Mad women

The female characters on "Mad Men" are complex and fascinating -- so why no Emmy love?

Published July 21, 2008 4:35PM (EDT)

For months now, people have been telling me I would love "Mad Men," AMC's series about advertising professionals in 1960 Manhattan, but it took the combination of 16 Emmy nominations and the fast-approaching second season to make me sit down and watch it. Turns out everything I'd heard about the excellent writing and acting is true -- and so is everything I'd heard about the constant smoking, drinking and mind-blowing political incorrectness.

In the first episode, we watch the top men at hopelessly WASP-y ad agency Sterling Cooper flail around trying to impress a Jewish female client, totally unable to mask their anti-Semitism and sexism. Protagonist Don Draper -- not some unlikable secondary character, mind you, but the guy we're all rooting for -- storms out of the meeting, sniffing, "This is ridiculous. I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this!" The modern jaw drops, but when he takes the client out later to make amends, she tells him, "It was refreshing, really -- I mean actually hearing all the things I always assumed people were thinking." And that's exactly why "Mad Men" works so well, despite the offensiveness of its main characters. Unlike television shows from the period it examines, it makes no secret of the bigotry that simmered beneath the surface of cheerful white sitcom families, and it presents the victims of it as fully human, rounded characters. Society may not yet give them room to transcend the bullshit, but nobody's pretending they aren't on to it. (Nor are they pretending the white male characters are anything but tragically flawed. As Heather Havrilesky said of Draper back when the show premiered, he's "self-pitying and spoiled, sure, but he's charismatic and possibly depressed enough that we feel for him nonetheless.")

Ironically, then, a show in which about 98 percent of the female characters are either secretaries or suburban housewives is providing some of the meatiest roles for women on television today. "We have a very high standard now for material," actress January Jones tells the Los Angeles Times, and her costar Christina Hendricks adds, "They're spoiling us. I haven't been reading anything even near to the quality of this show." Jones plays Draper's angelic wife, Betty, and Hendricks plays va-va-voom head secretary Joan. When characters like that are just as rich and fascinating as the men, you know we've come a long way since 1960.

Perhaps not quite long enough, though. Among those 16 Emmy nominations, there are two well-deserved acting nods for Jon Hamm and John Slattery, but none for the actresses who bring the dazzlingly complex female characters to life. What's up with that?

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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