By Laura Bøge Mortensen
The popular American television serial Mad Men is set in the 1960s fictional advertising agency on Madison Avenue, Sterling Cooper. What makes Mad Men interesting is indeed the historical frame that gives us the opportunity to reflect on the changes in the male-female relationships up to now. While Mad Men indeed highlights racial discrimination, consumerism, capitalism, and alcohol politics, it is gender that stands out as the most crucial issue at stake. The women in Mad Men seem to have character and will, but they still live under male domination. The question is how this domination takes place? First of all it is important to note that patriarchal dominance can be forced on at least four levels: politically, economically, socially, and culturally. The important element in the cultural dominance has to do with specific use of language as a means of control of women’s identities and behaviors. Indeed, language in general plays a central role in Mad Men. Language is used as a general tool of manipulation at Sterling Cooper. Working at the top end of the advertising business just before the expansion of the mass medias these ad-men have an enormous amount of power. By developing sexist ads for television, they make sure the patriarchal dominance does not remain confined to the office and home environments, but is generated to the rest of the population. At the same time, the series introduce a few female characters who reveal the workings of ideological lingo, if not always change its effects. It is indeed the character of Peggy Olson, and her ability to invent language as a copywriter at Sterling Cooper, that plays the most important part in this process of emancipation.
Don Draper’s Language Trap
In the pilot, when Draper meets Rachel Menken, the rich department store owner, at a cocktail bar, their conversation works as an introduction to the language theme in Mad Men. Menken speaks from a position of power in that she is the rich client who requires their services. However, she is verbally diminished by Draper. She fights him off, but he confidently dismantles her defense, by showing her that her beliefs are the product of men like him, that without him she would have no identity. When Menken tells Draper that she has never been in love, he replies, “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” Draper seems so confident that he does not even have to hide his ideological workings. He admits that he/man has dominated these categories, and thus produced desires and ideas. Draper tells Menken that even if she is richer, he will always be the most powerful, and in control of her.
Draper shows what Dale Spender has explained the eternal paradox of language: it offers both wonderful opportunities and limitations. In “Language and Reality: Who Made the World?” Spender argues that language has an ability to shape the world. While language provides space for creativity, “We are constricted by that creation, limited to its confines, and it appears we resist, fear and dread any modifications to the structures we have initially created” (146). The problem is that men are the ones “who have created the world, dominated the categories, constructed sexism and its justification and developed a language trap which is in their interest” (147).
Nice legs Peggy, come on show them!
Reflecting on Mad Men from a modern perspective can be disturbing. Not just because of the obvious male domination, but because the female characters accept it. According to Spender, in Man Made Language, “Men have generated a reality which the women are required to share and they do not usually have reason to believe that their reality is questionable. This is not just because they can dismiss any alternative meanings which women may offer as unreal but because women may also collude in preserving male illusion” (90). This preservation of male illusion is obvious in the pilot “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” At Sterling Cooper, the men consider it to be feminine to have a good figure and show legs. Even though the women know that this presumption is not accurate, they keep the illusion to get respect from the men. They preserve the male idea of “femininity.”
When Peggy starts working at Sterling Cooper as Draper’s secretary, she is told to show her legs. It is interesting that it is actually the women who tell her that. The only man who instructs her to show more legs is Pete Campbell (her future lover), and in fact Draper apologizes for Campbell’s behavior. The question is why does Draper ask Campbell to apologize? Is it because he thinks that women should dress more comfortable? Is he trying to change the standards for skirts in the office? Given Draper’s treatment of women in general this is unlikely. He corrects Campbell because he knows that the women in the office know how to dress. He knows that Peggy will be naturalized into the environment by secretaries like Joan. Draper, in other words, has full confidence in the system.
