A Feminist Reading List for Don Draper and Our Favorite Ad Men
It’s no secret that the world of AMC’s Mad Men, which began its final season last Sunday night, is inhabited by a number of characters who harbor, knowingly or otherwise, some pretty misogynistic views. Season 7 opens with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of this: Freddy Rumsen stares straight into the camera and gives Don’s pitch for the Accutron watch with the punchline “It’s time for a conversation.” Indeed, Peggy Olson has moved up the corporate ladder: When season 7 begins, she is the new Don Draper, and the viewer is encouraged to see this as progress. Still, prevailing biases concerning gender haven’t shifted significantly. It’s still time for a conversation.
Consider Peggy’s professional ascent. She’s a gifted copywriter, but has to work twice as hard to get her work noticed as any male copywriter does. Similarly, Joan Harris was only able to ascend to the position of partner by sleeping with the representative from Jaguar, Herb Rennick. In the world of Mad Men, women are (still) more valued for their obedience than their input, and more admired for their beauty than their brains. Obviously, this is problematic.
A common criticism of the show is that it glamorizes the sexism of the 1960s, and frankly, we’re sometimes pretty troubled by the way Mad Men’s women are treated. Viewers need look no further than the title of the series to see that advertising was very much a boys’ club in the 1960s, and that there’s relatively little that characters like Peggy and Joan can do about it. Plus, social change happens gradually, so we don’t predict drastic gains for the women of Mad Men this season. Rather than scold Don Draper and company, though, we’d like to offer them some book recommendations. Mad Men’s men clearly weren’t Women’s Studies majors in college, but that’s nothing a little reading can’t fix. Here are our book recommendations for Don Draper and company.
When Betty Friedan wrote about “the problem that has no name” that was afflicting American housewives, she probably had someone like season 1’s Betty Draper in mind. Betty Draper is unhappy despite having achieved all of the conventional trappings of success: she married young and well, and now has healthy children, a beautiful home in the suburbs, and a handsome husband who (in theory) comes home to her every night bearing a more than adequate paycheck. What’s baffling, however, is that no one in Betty’s life (least of all her then-husband, Don Draper) knows how to make her happy. We think The Feminine Mystique might give Don some crucial insight into what his wife is struggling with, and might encourage him to treat her with a little more understanding.
Alternate title: Why Making Peggy Olson Share an Office (Even with a Copy Machine) is Counterproductive. In this seminal feminist text, Woolf addresses a longstanding obstacle to women achieving success in the literary world: there’s no space for them, figuratively or literally. Peggy initially runs into a lot of trouble when she is first trying to be taken seriously as a copywriter. There is no precedent at Sterling Cooper for a woman stepping up to the plate the way that she does, and the boys’ club is essentially unwilling to give her the consideration that her male peers regularly receive. We think if a copy of Woolf’s essay had made its way around the corner offices at Sterling Cooper, Peggy’s climb to copywriter status would have been substantially less grueling. The firm’s ad copy might have been better, too.
Maybe characters like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce partner Roger Sterling don’t think they’re being sexist. Maybe they aren’t aware that, compared to their male counterparts, women have been historically mistreated. But after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s now-classic treatise The Second Sex, he might find that his eyes have been opened to a whole new narrative about the treatment of women—not just in the workplace, but everywhere. Sterling, in particular, has a long and storied history of womanizing on Mad Men. He also notoriously only ever told his ex-wife Mona that she was beautiful, rather than complimenting her personality, intelligence, or wit. It seems safe to venture, then, that Sterling sees women as fundamentally inferior to men. But here’s the thing: Sterling also seems like a pretty reasonable guy who is open to changing his mind (even if it is the product of an LSD trip rather than sober soul-searching). We think Sterling could be converted, and Simone de Beauvoir is just the woman for the job.
It’s not just women who weren’t treated well in 1960s America. Issues of racism and homophobia were still very much alive and well, in addition to the rampant sexism: just ask Sal Romano, who felt alienated because of his sexual orientation, and Dawn Chambers, who felt alone as the only African American employee at SCDP. Audre Lorde confronts these issues head-on in her beloved work Sister Outsider, and would’ve defended these two, along with Peggy, Joan, and the secretaries. She would’ve championed Dawn Chambers in particular, though: Lorde said, of her own experiences, that she was “triply invisible” as a Black lesbian woman, and she would have worried that Dawn was being marginalized for her race and her gender, instead of just her gender. Had SCDP employees been more sensitive to Dawn and Sal’s feelings of alienation (and more conscious of the ways in which Dawn and Sal were, intentionally or otherwise, made to feel like outsiders), then work might have gone more smoothly for both of them.
No, this book isn’t just for women. Anyone who works with women (which we would imagine is just about everyone) stands to gain some perspective and empathy from reading this book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Women’s experiences in the workplace are, in a number of ways, significantly different from the experiences of their male coworkers. Sandberg tells her reader that the system governing workplace politics is flawed, maybe deeply so, but that the only solution is to lean in and do what you can to work with it in the most productive way possible. We’re not sure the men of Mad Men have any concept of how difficult it can be to be a woman in the workplace, and we think Sheryl Sandberg might knock some sense into them. Peggy and Joan are pretty good at leaning in, but their male coworkers would do well to treat them with a little more respect.
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