Why Women Don’t Get Ahead In Advertising

Curator's Note

Psst! Wanna know a secret. Mad Men isn’t about men at all. 

But about subjectivities in the making: how men construct identities for women and how women struggle for narrative space in and through those representations.  ‘Where there is power, there is resistance’, Michel Foucault once wrote.  ‘[One] is always “inside” power, there is no “escaping” it, there is no absolute outside where it is concerned’ (Foucault 1990: 95).

Harry Crane purports to know what women want. But Joan Holloway has done her homework.  Long has she been a force with which to be reckoned.  Distracting the men with her ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.  It is her thing, her strategy for asserting her authority inside the male dominated world of Sterling Cooper.  Of course the client did not want to conduct business over the telephone.  He liked what she said and the way she said it. What man could resist those womanly charms?

The mad man may take charge of a feminine desire and absorb it into the serious business of consumer capitalism.  But Joan lives that desire.  In pitching the perfect strategy can she dare to dream of her liberation from mundane office chores. 

No sooner has the deal been brokered then Crane replaces the ‘hourglass’ with another ‘suit’.  What happened?  Speaking through a representational type that panders to patriarchal fantasies of a feminine ideal is always a precarious business.  As the exchange of looks emphasizes, Joan never owns the gaze – probably never did.  The scene heralds her return to silence, only able to speak through those verbose looks, pregnant pauses and loquacious gestures.

Which is something that Peggy Olson knows only too well. On the pretext of pastoral duties her priest pays her visit.   He is desperate for a confession.  She knows what he wants to hear, but she’s not playing ball.  Michel Foucault tells us that speaking about sex plays directly into power, the knowledge of which is, in turn, used by authorities for the intention of exacting social control (Foucault 1990).  In a Foucauldian twist Peggy defies patriarchal control through her refusal to speak. Only the relentless clickety-clack of the photocopier can be heard.  No words can fully articulate what she has endured.    


In this generic world there is no space, there are no words, for women to own their desires. Other than those that the mad men think they want. 
At episode end both Joan and Peggy shed their feminine performance.  Joan dismantles her constructed-ness while Peggy washes hers away.   Both contemplate the collateral damage of narrative events. 
But out of silence subjectivities are born.  


Reference:  Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol 1, An Introduction (London, Penguin: 1990)



Janet and Kim, these clips are wonderful. The parallels between Peggy and Joan are so crucial. As established in the first season,  Peggy and Joan stand out in the world of Sterling Cooper. While the other women in the office cry in bathroom and indulge the men's abusive behavior with a smile, Peggy and Joan have more agency -- Joan because she knows how much she is desired, Peggy because she refuses to be defined by her desirability. 

In the second season, I think something of a reversal happens. Joan, who had been dismissive of Peggy's aspirations in the first season, realizes she has some of her own.  As the first part of this clip shows so well, Joan's desirability can work well with her intellect; the client likes both what she says and how she says it, and the hurt that washes over her face when Harry introduces her to Dan affirms just how important to Joan it was to be not only seen but listened to.  In contrast, Peggy actually does advance professionally at Sterling Cooper and is rewarded for her ambition and even assertiveness.  It is her personal life that is a mess, from the sister who judges and resents her to this priest who treats her like a little girl, in some ways undermining the success and respect that she has begun to earn from her colleagues.  Importantly, as the exchange she has with Pete in the final episode makes so clear, it is a success predicated on rejecting the image of womanhood that she peddles as a copy writer at Sterling Cooper.

great post janet! those are interesting scene selections as well. 

i agree with your foucauldian reading of the show especially since it is interesting to see how the show complicates any easy binary reading of the world of advertising at this historical moment. 

it is very interesting how that great slogan of the feminist era that is just round the corner, the "personal is political" is rewritten here as the "personal is capital". here are some examples ...

peggy's rise to power (which i read somewhere corresponds to actual women's rise in advertising during these years - though i am no expert) is enabled through this mining of the personal/intimate/domestic for the making of ads. her interventions including the first, "mark your man" lipstick campaign - always brings sentiment (that terrain of womanliness supposedly) to the forefront. thus also the airline ad with the little boy etc. 

don learns the lesson well from peggy -- recall how season 1 ends with him getting an idea for the carousel ad by looking through photos of his own family. it is very interesting how here again he turns the private memories into a product quite seamlessly and this enables allows him to return home and reconcile with his family. 

the entry of the feminine and the intimate into public life which we might see as the great intervention of the 60s is given a very complex reading by this show as the personal enters the political domain through the channels of capital - the personal sells commodities, incites desires. 

as such, it resembles for me what marx calls real (as opposed to formal) subsumption where the logic of commodities entirely penetrates all aspects of life  OR perhaps what foucault calls biopolitics?

