After weeks of speculation on how the TV series Mad Men would end—most of it glaringly wrong, some of it surprisingly close—those of us who have seen the actual finale are left to ponder the question: What did it all mean?
Here at BUST, however, the answer is pretty clear. The biggest difference from the ’60s, when the show began, to the early ’70s, where the show wraps up, can be summed up in a single word: Feminism. And the impact of that change was made abundantly clear in each of the closing stories for the three main female characters: Betty, Peggy, and Joan.
[CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Betty: The most old-school of the group, Betty Francis (ex Draper) was, at the beginning of the show, a happy housewife — of sorts, at least — putting up with her husband’s philandering ways and enjoying the benefits of his financial success. But throughout the series, there were hints that Betty was wrestling with a degree of dissatisfaction in that role. She was, it seems, the embodiment of Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” And although she did, in the final season, decide to go back to school and get a degree, the death of Betty represents the death of the kind of traditional female role she lead, which was, for many years, the only role most women were offered. As a result of Betty Friedan and a raft of women, the 70s finally saw the death of the “feminine mystique,” and if anyone embodied that mystique, it was Betty.
Peggy: A bit younger than Betty, Peggy always had her mind on her career and her career on her mind, which was a rarity for women when she started. In her progress up the corporate ladder she was continuously battling sexism, whether having her ideas belittled or outright stolen, or, more recently, being mistaken for a secretary and not even having an office at the new company. We’ve seen Peggy through a number of romances, but these were always just the B plots to a life that was all about being a financially independent woman, and making it in a man’s world. In the end, she gets a man, yes, but it’s clearly not for financial stability (her suiter is lower in rank than she is at the company), but purely for love. Will they get married? Who knows. Peggy needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, but she needs a career like a fish needs water. Her wrap-up embodies the goals of 70s feminism.
Joan: The female bombshell of the series, whose body seems to make men’s eyes pop out like a wolf in a Warner Brothers cartoon, Joan was also very career-minded. Like Peggy, she, too, rose up the corporate ladder, but paused to get married and have a baby. And, like Peggy, she was constantly battling sexism, especially in the form of sexual harassment in the workplace (which mouse-y Peggy seemed to largely have escaped). Nevertheless, Joan had no intention of playing down her feminine assets (although that’s just what feminists of the time might have recommended); and when it turned out that this was simply not compatible with the boy’s club mentality of the corporate world at the time, she walked away from it all. In the end, she gave up a promising romance to start up her own business, becoming the “strong, independent” woman that the feminism of the 70s idealized, but on her own terms. Coupled with the cool million dollars she pocketed and a guaranteed large inheritance for her kid, Joan didn’t need to depend on a man, and she didn’t need to work. And yet she chose having a career over having a man, bringing home the message that for many women, as for many men, work is more than just a paycheck: just like Coca Cola, it satisfies.