I’ll have to work this in quickly before it becomes a cliché, but despite the show's title, female characters have eclipsed male characters in audience sympathies on Mad Men. Identity is the show’s primary concern, putting the rapidly changing gender roles of the '60s at the center of its plot developments. And, the face showrunner Matthew Weiner gave post-'60s America is a female one. One thing seems certain to pass, despite the show’s unpredictability: Peggy Olson will eventually eclipse Don Draper, her mentor.
Feminist viewers take delight in watching Peggy and some of the other female characters endure and overcome sexist treatment in no small part because we don’t have to put up with that kind of overt misogyny anymore. We cringe when a male character tells Joan to her face that he thinks of her as a “madam from a Shanghai whorehouse” who is “walking around like you’re trying to get raped.” Then we get to revel when Peggy stands up to the offender, and feel gratitude for the real-life women like her that gave name to sexual harassment and shifted the power balance so men couldn’t just say things like that anymore. We weep for Peggy’s loss in having to give birth and give a baby up for adoption in a pre-Roe era, but feel better knowing that sort of thing can’t happen to us anymore. We pity Betty for feeling trapped in her marriage because she’s had a series of pregnancies she couldn’t effectively prevent while knowing that bright young college women like her now have the pill.
Or, at least, it seemed that simple a year and a half ago, when Mad Men aired the final episode of season four. In the extended break caused by budget negotiations, the real world outside of fictionalized 1960s New York changed rapidly when it came to women’s rights. The last episode, “Tomorrowland,” aired in October 2010. Since then, we’ve seen a midterm election sweep Republicans into power in both Congress and across state governments, and their No. 1 priority has been to return us to the social structures oppressing Joan, Betty, and Peggy. We’ve seen unprecedented attacks on abortion rights, some of which would, if successful, make abortion harder and more dangerous to get than it was in the '60s. Republicans have declared war on hormonal birth control, even trying to make it legal for your employer to fire you for using it as contraception. Even on Mad Men, Peggy was able to get a birth-control prescription with only a lecture from the doctor, but not from her employer. While Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have the rhetorical chops to call a woman a Shanghai madam, it turns out that he does know his way around the word “slut” pretty well and has widespread social support for using it to describe the 99 percent of American women who have used birth control.
Even the scene on Mad Men that many viewers found the most extreme example of '60s-era misogyny seems disturbingly fresh in 2012. Joan’s fiancé has reasons to suspect she’s had sex with a colleague before, and out of insecurity, he rapes her in a classic act of domestic violence. Fans responded harshly, cheering every time something bad happened to him and freaking out when Joan married him anyway.
But here in 2012, the real world is ceasing to take domestic violence as seriously as the fans of Mad Men. Republicans in the Senate are trying to block the once noncontroversial Violence Against Women Act, an effort to pander to a base that believes that women who report violence break up families—not the men who commit it. Since the last air date of Mad Men, the community that would applaud Joan for marrying her abuser in an act of wifely submission has moved from being a fringe movement to controlling a major political party.
In light of all this, will the writers of Mad Men be able to shock and horrify viewers as easily as they did in the past with straightforward demonstrations of '60s-era sexism? Or will that behavior read as modern and unfortunately ordinary? Or will seeing the parallels between the '60s and today help wake viewers out of their complacency and push us to demand more action to preserve the gains made during the '60s and after, and which are currently under serious threat from an invigorated conservative movement?