Mad Men: Justifying Sexism and Gender Roles through Nostalgia

Mad Men is a historical period drama featuring sexist and misogynistic representations of women that evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era when men were powerful and women were submissive. 
Maliabeth Johnson as Audrey and Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

By Tim Mulkern

Mad Men is nostalgic. The show, which aired from 2007 to 2015 on AMC, brought back the comfortable “good old days” of post-WWII. Season one begins in 1960, when the Cold War was hot, the Yankees always won the pennant, and smoking was allowed in restaurants, hotels and hospitals. While many television shows reflect present-day life, Mad Men turned back to an era that many reflect upon and review for its cultural significance and nostalgia. However, as viewers are taken back in time to follow Don Draper, a fictional creative director at an imaginary advertising agency in the heart of New York City, the nostalgic throwback acts as a guise to reflect and mirror misogyny, stereotypical gender roles, and romanticized sexual harassment. Although the norms portrayed in the show maintain a gaze toward the past through male dominance that suppresses women’s power in the workplace and at home, it continues to justify such representations in the 21stcentury by glorifying sexist and misogynistic gender roles through a nostalgic lens.

Mad Men, AMC’s first scripted television show, aired in 2007 and became an Emmy award winning drama for the network typically known as that movie channel (Poniewozik, 2015). The show follows Don Draper, head of the creative department at Sterling Cooper, one of the premier advertising agencies on Madison Avenue in New York City. Don works to sell ideas to the clients that hire Sterling Cooper to do their advertising, with a cast of naïve, yet ambitious copywriters and account executives. He is in the top position that many wish to be in, including some of his coworkers, and while holding prestige, he has a model wife in the suburbs with two kids, a boy and a girl (Weiner, 2007), an ideal nostalgic image. However idealized the show seems on a very shallow surface, a deep look through the cigarette haze and alcohol shows the period’s strict gender roles and patriarchal norms, and reflects the ever-present normative attitudes and behaviors of men that lead to sexual harassment and sexist stereotypes.

The show focuses on presenting the life of the 1960’s and mirrors the advancement of culture through Don Draper and the numerous ad agencies he works at. The post-WWII era is prominently depicted as severely sexist and with adherence to strict patriarchal norms. The notion of the nuclear family is initially present through Don and his wife Betty, whereby Don works in the city and comes home to his stay-at-home wife and kids in the suburbs, an ideal that was sold as the main goal in life (Agirre, 2012).

The gender roles and expectations of society during that period favored male power as a precondition to social relations at work and home. Mad Men uses these ideologies in the show to accurately portray the time period in which it is set, and appears to succeed in capturing the behaviors and values of such a patriarchal world. In a survey and study conducted in 2014, five self-identified feminists who enjoyed the show said that “the traditional gender roles depicted on Mad Men [are] as those with which their mothers grew up” (Bourdage, 2014).  In fact, the five participants of the study referred to many different roles that were common and encouraged for women of the 1950’s and 1960’s (Bourdage, 2014).  According to an article written by PBS about the birth control pill, women in society in the 1950s were pressured and encouraged to marry and to begin a family soon after (PBS: American Experience, n.d.). They called it the M.R.S. degree, where women went to college to find a man to marry, and that even though “women had other aspirations in life the dominant theme promoted in the culture and media at the time was that a husband was far more important for a young woman than a college degree” (PBS: American Experience, n.d.).

Another common occurrence of the 1950s was for women who were married to become stay-at-home mothers, while the husband worked (PBS: American Experience, n.d., Weiner, M. 2007). Similar to Mad Men’s reenactment of this arrangement through the Draper marriage, this gendered family structure was promoted extensively through the media in television shows such as  I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and it soon became the ideal for many people who watched such television programs.

Whether in the past or present, corporate media have predominantly depicted specific gender representations that place men in a dominant role and women in a submissive role (Wood, 1994). On Mad Menthe gender roles and portrayals are shown to represent a former time period while simultaneously offering bifurcated gender portrayals that pass on these antiquated perceptions to a new generation of viewers.

