What Women (Should) Want

“Die Arbeit habe ich innerhalb des Seminars “Remembering the American 1950s” im Masterstudiengang “North American Studies” am IAAK (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie) geschrieben. Im Seminar ging es darum, dass die 50er Jahre in den letzten Jahren ein “Comeback” erlebt haben – durch Film, Fernsehen, Mode, Kunst etc. – und dadurch eine gewisse Nostalgie für das Jahrzent entstanden ist. Das Thema hat mich sehr interessiert, vor allem als ich gesehen habe, dass auch eine meiner amerikanischen Lieblingsserien, MAD MEN, auf dem Kursplan stand. So konnte ich diese Hausarbeit schreiben, in der ich mich auf die weiblichen Hauptcharaktere im Bezug auf Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” konzentriert habe.”

Das schrieb Caroline, von der dieser Ausschnitt stammt über den Text.
Fußnoten wurden bis auf eine Ausnahme durch Links ersetzt.


In a New York Times interview Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner stated that he read The Feminine Mystique among others in preparation for making Mad Men (2007) and said that “the themes of these books come into the show and affect the characters’ lives”. This becomes especially apparent with regard to the female characters Betty Draper, Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway. The three women take the audience back into a time when women had to decide between secretary school and kitchenware, between sexual harassments at male-dominated offices in the city and the long-lasting days of a suburban housewife.
In many articles, blogs and online forums that came along with the great success of the show, people repeatedly discussed the women characters with reference to Betty Friedan’s famous book The Feminine Mystique from 1963. In an article in the Washington Post in 2010 Stephanie Coontz claimed that Betty Draper lost the viewer’s sympathy after a while because she displayed “the traits of the dependent housewife that Betty Friedan critiqued so vividly in her 1963 bestseller”. And when Peggy Olson, who starts out as a shy secretary from Brooklyn, comes back much more self-confident after the fourth season, bloggers and tweeters even suggested that she must have read The Feminine Mystique. In her book, Betty Friedan explains and criticizes that “the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity” resulting in a life limited to the walls of a nice looking suburban house without any work except housework and with their greatest ambition in life being marriage and children (Friedan 43).
In this paper, I would like to take a closer look at the three main female characters, Betty Draper, Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway, showing three different ways of dealing with “the problem that has no name,” the unwritten rules for how to be a “good woman” in the 1950s (Friedan 15). Within this character analysis I would like to examine why, half a century apart, the world of the women in Mad Men looks so “strangely familiar” (Akass and McCabe 180) to that of women today, why the story is being told at this time with modern working women of the 21st century being the delighted audience. The three main female characters Betty Draper, Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway represent different types of women in the 1950s. We get to know the “perfect” but terribly bored housewife, the working girl who fights to be recognized in a male-dominated business world and a very self-confident working woman who plays with her femininity and “reawakens the 1950s Hollywood pin-up fantasy” (Akass and McCabe 181), but who at the same time longs for a husband and children and therefore seems to be positioned somewhere in the middle of the other two. My analysis is divided into three parts, each focusing on two short scenes from the first season of Mad Men that serve for a description of the three women. As the title suggests, this paper addresses the question what it is that the Mad Men women want, what they are supposed to want and what this struggle means for the three characters.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan provides a basis for this character analysis as it explains the “strange stirring” (Friedan 15) that women of the 1950s, likewise the three female characters in the TV series, are suffering from. The highly remarkable success of the AMC series Mad Men shows that Friedan’s book from 1963 is still relevant today. In a Forbes.com article, Jennifer Allyn points out that “Peggy’s struggle to find her voice and be treated as a professional is inspirational” – even for women in the 21st century.


Betty Draper – “Of course I’m happy”

In the second episode of the series we see Betty Draper and her husband Don, who just came back from work, standing next to each other in their perfectly equipped kitchen. All the little details we see here including kitchen utensils, the wallpaper pattern, an ashtray and of course Betty’s accurate look create an image of the early 1960s, they “construct a picture for us of domesticity, work and leisure at that time” (Butler 59). Betty has been suffering from a strange paralysis in her hands that even caused a car accident on that day. When Betty, who is about to wash the dishes, tells Don that her doctor advised her to see a psychiatrist he immediately gets very angry. “Doctors must love that they now have an answer for ‘I don’t know what’s wrong,’” he says (‘Ladies Room’ 19:09). The fact that he dismisses the doctor’s advice already shows that he will not accept that his wife might have a mental problem.
They continue their conversation in the next scene, lying in bed next to each other when Betty asks Don if he thought that she needed a psychiatrist (20:05). Don moves closer to his wife and says, “I always thought people saw a psychiatrist when they weren’t happy”. He pauses, looks around the room and asks her, “Are you not happy?” With this question, Don clearly puts pressure on Betty. He now shows a more gentle way of talking to his wife which manipulates her reactions efficiently. To him, there is no reason for Betty to be unhappy. She has two children and the house overloaded with things she was able to buy with Don’s money. There is no other option for Betty to reply, “Of course I’m happy”. Don even ridicules her problem when he says, “Well that’ll be 35 Dollars, you’re welcome.” Betty nods and says, “Whatever you think is best,” and then she turns off the light and lies awake next to her husband who closes his eyes and signals that this conversation is over.
Mimi White defines Betty’s hand paralysis as “the quintessential nineteenth-century female disorder, hysteria” as Betty seems to suffer from it “for no apparent reason” (White 149). This can also be connected to a problem that Betty Friedan discussed and what doctors in the 1950s called “the housewife’s syndrome” that came along with different symptoms but was always described by housewives who could not tell what exactly it was and did not understand it themselves (Friedan 19-20). Don rejecting Betty’s illness is especially reminiscent of Friedan’s notion of “the housewife’s syndrome” when she writes, “The problem was dismissed by telling the housewife she doesn’t realize how lucky she is […] What if she isn’t happy – does she think men are happy in this world? Does she really, secretly, still want to be a man?” (24)

Danke Caroline für die Genehmigung für die Veröffentlichung!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s