'Mad Men' and Working Women

Article excerpt

Byline: Eleanor Clift

t's a rainy morning in Los Angeles, and Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy in the television series Mad Men, is standing outside the stage door smoking. On the set the actors are restricted to herbal cigarettes, which is why she has ducked out for what she calls "the real thing." I explain who I am (a reporter from Newsweek) and why I'm there (I started as a secretary), and she exclaims, "I am you!" Moss's character, Peggy Olson, is a striving Norwegian-American Catholic girl from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (coincidentally my birthplace, too), who starts her career in 1960 as a secretary "straight out of Miss Something secretarial school," she says. That was the path then for women, and as Mad Men enters its fifth season on AMC March 25, Peggy has gained recognition for her skills as a writer, rising from Don Draper's secretary to his trusted No. 2 in the creative department at the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Her success is not without cost, as she puts her personal life on hold. Moss says a woman like Peggy "didn't want to take men down and cause a ruckus; she loves writing, that's all, and wanted a chance to do it."

Women weren't supposed to be openly ambitious in the '60s. When I started at Newsweek As a secretary, I was thrilled to be where what I typed was interesting. I was the daughter of immigrants, my father had a deli, and my mother made the potato salad and rice pudding. It didn't occur to me that I could be a reporter or a writer, but the frustrations that within the decade would produce a women's movement were taking root at Newsweek.

The two days I spent hanging around the set of Mad Men were like entering a time capsule that took me back to that period in the '60s, everything from the pencil skirts and stockings with garters to the electric typewriter that was the latest technology. Critics have assailed the way everybody on the show smokes, glorifying a nasty habit that carries significant health risks. But that's the way it was then. The public high school I attended in Queens even let us out for a smoking break.

Luck Be a Lady: Mad Men accurately reflects the Madison Avenue advertising culture that created the Marlboro Man and had doctors offering testimonials about their favorite brand of cigarette. When Draper, the agency's creative director and Mad Men's protagonist, comes up with the tagline "It's toasted" for Lucky Strike, he's told that all brands are toasted. Without missing a beat he says, "Everybody else's tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike's is toasted." The remark illustrates the central theme of Mad Men, the making and selling of the American Dream by Madison Avenue in the early '60s--before civil rights, feminism, and antiwar protests forced a great awakening on the ruling class. The actors who play these retro characters are all too young to have experienced the '60s and think of the era as "the good old days," but that's true only if you happen to have been born white and male and heterosexual.

Much of Mad Men revolves around Draper's extramarital exploits, and the callous way he treats the women he beds, including his wife. But he isn't exactly what he seems, and in some ways he is more respectful of women than any other character on the show because he is able to recognize and reward merit without having his manhood threatened. Peggy benefits the most, achieving professional status at a time when that was not commonplace for women, and yet she struggles with what she's missing. "Should I have married? Should I be having babies? For a 26-year-old, the pressure of having children is very present," Moss says of her character, who secretly gives up a baby after not even knowing she was pregnant. The biological clock had yet to be named, but it ticked loudly for 20-somethings then, and the more Peggy succeeds at work, the fewer options she believes she has in her personal life.

It's hard for Joan, the siren queen of the secretarial pool, played by Christina Hendricks, to watch Peggy get ahead. …