Mad Women

It’s been 50 years since the time of Mad Men. How are today’s Peggy Olsons faring?

“I’m a copywriter.”  

“Like Peggy Olson?”

A staggering portion of the conversations about my work unfold this way — bookends on an empty bookshelf. At this point, a mere nod is enough. I can only assume they don’t care for a deeper understanding; those who know Mad Men know its details, and would never ask. But even those who don’t know Mad Men know enough to quickly sketch up an understanding of how it works. It’s a satisfying portrait: long hours, failed ideas, drinking at work. Just refresh the art direction to match the decade. 
It’s unlike pop culture to supply a single point of reference for something as pervasive and invasive as advertising, but that’s probably the way the audience likes it. “Everything I know about advertising is from Mad Men,” friends say, unwilling to cross-reference, unapologetic. That’s fine: this industry is captivating to few, and malicious to most. Why pay attention to something that will inevitably interrupt you? If they are to exist at all, ads are for replenishing snacks: to better enjoy the show.  

I, on the other hand, never skipped the ads. I was (and am) particularly susceptible to them, and sought the insider knowledge that would allow me to create a vaccine for myself. There’s skill in creating desire that seems to emerge from a vacuum — I feel that way all the time, and I know better. I guess that’s why I became a copywriter. 

In “Ladies’ Room,” the second episode of the first season, Paul gives fresh-faced, tiny-ankled Peggy a tour of Sterling Cooper, and lays out the anatomy of the agency for her. To Peggy’s surprise, female copywriters exist. “Good ones?” Paul nods, with a caveat: “You can always tell when a woman’s writing copy, but sometimes she just might be the right man for the job.” It’s too early in the show to interpret Peggy’s expression, but I’ve studied my own face enough to pick up on a few hints.

One of the recurring questions about the show is whether the industry has changed since then. Here’s what I know: In the final months of ad school, my cohort was encouraged to go to portfolio reviews and seek informal advice (read: make decisive first impressions and collect business cards) from industry experts. The last review I went to happened in April, exactly a year before the moment I am writing this. That night, a creative director sat back in his chair, closed my book and said to me (his tone proud, fatherly): “Congratulations, your gender isn’t showing.” I thought, I’ll show you.

From even the most antiquated lens, the fundamentals of advertising befit traditionally “female” talents. After all, the task is to understand human needs and speak to individuals in the ways they want to be spoken to. But women in advertising are still an ongoing topic of discussion, accomplishments deemed worthy of lengthy articles, industry blogs and top whatever lists. You wonder, until you get your foot in, and then you don’t.

So you enter an advertising agency, knowing it’s still a boys’ club, and you try to put your stake in the ground. “Always have an opinion,” the man who gives your first job says. “Always have a drive.” Push, then pusher harder. When Peggy first tries to ask for a raise, Don scolds her: “You presented like a man. Now act like one.” And so you do. You put forth your most unaffected face, putting the bubbly, flighty smile on the backburner. You push. You pull. 

But the drive you see lauded in your male coworkers doesn’t translate. You’re just a girl who doesn’t smile. You’re serious, aggressive, stuck up. You’re confrontational. When your coworker writes a feedback email, she uses expressions like “could possibly” and “would be nice if.” “Can we just cut those words out?” You ask, “Be more assertive?“

“Well, you did that,” She snaps, “And they called you confrontational. So.”

It’s just as hard to hide your gender. 

Peggy: Do you think I act like a man?

Dawn Chambers: I guess you have to, a little.

Peggy: I tried, but I don’t think I have it in me. I don’t know if I want to.

“Mystery Date,” season 5, episode 4

This piece was supposed to be about Mad Men, in honor of the sixth season premiere. The goal was to re-watch the series before I started writing, but after working 21 days in a row, I had yet to finish season one. There’s no opportunity for revisiting. “My life only goes in one direction,” to quote Don. “Forward.” 

So is advertising any different now? Sure, the medium has shifted — print to television, television to digital, digital to the physical connection between humans and their devices — but has anything else? In my favorite episode, “The Suitcase,” Peggy gives up a birthday dinner and a relationship to nourish the one she has at work, her rapport with Don. They work into the night and he takes her out for dinner, the man she doesn’t want but cannot turn away. “I mean, I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office,” she tells Don. I feel this.

The first time I saw this episode, their friendship was touching. It’s their own brand of understanding — the five seconds where they hold hands and you know Don isn’t touching her, but reaching for her. Now I see it in terms of sacrifice. What you give up to get what you want. And is it still what you want when you get it? In this industry, good work only begets more work. The accolades collect dust. You’re only as good as your last idea. And when the dust settles, what then? When your boyfriend leaves you because you can’t make it to your own birthday dinner, what then?

“Let me ask you something,” Don asks Roger in season one. He’s trying to figure Betty out, but five seasons later, I guess he never does. “What do women want?”

“Who cares?”  This is classic Roger. Then, later: “Jesus, you know what they want? Everything.”

He’s right. And if that’s the visible flaw of our gender, so be it. 

Tracy Wan is a writer moonlighting as a copywriter. Or was it the other way around? In any case, you can find her here.