she is thought of as eye candy, never as someone who would be capable of a “man’s job”. She attempts to use the sexuality that defines her to her advantage. She’ll flirt with men in the office & laugh along with their sexist jokes in order to get the role of “head woman.” There’s no doubt in my mind that a man is the one who told Joan that although the typewriter looks complicated, “the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.” And while it’s very possible that Joan saw the inherent sexism in this statement, she regurgitates it to Peggy as a way to comply with the expectations of her male co-workers. By exploiting ideals of femininity and sexuality for the desire of the men in the office, she manages to gain some control and power in the workplace. She is given that role of “head woman”, and is privy to information that other woman in the workplace are not. She is given the responsibility of leading the lady’s brainstorming session at Sterling-Cooper, is aware of the one-way glass her male co-workers are lurking behind, and uses her sexed body as a way to reinforce that alpha female status. Perhaps this bold display is why men talk about her sexuality in almost an awed and admiring way. When discussing the Marilyn/Jackie dichotomy, Paul Kinsey calls Joan a Marilyn, then corrects himself — Marilyn is more of a Joan. In the 1960s, this must have been the highest-most compliment a man could give a woman regarding her sexuality, at least within the ideology of the hetero-patriarchy. This is especially important to consider when we think about Joan’s pride in her femininity. Bartky discusses internalization in her piece Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power, saying that “something is internalized when it gets incorporated into the structure of the self…whatever its ultimate effect, discipline can provide the individual upon whom it is imposed with a certain sense of mastery as well as a sense of identity.” (Bartky 38–39) In short, women have a stake in perpetuating patriarchal gender structures. Joan sees this; she can recognize that men have placed expectations on her appearance and her behavior. She follows through with these expectations for a variety of reasons, whether because it feels good to master a skill, even a patriarchal skill, or because it gives way for her to exert more authority in the workplace. Whatever her reason, by her patriarchy-friendly behavior, Joan ends up in the tight bind of perpetuating the hetero-patriachy while also attempting to exploit it for her own gain.

Joan sees an opportunity to use her own femininity to leverage some sort of power at Sterling-Cooper, where she is constantly surrounded by men who seem to only value a woman for their appearance. Her male coworkers are quick to reward any woman who agrees with, or at least is complacent in, their own commodification, though this has varying results. By using her feminine body & spending a night with Jaguar board member Herb Renault, Joan receives a partnership at Sterling-Cooper. This gives her a stable financial position while she raises her son alone, solidifies her role as “alpha-female” of the agency, and assigns her non-secretarial (and thus, less womanly) responsibilities in the workplace. However, this reward was solely the result of a man of power deciding Joan was attractive. Even when she uses her sexuality to better her position, it’s dependent on the whims of a man. Furthermore, while we might praise Joan for being proud of her body and “owning” her sexuality, we have to consider the fact that this pride is entrenched in the hetero-patriarchy. The Jaguar deal & subsequent partnership reveals another problem with Joan’s use of her femininity. When she flaunted her sexuality to appease the men around her and gain authority over other women, the men in the office allowed it. It gave them the chance to ogle something without risk of a more powerful source reprimanding them. But when Joan begins to leverage her sexuality to gain a more prominent position in the workplace, she becomes a threat to the men in the office. They insult the way Joan parades around her gendered body, while simultaneously implying that it is the only reason for her success. It’s a common-held belief that Joan does no real work in the office. Harry Crane insinuates this in demanding a partnership at the agency by remarking that his accomplishments happen in broad daylight. When Joan attempts to discipline her underling, Joey, he claims that the only thing she does in the office is “walking around like [she’s] trying to get raped.” They fail to recognize that Joan navigating the appropriate and inappropriate ways to display her sexuality is something that requires work every day; Joan’s gender is only an asset to the men of the office so long as it is not a detriment to their own authority.

Peggy Olsen, on the other hand, doesn’t want her feminine sex to mark her at all. She goes against the dominant culture’s view of womanhood in order to gain ground in her professional life. Doing so means making efforts to not come off as aggressively sexual or womanly; this limits Peggy just as much as Joan constantly being reduced to her physical attributes limits her. Though Paul Kinsey states that every woman can be boiled down to a Jackie Kennedy or a Marilyn Monroe, when Peggy asks which she would be, he laughs. As an attempt to give her an answer, her male co-workers say Gertrude Stein, an extraordinarily intelligent and talented lesbian woman who lacked sex appeal. However, this un-feminine demeanor doesn’t necessarily mean that she talks to men as though she were a man herself. In her conversations with Roger, we see her both apologize for asking for an office & tell him that she’s to make men feel at ease. This places Peggy in a strange middle ground; just as she’s not a Marilyn or a Jackie, she’s not overtly female like Joan & her other female co-workers, but is not truly “one of the boys” either. The amount of men in the office that see Peggy as a potential sexual partner is few and far between. By no means is that an inherently bad thing. It’s just important to note that these characters are men that will pretty much throw themselves — or at the very least, make sexual comments towards — any woman in a 10 foot radius. By disregarding Peggy in these discussions, they disregard her sexuality and allow her to move relatively freely in the predominantly-masculine copywriter world.