Draper’s wife, Betty is a housewife, whose mother wanted her to be beautiful, so she could find a man. Betty is aware of the male description of a housewife as a happy woman, who has pretty clothes, kids, a nanny, and a big house. But she also knows that the life of a housewife is lonely and boring, “There’s nothing wrong with that. But then what? Just sit and smoke and let it go ‘til you’re in a box?” Most of the time she walks around in the house, waiting for her husband to come home. We never see her reading a book or watching television. She engages in small talk only, and she never divulges her thoughts, because her friends would chide her for being dissatisfied with her perfect life.
The Muted Woman
What if the women in Mad Men suddenly chose to express and liberate themselves? What if they opposed the male definition of reality? This would require a total reinvention of language, because at that time language missed several important words for woman to express feelings. Here Peggy Olson tries to express her frustration through a metaphor, “Why is it that every time a man takes you out to lunch, you are the dessert?” From a modern perspective the central word missing in Peggy’s vocabulary is “sexual harassment.” She feels it but cannot conceptualize it. According to Joanne Hollows, “Sexual harassment” was invented only in 1973.
Another missing expression in Mad Men is “female pleasure.” In episode 11 (“Indian Summer”), Don gives Peggy the weight-loss machine. She discovers its sideeffect: “It vibrates and that coincides with how you wear it. … It’s probably unrelated to weight loss.” The problem is when Peggy presents this “Rejuvenator” for the other copywriters, she cannot articulate this second function. Draper takes over with this central line, “It gives the pleasure of a man, without the man.” Formulating women’s pleasure without the man would give women power, but here they still try to deny that women are able to satisfy themselves. The Rejuvenator is a substitute for a man, but still the pleasure it gives is that of a man.
Home at the Drapers, Betty is not stimulated sexually, but she cannot express her frustration except through her fantasies about other men and masturbation on the (vibrating) laundry machine. The paradox is of course that she has a man who is every woman’s desire, a man who leaves no woman unsatisfied but his own wife.
Peggy Olsen and Language
According to Spender, “At no stage of this process were females in a position to promote alternatives, or even to disagree” (152). In Mad Men, Peggy presents a female in position to promote alternatives. In a lipsticks workshop for Belle Jolie, the Sterling Cooper boys notice that Peggy has a talent for words. Actually they need her “woman know-how” so much that she gets the responsibility for the ad. The question is how Peggy manages this responsibility to invent an alternative language in the male dominated industry? It would mean that she either redefines terms already in use, or invents a new language, with new words and new rules. When Peggy comes up with the slogan, “I don’t think anyone wants to be one of a hundred colors in a box,” she actually articulates that beauty is not about satisfying men. This corresponds to the female copywriter Ilon Specht’s 1973 L’Oreal slogan “Because I’m worth it.”
Peggy’s future as an inventor of a “female” or “female-friendly” language does not look too bright. Her potentially subversive words are presented by men. Becoming a junior copywriter boosts her self-confidence, but at the same time it puts her in an even more dependent relationship to Draper. She has to speak his language and his codes. Her language must develop in terms of his own. She gives her newborn son away, talks down to other woman, and even joins the men at a strip club. When her first copy is accepted in “The Hobo Code,” she asks why the text is different from her first copy, the men laugh, and say “You may be a writer honey, you’re arrogant.”
The men in Mad Men control language in several ways. They control definitions of words and meanings. Even though one word has two meanings the male definition dominates. In a sense, even though Peggy’s hidden feminist subversion in the lipstick campaign is brilliant, it will not be fully experienced. It serves merely to express a desire for emancipation.
Even though many women today work in media business and with advertising, a lot of meanings of words are still dominated by men. An example could be advertisements for woman hair-removal products. All in all even though we have put some feminism into our lives and language, Mad Men is reminding us that we are not done yet.
Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. Pandora Press, 1980.
Spender, Dale. “Language and Reality.” The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader. London: Routledge, 2000.
Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. 2000.
Ryan, Maureen. “Wild about ‘Mad Men:’ A Talk with Creator Matthew Weiner.” Chicago Tribune. 15 October 2007.