i have also been struck by how don d, as an outsider to the WASP elite culture of Madison avenue, performs a form of "intersectional" politics - allied and sympathetic towards other outsiders - women especially. it is also interesting to align his masquerade to the "double consciousness" and the "feminine mystique" under which women, people of color survived. not only does the show repeatedly, not only through don but all the other male figures show how masculinity is a difficult burden to bear (the show seems to feature multiple male hysterics), but it also aligns its hero to the coming communities ---- women, people of color etc.

thanks for a provocative post,


Janet and Kim--great clip and post—thank you. Viewers have shared in Peggy’s struggles, and the petty humiliations she’s had to frequently endure, but this is one of the first times that we’ve seen how vulnerable Joan is. And we’ll see it again—more brutally—with the actions of her new fiancé later in season two. In some ways, it seems that Peggy’s naiveté affords her more freedom to create new alternative responses (however tentative) as she goes along (such as sending the priest on his way), while Joan is doubly trapped in her strategy ‘to be looked at,’expending so much effort enacting the ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ model. She seems genuinely surprised by being put back in her place by hapless Harry Crane. Plus Joan and Peggy’s differing reactions to the male dominated world of Sterling Cooper and Mad Men is an obvious source of friction between them, instead of a bond. On the surface at least, Joan seems more trapped than Peggy despite her stylish bravado, although the narrative (and 20-20 hindsight) hints that change may soon be on the way.

Janet and Kim:


I enjoyed your post, especially your comment:

At episode end both Joan and Peggy shed their feminine performance.  Joan dismantles her constructed-ness while Peggy washes hers away.   Both contemplate the collateral damage of narrative events.

I had been struck with Joan's performance of femininity. Through most of the first season, she embraces her to-be-looked-at-ness. (In the second season, however, it leads to violence against her.) Peggy struggles to evade feminine performance, but finds herself trafficking in it in order to sell products. They are both, as you suggest, damaged by efforts to sustain feminine ideals.


I was also struck by Joan's mobility in season one. She moves, undulates, through the secretarial space. Peggy, in contrast, is stuck at a desk, virtually chained to it until she makes her move up through the ranks. In the scene below, Joan moves to Peggy's desk and lectures her about the necessity to accept to-be-looked-at-ness.

Joan lectures Peggy.

Jeremy Butler


 Thanks everyone for some really thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions.  We are still waiting for the end of season two over here in Britain - and, as usual, are behind in narrative events.  We can't wait to see what happens in the light of your hints!

This has really focused us on our chapter for Gary's forthcoming book and all your contributions have given us plenty to talk about - no silence for Kim and Janet (unlike Peggy and Joan).

As they always do, Janet and Kim remind us with their post how in complex tele-verses women break the narrative glass ceiling and demand our attention.


At the end of 2008 Television Without Pity offered a slide show review of "Anticipated TV Moments That Actually Paid Off," and it says a lot about the state of contemporary television that the top three included the generically worlds apart moving of The Island on Lost and Peggy's smack down of Pete on Mad Men.


At the very end of Six Feet Under, the five season story turned out to be Claire's. Two seasons in, Mad Men is already looking more and more to be Peggy's story.

I also want to thank my friends Janet & Kim for their initial post and the excellent clip. The other comments have also been exciting and enlightening, exactly what this site was designed for. Brava and Kudos to all!

To supplement what's been said, though, I want to start with a teaching anecdote. Years ago, I screened THE SEARCHERS for an American Film class and required students to read Brian Henderson's famous essay on the movie, in which he claimed that THE SEARCHERS (1956) was not really about Native Americans in the 19th century, but about Black-White relations in the 1950s in the wake of the U.S. Supremes' ruling Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). One student took exception to Henderson's thesis and wrote a well-researched term paper entitled "THE SEARCHERS is too about Indians!"

That said, I'd argue that MAD MEN "is too" about men. The show certainly deals with all of the issues regarding the social construction of women under patriarchy brought up in the previous posts, but it seems to me that it also portrays the sexiosocioeconomic construction of men under late capitalism. These ad men are not just cold fish and chauvinistic a-holes because they have penises (and/or phalluses, to make a subtle distinction); the very structures of their lives -- workplace, politics, family, education, pop culture, suburbia, new technologies (the Xerox machine, the fluorescent lighting that Jeremy Butler mentioned on another post, etc.) -- made them the organization men (William Whyte, 1956) and men in the grey flannel suits (Sloan Wilson, 1955 -- film version, 1956) that they are.

They are "mad" in all three senses of that word: (a) creatures of MADison Avenue and the corrupt (and corrupting) business of advertising, (b) driven to MADness by the sexiosocioeconomic pressures of the consumer culture that they themselves create; and (c) MAD as hell that they don't have much power themselves to change things. (They take out those tensions on their spouses and employees.) Even Don's romantic interlude in California is but a short vacation and temporary respite from the rat race.

The show shows us (yes, my pun is intended) the circumstances for BOTH genders but doesn't offer any real solutions within its fictional world, except perhaps in the individual (and collective) hearts and minds of viewers who watch that diegesis unfold 40-45 years later.

Frank P. Tomasulo, Ph.D.

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