According to the book Media in Society, media continuously portrayed women “within the domestic sphere, particularly during daytime television” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, Frechette, 2014, p.228). The “domestic sphere” featured the beautiful and happy housewife that “praised women’s virtues of family caretaking” (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 235). In the early stages of television, there were few images shown of women striving for a professional career, which was contrary to society. During the period of 1947- 1980, the number of women in the workforce grew to over fifty percent (Campbell et al. 2014, p. 236). The portrayals shown on television during this time did not accurately represent society. However, it was what many women of the 1950s to the present have been pressured to believe. Regarding women’s roles in America in the 1950s, the media have played a key role in influencing society to admire and imitate the gendered portrayals that are represented.

What such media portrayals demonstrate is the hegemonic power of those who create contemporary narratives. Historically, the owners and creators of the media have been upper class white men who create their shows, ads, and other media forms to push their agenda and ideologies to the forefront of thought in society, and thus solidifying hegemonic power, where the ideologies eventually reflect the “established mainstream values” (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 223). In Mad Men, these stereotypes still exist and are romanticized throughout the series, causing the hegemonic elite to continue to shape contemporary understandings of gender relations. Not surprisingly, Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has actually been accused of sexual assault by Kater Gordon, a writer of the show (Keveney, 2018).

By today’s standards, a show like Mad Men with its blatant sexual harassment and stereotypical gender roles wouldn’t normally be aired if it was set in a present work setting. However, the show takes place in an era when the ideals of the time were nothing like today’s. It is acceptable though, because of what has been named, “the Mad Men Effect.”  According to an article in Forbes, the Mad Men Effect is when a “show is so steeped in nostalgia and impeccable set pieces that the sanctioned workplace and cultural misogyny becomes just another part of the artistic rendering of the era” (Casserly, 2012). The show is pure nostalgia: the cars, the music, clothing, movie references, cultural figures, are all historically accurate, transporting the viewer clearly to another time, where “its characters are smug sexists who treat women as little more than playthings and subordinates” (Casserly, 2012). As Katixa Agirre writes, “Period objects and meticulously designed clothing work as historical markers as well” to show the differentiation between time periods of the present when the show is created and the setting (Agirre, 2012).  The nostalgia for Mad Men seems to make it justifiable because the viewers know it is a different time. That is what makes Mad Men unique and significant when viewing the gender roles and sexism that is portrayed in every episode.

The specific stereotypes and expectations of gender roles found during the time can be seen through the three main female characters, Betty, Joan, and Peggy. Through a character analysis of each woman over the course of the show, different and distinct stereotypes and sexist occurrences happen to each of them. For instance, Betty falls in the trap of expecting to look beautiful to find a husband and begin a family, whereas Peggy is the career girl who experiences sexual harassment and the “Queen Bee Syndrome” throughout the show. The different gender role expectations are applied to the female characters in Mad Men, providing the show with more historical accuracy about the discrimination women faced, while also allowing hegemonic power to continue by showcasing such stereotypes and sexism.

Don Draper’s wife, Betty, is the idealized woman for the time of the show. She is beautiful, intelligent, and mostly a stay-at-home mother and trophy wife.  This depiction seemingly fits the stereotypical character of the period of the 1950’s and 1960s. According to the article, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Ad World: A Feminist Critique of Mad Men,” the authors write “Betty is on the inside looking out; she is the woman who has it all in accordance with the ideology of the show,” along with the historical accuracy of the gender roles of women at the time in the show (Ferrucci, Shoenberger, & Schauster, 2014).  According to the ideologies and stereotypes of the period, Betty and Don should be happily married. However, as seen in the beginning episodes of the first season when viewers are introduced to the world of Mad Men, Betty begins to show signs of the Feminine Mystique whereby she is anxious and depressed when she should be happy (Bourdage, 2014 & Weiner, 2007). She ultimately visits a psychiatrist to pinpoint the problem, but to no avail, and as the series progresses her anxiety and depression only increases, when learning of Dons infidelities (Weiner, 2007). Betty is trapped in the marriage that society expects to bring her happiness.  Ultimately, Betty divorces Don, which at the time, was far less common. But following the divorce, Betty immediately remarries a much older man, who she had an affair with at the end of her marriage with Don (Weiner, 2007). Katixa Agirre (2012) observes that “the only escape she can come up with is another marriage,” furthering the stereotype that women can’t be independent, that finding a husband is still a woman’s ultimate goal, and that hegemonic power should be maintained today.