Similar to Joan, Peggy’s approach on navigating her femininity in the workplace yields her varying degrees of professional success. Through this tactic, she becomes the first woman copywriter at Sterling-Cooper; she’s able to bring in accounts upwards of $25,000 and contributes to both saving the firm from insolvency and winning a prestigious advertisement award. These accomplishments give her a large level of authority. She’s able to fire Joey after he made inappropriate comments towards Joan, fetches a large raise from a competing advertising agency, and gains real respect as a copywriter from Don Draper (who rarely praises anything that isn’t his, ever). But after a while, she hits what we now know as a glass ceiling. She is unable to reach a position akin to Don or Roger and comes to slowly realize that unless serious social change happens, her hopes of one day owning an ad agency are only pipe dreams. Her assertiveness is often seen as bossiness, by both her 1960s peers and (unfortunately) modern viewers. In a review of an episode of Mad Men, in which Peggy coldly greets Don after he had ruined Sterling Cooper’s chance to have Hershey’s as a client, Time Magazine’s television critic James Poniewozik asked “Where have you hidden our Peggy, Mad Men? And how did you replace her with this hostile, unpleasant basket case?” As much as Peggy tries to fit in with the men, she is still marked as a woman. Her sexuality is duly noted by those around her, and causes her attempts to use her authority to be seen as bossy, not ambitious.

Though both are extremely different and extremely problematic, it’s difficult to disqualify either Joan or Peggy from being a feminist icon. Joan is proud of her sexuality and doesn’t feel like she needs to hide it, even though she is often derided and policed by both men and women in the office for it. Peggy frequently critiques Joan on the way she dresses, in short saying that she’s asking for the sexual harassment she receives by flaunting her femininity. As mentioned before, she receives insults from Joey about the way she dresses too. This goes both ways, though. Joan lambasts Peggy on not striving for a smaller figure and “dressing like a little girl.” Both Peggy and Joan criticize the other for not living up to how they believe a woman should act in the workplace; in doing this, they actually perpetuate the norms that oppress them both. In her analysis of oppression, Marilyn Frye notes that women are oppressed, as “one of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind — situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure, and deprivation.” (Frye, 85) Both Peggy’s method and Joan’s method of navigating the workplace offer some benefits, but many more exposures to harm. Even the benefits that Joan and Peggy stand to gain really just expose the double binds they both face. Joan points this out when Peggy informs her that she’s fired Joey as a result of disrespecting Joan, saying that no matter how many accounts either of them brings into the firm or how many people rank below them, the men in the office will always be able to insult their gender. So all that firing Joey has done is “prove that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.” Whether it’s ignoring the sexism in the office as Joan does or taking action as Peggy does, a women’s actions in the workplace are never fully approved of.

The lose-lose scenario of being a woman is not just a question of sexuality or an issue for females in the work place. In looking at Betty Draper, a character who spends the majority of the series as a housewife, we can see that the wires of the birdcage entrap her too. She must constantly choose between being a docile, modest, and agreeable wife but feeling frustrated, depressed, and silent, or speaking her mind and using her own agency but being diagnosed as hysteric or reminded of her inherent inferiority as a woman. At the beginning of the series, Betty is in therapy for anxiety and sleeplessness; she is unable to figure out that those are symptoms of the boredom she feels at home. Instead of finding more fulfillment outside the home, she buys into the dominant idea of the time that motherhood should be enough for a woman, and since it’s not for Betty, there must be something wrong with her. Gradually, Betty discovers that her husband, Don, has been speaking to her therapist about what she has said through her session, has lied to her about his identity, and has cheated on her with multiple women for many years. Though this could be considered commonplace in certain social circles at the time, Betty reacts by asking Don for a divorce. Unable to accept that Betty could sanely want this, Don dismisses her desires as hysteria, or a symptom of lack of sleep. Sandra Bartky defines psychological oppression as “institutionalized and systematic; it serves to make the work of domination easier by breaking the spirit of the dominated and rendering them incapable of understanding the nature of those agencies responsible for their subjugation.” (Bartky, 23) As witnessed by her therapy sessions and “hysteria”, Betty is the product of this psychological oppression. Her search of self so directly contradicts the society-dictated role of women in her time that there must be something wrong with her. Though her second husband, Henry, is more respectful of Betty than Don ever was, he too demeans Betty when she begins to speak her mind regarding the Vietnam War. Yet when Betty attempts to be an agreeable and silent wife, she is similarly stifled. Don’s reaction to her buying a two-piece bathing suit is calling her desperate, and she does nothing yet silently agree with him and cover herself up. When Betty finds out Don has been secretly colluding with her therapist, she doesn’t confront him or her therapist. Instead, she cries to her daughter’s friend Glenn about how alone she feels and continues to see her doctor. She recognizes that any sort of action she could take against them would be futile, for they would silence her and remind her of her gendered inferiority.

