There’s been a lot of talk lately about the strength of the female characters on Mad Men, an unusual thing in a time when most shows do not have a lot of multi-dimensional parts for women. Amy Chozick’s article in the Wall Street Journal talks about the predominantly female writing staff of the show and the way they write for Betty, Peggy et al.
I think that the historical element in Mad Men, which I sometimes have reservations about (because of the museum-piece quality it lends to some stories and the way it invites us to distance ourself from the story) really works for the female characters. The problem with most female characters today, and indeed for hundreds of years, is not just that they’re written entirely from a man’s point of view, but that they define themselves mostly by their relationships to men. This was true even of the “butt-kicking babe” characters, or professional women like on Grey’s Anatomy, who tend to start strong and slowly sink into a morass of ‘shipping and getting caught between two men and stuff. And yet, because they are supposed to be modern liberated women, the show can’t really make an issue of its problem with defining its women or with giving them interests, lives, and feelings that don’t revolve around men. For the writers to deal with that problem head-on would be to admit that they have not, in fact, created super-liberated role-model characters, and not only don’t they want to admit it, they’re not even necessarily aware of the problem.
With Mad Men, the writers have given themselves an advantage: they admit up-front that the show is set in a time when women played a subservient role, and that this is an actual issue in the show. It’s an issue in present-day shows too, but the writers aren’t aware of it; with Mad Men, they are, and the plots therefore have the women examining the issue, trying to figure out how to gain some kind of autonomy (or how much of it they want) and how much of their lives should revolve around men, being what men think they should be, acting like a man in order to get ahead in their world, and so on. They have to address these things, because they’re looking at the past from a present-day point of view, analyzing the roles characters play in this environment. Because the writers are so aware that these women are expected to define themselves by their relationships to men, they wind up thinking about what these characters are beyond that basic definition.
All these issues, as I say, still apply in today’s world and especially on TV, because TV and movie plots have an unconscious habit of forcing women into subservient roles. (What I mean by this is that in real life, it’s possible to go a long time without focusing on romance or relationships. On TV, it isn’t, because the easiest stories to come up with are relationship stories. But relationship stories, at least in fiction, have a way of making the man the dominant character in the relationship, thereby turning strong fictional heroines into weak ones through the gravitational pull of these old storylines.) Mad Men finds them easier to deal with because they’re part of the environment in which it’s set, but there’s no reason it can’t happen on a present-day show. It’s just that it usually doesn’t.