The Angry Women of 'Mad Men'

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The 17-months'-long-awaited Season Five premiere of AMC's Mad Men finally happened last night. Reactions have been varied, but people tend to agree that the song they can't get out of their heads today (unfortunately or not) is the one that Don Draper's new wife, Megan, sang to him in front of a crowd at his surprise 40th birthday party. The lyrics of "Zou Bisou Bisou," Lauren Streib writes in the Daily Beast, are roughly translated as "Oh! Kiss kiss / My God, they are sweet! / …Oh! Kiss kiss / the sound of kisses /…Oh! Kiss kiss /…That means, I confess / But yes, I love only you!"

A woman performing for her husband in front of everyone as a birthday "gift," promising kisses and love, sashaying in a sexy dress, seems to underscore traditional gender roles and a sense of subservience. And yet, the irony is that throughout the song we're uncomfortably aware of how uncomfortable it is making Don, who never wanted the party in the first place—a fact that Peggy attempts to convey to Megan, though Megan goes ahead with it anyway. After the party, when Don withholds sex from Megan to express his displeasure over the party, he seems to come out the winner, at least temporarily. But Megan gets him back later by going home sick from work -- he comes chasing after her -- and then, when he arrives, stripping to her black lace bra and underwear to clean the apartment, something she knows he won't be able to resist. Megan is hiding something behind her doe-like eyelashes. How much more we will see as the season progresses? What's clear, at least in this first episode, is that there's a definite push-pull dynamic between genders over power and sexuality, and it plays out with other characters as well.

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The women of Mad Men have never been shrinking violets wary of showing their displeasure (Betty's iconic scene with the gun is one of the more memorable examples of that) or, for that matter, their sexuality, but in this fifth season there seems to be a ratcheting up of both the stakes and the terms. This fits with the era. As we progress chronologically through the 1960s, along with civil rights (a theme which bookends this episode) there's also the sexual revolution. And Megan seems to embody a new style of sexual openness that transcends the earlier "Jackie or Marilyn" dichotomy. There's a broadening of the flavors, with some women taking on a more dominating role in the sexual realm as well as the landscape of personal autonomy, while others, like Pete's wife Trudy, stay at home in their housedresses in the suburbs and raise the children. This, not unexpectedly, is a scenario that has Pete a bit disgusted: On his commute into the city he bemoans Trudy's new dowdiness to a friend saying, "There was a time when she wouldn't leave the house in a robe." His commuter buddy in return shares tales of how angry his wife has gotten, recently. There's trouble in paradise, as always, but there are hints that the women are becoming more active rather than reactive (think Betty cheating behind Don's back or passively submitting to sex in early seasons).  

In fact, women being angry might be the theme of this inaugural fifth season episode of Man Men, in which the men, with the possible exception of Pete, seem a bit faded into the background, a bit weary, less game to fight. Even Don has become, as Peggy puts it, "happy." Which makes her, and possibly the viewer, concerned. In Don's stead, however, we have a range of women who seem, with all of their struggles and faults, more empowered -- and more empowered to get pissed off. 

The episode begins with African-American women protesting outside of rival ad agency Y&R for equal opportunity employment, which inspires a group of ad execs to waterbomb them from above. The women, only inflamed further, then storm into the office with a boy in a damp shirt and demand accountability for the act. These women, says the subtext, are not going to take this crap. 

Megan Draper is the star of the episode, overshadowing Don in looks, youth, and strategic sexual manipulation. She has gotten what she wants, from marriage to the apartment's white carpet, which Don knows is completely impractical but gives her anyway, to her job in creative at the agency. When she encounters Harry in the kitchenette talking about her demeaningly as a sex kitten, she doesn't blush and hide; instead, she acknowledges it, and it's he who becomes ashamed and apologetic. In other female subplots, we have Joan, who desperately wants to return to her job despite having had a baby and is inspired to action when she finds that job might not be hers anymore, and Peggy, who angrily, awkwardly confronts Don and Megan at his birthday party over what she sees as an unfair workplace situation: She has to work over the weekend while the boss's wife doesn't. And even though Joan ends up crying to Lane Pryce and Peggy later apologizes to Megan and Don, their initial behaviors are driven by self-interest and what they want rather than what society expects of them. 

Peggy's discomfort with Joan's baby in the office is also worth mentioning as it illustrates some of the changes of the '60s. Of course, Peggy has given up her own child, and her eagerness to avoid the baby can be attributed to that, but there's something more to be taken from this scene, in which Peggy does not hide her feelings and clearly invokes changing roles for women able to pursue careers and lives outside of motherhood. This, even as the girls call it only a matter of time until Megan has her own baby with Don, is another example of the broadening choices for women in the '60s. (There are hints that we'll see this again, as later in the episode Megan and Don discuss inconclusively whether she'll keep going to work.)

Finally, there are the angry woman on the verge of an explosion. Roger Sterling's wife Jane, the original Megan or trophy secretary made wife, is now overlooked, and her displeasure with Roger is palpable. While we haven't gotten a good look into their personal life just yet, it's clear that there's something seething under their glamorous veneer. Expect it to burble up soon. Similarly, with Sally Draper, we see a girl-turning-to-woman balancing her two new families (and her new, much younger mom, the apple of her father's eye). While Sally in episode one seems eager to please Megan in the brief time we see them together, there's also a wariness there, and it's a good bet there's tension to come between those two. 

The angriest of the Mad Women, of course, has traditionally been Betty, a character who doesn't even appear in the first episode except in brief reference, when Don drops the kids off at her house. It remains to be seen how she'll measure up in terms of this new strain of female empowerment laid upon a backdrop of more overt female sexuality. But if there's one thing we've come to expect of Betty, it's a good fight. 

Image by Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.