Like Betty, the comparison to Marilyn Monroe sets Joan in a unique spot in the show. She works, yet she is pressured to find a husband and to start a family as with the demands of the time. Although she has worked her way to become a senior leader among secretaries, she is not encouraged to start a career for herself. In one episode, “Maidenform,” Paul Kinsley has the idea for an ad campaign for bras, that women either want to be a Marilyn or a Jackie (Kennedy). If Betty is the Jackie of the show, then Marilyn is the Joan, or as Kinsley says, “Marilyn is really a Joan” (Weiner, 2007). Joan works as the secretary manager at Sterling Cooper, and she is admired by her male colleagues while feared by the women that work beneath her. While she maintains one of the higher positions for a woman at the agency, she never strives to make a career because of the pressures to find a husband. In the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Joan expresses the limits of women’s power in the workplace when she warns Don’s new secretary, Peggy, that,“…if you really make the right moves you’ll be out in the country and you won’t be going to work at all” (Weiner, 2007). Such expressions uphold sexist ideologies that devalue women as workplace leaders over their quest to find a man and get married. To help her gain a footing in this quest, Joan tells Peggy to go home and put a bag over her head while she is naked in the mirror to look for the pros and cons of her body, expressing the importance of being sexualized for men in the office (Weiner, 2007). Joan’s character is unique because she is trapped between two roles. She could be a feminist character; however, she falls to the pressures of society by conforming to the submissive roles for women by eventually finding a husband.

By abiding by gendered stereotypes, Joan finds a husband and quits Sterling Cooper (although she later returns). While she seems to have found the perfect man after many office relationships, her fiancé is not the dream she had hoped for. In the episode “The Mountain King,” her husband rapes her, and she does nothing to deal with it (Weiner, 2007). Although the climate during the 1960’s did not allow for an open discussion of rape, especially with a fiancé, the scene and the trauma resulting from it is jarring in the present day, as attitudes have evolved. Since Joan never leaves her fiancé and she “accepts this assault and marries the man, unable to escape the fate meant for her,” she falls for the trap that society has put into place for women during this time (Agirre, 2012). Like Betty, by abiding by the hegemonic power and ideologies of the time, Mad Men shows that women are portrayed in need of a husband, and that their role in life is for men, and not themselves.

Peggy Olsen is the face of the most feminist character of the show. She begins as Don Draper’s secretary in the first episode and quickly works her way up to become a copywriter with great influence and responsibilities at the ad agencies. In a survey conducted by Monique Bourdage, respondents who self-identified as feminists mostly identified with Peggy of all the female characters (Bourdage, 2014). Peggy is considered a feminist because of her independence and career-minded attitude. In the episode “Babylon,” she strives to advance by participating in a lipstick campaign. During the focus group for the product, she is the only participant who does not rush to try on the lipsticks.  As she explains at the end of the process, she does not want to be identified as a color in a box, unlike the other secretaries that are picked (Weiner, 2007).

