‘Mad Men’ and Race? Let’s Talk Gender

The show's female characters, in marginal roles during earlier seasons, are now front and center.

Characters Dawn Chambers, Megan Draper and Joan Harris (AMC)
Characters Dawn Chambers, Megan Draper and Joan Harris (AMC)

Double consciousness was at play with both characters. While some found the episode to be a dud, it demonstrated that the intersection of race, class and gender is inextricably linked and affects all facets of life, consciously and unconsciously. Scholar Patricia Hill Collins would refer to it as the “intersectionality” of oppressions.

While many have focused on the role of race in Mad Men, the critique of gender has fallen by the wayside. As the season finale approaches, Mad Men’s female characters who lived largely on the margins of the office and society during earlier seasons are now front and center.

Peggy has given her notice, securing a good-paying job at a rival agency. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is divorcing her selfish and abusive husband (she married him despite being raped by him during the courtship) and decided to sleep with an account executive in order to secure her financial future, much to Don’s chagrin.

In her decision, Joan is clear on how men of this time period view women — as sexual objects — so, she figures, she may as well capitalize on her assets, as opposed to being constantly hurt and disrespected while trying to rise above the chauvinism. In a nutshell, complicity pays well. If she has to work among swine like Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), then why not get paid for the trouble?

Should we even mention Don’s young, hot wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), who is trying to keep her husband happy while pursuing her dream of becoming an actress? Eventually Megan is going to have to decide between being a wife and being true to her professional desires — a struggle that many women share.

Like the characters of Don and Dawn, who have more in common than just similar-sounding names, Peggy and Joan have more in common than just red hair, a child sired by the brass and overbearing, judgmental mothers. Their struggles are rooted in gender constructs, which drive all aspects of their characters’ lives, including relationships with other women.

While people are so caught up in the lack of diversity on Mad Men, what the writers and producers of Mad Men are doing with gender is compelling, in a way that introducing Dawn and then not further developing her character this season is not. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it — particularly regarding people of color on the small screen. While the representation of the female characters in season 5 is highly problematic, their plotlines are still interesting, provocative and well worth watching.

Nsenga Burton is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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