The Women of Mad Men

They've come a long way, baby

Four seasons in, I am still mad about “Mad Men.”

The production values continue to be superb, the writing diamond-sharp and the actors a visual delight, despite the fact that some of them cannot act. (Is it me, or does January Jones channel Joan Crawford every time she orders her kids to their rooms?)

In a perverse way, the rampant misogyny of “Mad Men” is also part of the attraction for me. It makes me appreciate how far — relatively speaking — women have come in four decades.

Throughout AMC’s Emmy-winning drama, men are rewarded for behaving badly while ambitious women, with one exception, have little or no power. Then again, why should they? In the Madison Avenue ad game of the early ‘60s, the expected position for females was supine.

Burn, baby, burn.

Jones’ Betty Draper, a Bryn Mawr graduate, is a depressed, stay-at-home mom and, until  this season, wife to lying and lecherous Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Worse than being a liar and a letch, he is a high school dropout,
we learned in Sunday’s episode.

Blonde Betty’s only clout comes in divorcing Don. Of course, she immediately marries another power player and remains a depressed, stay-at-home mom. Today, however, she would be the breakout star of “The Real Housewives of Westchester County.”

Red-headed bombshell Joan (Christine Hendricks), who formerly got her power by sleeping with the boss, has graduated from secretary to office manager of renegade  Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Still, she is reduced to a sexual caricature by the boys. In Sunday’s episode, she is told she “dresses like she wants to be raped” and looks like she works “in a Shanghai whorehouse.” An obscene cartoon is taped to her office window.

Today, Joan would own a triplex on Central Park West, courtesy of Sterling Cooper’s zillion-dollar settlement of her sexual-harassment suit. She would also have her own wildly-popular clothing line, JSW – Joan’s Shanghai Whorehouse.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), whose ascent from dowdy, passive secretary to chic, assertive copywriter, is “Mad Men’s” lone example of female muscle. Encouraged by her boss (Don), she comes to Joan’s defense by firing the guilty douche, one of her underlings.

Though Joan disses Peggy for her “sisterhood is powerful” move, it’s clear that pugilist Peggy has just begun to fight. Today, she would be president of AMC, greenlighting series like “Mad Men.”

GAIL SHISTER, TV columnist for the Inquirer for 25 years, teaches writing at Penn and is a columnist for She writes for The Philly Post on Tuesdays.