In case you've been living sub-rock, or, like, ahem, some of us, are subject to the fickle whims of illegal download connections, critics' darling Mad Men begins its second season on AMC this week. You probably know the drill: pitch-perfect period drama set in a 1960 Madison Avenue ad agency; lives of quiet desperation in the 'burbs. But it's more than rad sheath dresses and fogs of Lucky smoke; paradoxically, this man's-world retro-universe has spawned the most interesting crop of female characters since The Women, as explored by recent articles in the LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Magazine. The rundown, sans spoilers, cause we're nice like that:
1. Peggy: The naive young secretary-turned-copywriter. Perennially underestimated and watchful.
2. Joan: Helen Gurley Brown-style office sex pot, using men for her own ends, rocking glam 60's threads.
3. Betty: The wife. Bryn Mawr grad-turned-perfect-homemaker, Betty is always impeccably groomed and turned out, but neurotic and unhappy.
4. Midge: The mistress. A free-spirited artist, Midge lives in Greenwich Village/"the moment"/wears carelessly tied men's shirts, takes lovers.
5. Rachel: The businesswoman. Heir to her family's department store, Rachel is sophisticated and well-educated, made tough by living in an anti-Semitic man's world.
Okay, it's still a TV show. But each of these women is well-rounded and presented unpatronizingly. Funnily enough, it seems like the constraints of the period setting free up the writers to present far more dimensional women than we normally see - to say nothing of a wider range of body types. It's like, here are the archetypes, now we can flesh them out, instead of the usual well-rounded-woman-who's actually-an-archetype we're used to.
In some ways, perhaps the defined strictures and sexism of the era, which the show puts blatantly on display, make things clear: nothing is hidden or couched or unclear, and the monumental nature of these women's challenges, the definition of their roles, is almost a mental relief for a modern viewer, however appalled we might be. You can turn your radar off for an hour. And from a purely entertaining perspective, these are some well-written dames. Unlike those ubiquitous "Are you a Carrie or a Miranda?" quizzes, you could probably actually find someone here you wouldn't be nauseated to be compared to - not that we're gonna make you do that.
"Some Of Us Have Curves... Should We Be Trying To Hide Them?" [Washington Post]
The Women Of Mad Men [Los Angeles Times]
Square Peggy [New York Magazine]
Related: Mad Men [AMC]