Though Mad Men tries to address the female struggle using Joan, Peggy, and Betty, it’s impossible to discuss the feminism in the series without addressing the diverse groups of women that it fails to represent. Each of the previously discussed characters is dealing with a very real, but very specific problem because of their gender — they’re dealing with the problem that cannot be named, as Betty Friedan puts it. But their refusal to empathize with other oppressed groups puts them squarely in the white, upper-class, second-wave feminist movement that bell hooks and other intersectional feminists take issue with. As said in hooks’ Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory, the “problem that has no name” “actually refer[s] to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle and upper class, married white women who wanted more out of life…[Betty Friedan] ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. (hooks 60) Perhaps purposely, to accurately represent the views of second-wave feminists, Mad Men essentially ignores their existence too. There’s no trans or gender queer characters. There’s one main LGBTQ character for three seasons of the series who is fired when his sexuality interferes in Sterling Cooper’s business. Afterwards, he disappears completely. Hiring one Jewish copywriter causes a stir amongst the office, and the black community is represented by two female secretaries whose life we only get quick glimpses into. The visibility of non-white and/or poor women is the same on the show as it was for real life ad executives in the 1960’s — slim to none. hooks echoes this, stating that “Nor did [Friedan, and the class of women she represented] ever move beyond her own life experience to acquire an expanded perspective on the lives of women in the United States. I say this not to discredit her work. It remains a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women.” (61) Peggy’s understanding of the black experience is largely based on her own; she believes that if she broke in to the advertising agency against so much adversity, blacks will eventually be able to as well. She continually equates the black struggle as similar to her own, refusing to recognize her own privilege as an educated, middle-class, white woman. Peggy sees the bars of her birdcage and assumes they are the same for all women, not realizing that she’s been allowed more room to grow at Sterling-Cooper than others might’ve been.

In Kimberle Crenshaw’s piece Demarlginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex, she argues that the “liberation of women” too often only applies to white women — “When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analyzing patriarchy, sexuality, or separate spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women.” (Crenshaw 154). Just as Peggy equates her struggle of breaking into the copywriting world to a black person’s struggle breaking into the copywriting world, the second-wave feminists Crenshaw is talking about refuse to recognize their own privilege. In fact, they refuse to recognize how their exclusionary feminist theory actually reinforces black women’s position as the lowest social class. White women’s newly-gained agency too often comes at the cost of black women, who are one of the few groups white women exercise authority over. This is personified perfectly in Betty’s firing of Carla, her children’s longtime nanny. Carla’s firing is preceded by Betty struggling to assert dominance in her new marriage or over her increasingly stubborn children. In an attempt to regain that dominance she fires Carla. Not only is Carla the one person in her life whom Betty directly controls (via salary), she is a threat to Betty’s credibility as a woman. Carla does a fantastic job at raising the Draper children, something that Betty can’t say about herself.

In some ways, Mad Men’s treatment of its women of color is a good thing. By denying viewers an intersectional view of feminism, the program accurately portrays the second-wave movement & all of its flaws. But when it’s taken at face value by viewers as to what feminism should look like, it’s actually harmful to a feminist consciousness. This is why I find proclamations of the most feminist show on television from the Washington Post and other media outlets extremely problematic. Mad Men poses a lot of questions about feminism, all which are very important for viewers to consider. Is the purpose the show’s creator and writers to portray the exclusion of LGBTQ women, non-cis women, and women of color from the second-wave movement? Did it have a responsibility to show the feminist struggle of those characters? Are we supposed to cringe when Peggy tries to equate her black secretary’s struggle with her own or admire her empathy? Should we admire Joan’s pride in her sexuality, or is it influenced by the hetero-patriarchy? And perhaps most importantly, what makes a show feminist? But blindly calling it televisions most feminist show ignores how it implicitly critiques parts of white feminism, whether purposeful or not. Maybe it’s a feminist show when looked at from a critical feminist perspective, but for the average viewer, to see it as a feminist holy grail can severely limit their thoughts on intersectionality.

Though all women struggle in the ways Peggy, Joan, and Betty do (being reduced to their sexuality, tiptoeing a line between prude and slut, or being constantly reminded of their inferiority), these forms of oppression count as only a tiny fraction of what most women face every day. Being white, educated, conventionally attractive, and middle- to upper-class female grants the three women a form of protection. While they are still insulted, degraded, and assaulted on a regular basis, they are privileged. Mad Men can’t conquer intersectional feminism — they fail to address marginalized female communities. I don’t immediately view this as a failing on Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, however. Perhaps the absence of intersectional feminism from the program is on purpose. It accurately represents the historic perspective of second wave feminism, which unfortunately silenced a lot of these marginalized communities. Perhaps if we look at Mad Men through a fully-formed feminist lens and only through a fully-formed feminist lens, we can realize the injustices and tight binds Joan, Betty, and Peggy are placed in every day, as well as realize that those injustices are only the tip of the “female oppression” iceberg.


Bartky, S. L. (1997). Foucault, femininity, and the modernization of patriarchal power. na.

Bartky, S. L. (1990). Femininity and Domination: studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Femi- nist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum.

Frye, M. (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Freedom (California): The Crossing Press.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge: South End Press.

Poniewozik, J. (2014, April 29). Mad Men, What Have You Done With Peggy Olson? [Review]. Time Magazine.