Notwithstanding her pro-feminist persona and attitude, Peggy is still limited to the stereotypes and gender roles of the time of Mad Men—those that keep hegemonic power in place. Despite her quick rise to the top, she still receives less pay for the same copy writer work than her male colleagues in the agency, who may be less productive and at the same level (Weiner, 2007). In other ways, she suffers from the “Queen Bee Syndrome,” a phenomenon where successful women in higher positions “block the advancement of junior female colleagues and [are] intolerant of competition from members of their own sex” (Colman, 2015). This can be seen in two distinct episodes. In “My Old Kentucky Home,” Peggy and her own secretary, an older woman, confront one another.  Peggy tells her, “The thing is … I have a job. I have my own office with my name on the door. And I have a secretary… that’s you” (Weiner, 2007). She becomes hostile with her secretary, someone who has experienced the same stereotypes and sexism in the workplace. In another episode from Season Four, “The Rejected,” Don takes advantage of Allison, his new secretary, who breaks down emotionally.  Although Peggy tries to console her, Allison assumes that  Peggy must have gone through the same ordeal when she was Don’s secretary. Insulted, Peggy says “your problem is not my problem. And honestly I think you should just get over it” (Weiner, 2007). Peggy may be viewed as a feminist, but her portrayals still abide by the “queen bee” ideology that women cannot work together as a united front because competition is always present between them.

According to Julia Wood, the dependence of men on women, and the role of women as sexual objects, are extensively portrayed across media (Wood, 1994). Mad Men exploits these two stereotypes between Don and Betty, whereby “Betty is the trophy; Don is the primal provider” (Gerson, 2011). As seen in an analysis of Betty’s character, she becomes dependent on a husband throughout the show, as her only escape from an unhealthy marriage with Don was to remarry (Agirre, 2012). Don’s infidelities act as an escape from his marriage as he cheats on Betty with numerous women that he is close with or that are total strangers.  In an article analyzing Mad Men through a feminist perspective, the authors write that men in the show “can escape defined roles whenever they want by simply using women as sex objects, but a woman cannot escape her defined role in a similar manner” (Ferrucci, Shoenberger, & Schauster, 2014). The stereotypes and gender roles portrayed on Mad Men are explicitly crafted to portray classic and contemporary male hegemony by showing that women are dependent on men, and that men use women as sexual objects.

Throughout the show, men constantly become voyeurs and aggressors towards women. In episode six of season one, “Babylon,” when the lipstick trials are occurring with the secretaries, the men are shown watching and sexually judging the women through a one-way mirror (Weiner, 2007). Such scenes conjure up the “locker room talk” that has been critiqued recently in the #MeToo movement, and demonstrates that the men are only interested in women as sexual objects. In the article “Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender,” Julia Wood writes “the irony of this representation is that the very qualities women are encouraged to develop (beauty, sexiness, passivity, and powerlessness) in order to meet cultural ideals of femininity contribute to their victimization” (Wood, 1994). This is especially relatable in the “Babylon” episode, where lipstick testing is designed to enhance women’s appearances to make them more attractive to men.


Mad Men is an enigmatic show because it portrays a historical period, while airing during primetime and in syndication in contemporary times. It portrays an era of hegemonic patriarchal rule that reproduces antiquated ideals about gender and society.  As a result, many writers and critics have argued over the show’s potential as a feminist or anti-feminist text (Agirre, 2012). In her article, “Whenever a Man Takes You to Lunch Around Here: Tracing Post-Feminist Sensibility in Mad Men,” Katixa Agirre (2014) concluded that her survey respondents “perceive that they should be shocked by the politically incorrect attitudes and remarks, especially regarding sexism and racism, [but] they are not because they are aware of the historical context, and, more interestingly, they do not think that we have changed all that much.”.

Consequently, while Mad Men is a historical period drama, its sexist and misogynistic representations of women evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era when men were powerful and women were submissive.  As audience analyses of the show suggest, Mad Men’s impact generates cynicism from viewers who believe that gender stereotypes, sexism, and sexual aggression by men toward women are still poignant and detrimental in today’s society. By analyzing the roles and lives of the program’s main female characters, many viewers can relate to a world of sexism from the past, and one that continues to marginalize women today.  Betty and Joan represent that classic feminine ideals of the 1950s and 1960s through their subservience to men, while Peggy represents the most feminist character of the show.  In a world where Mad Men dominate, even Peggy learns to conform to the patriarchal ideals that keep her in competition with other women through the “Queen Bee Syndrome.”

Student Author: Tim Mulkern, Worcester State University

Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University



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Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).
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