'Mad Men' Writer: Show's Female Characters Aren't Thinking About Feminism

'Mad Men' Writer: Show's Female Characters Aren't Thinking About Feminism

10:44am May 17, 2015
Watching Joan (Christina Hendricks, left) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) navigate the sexism of a 1960s ad agency is part of what has kept audiences hooked on Mad Men.
Watching Joan (Christina Hendricks, left) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) navigate the sexism of a 1960s ad agency is part of what has kept audiences hooked on Mad Men.
MIchael Yarish / AMC

Editor's note: This conversation discusses plot points from the seventh season of Mad Men.

The AMC hit Mad Men is a portrait of a country in transition. It takes place in the 1960s in a New York ad agency that's a microcosm of society at the time — a society grappling with racism, homophobia and a lot of sexism. But watching the characters navigate those waters — especially the women — has kept us hooked. Joan (Christina Hendricks), for example, has risen from office manager to partner, while Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has worked her way up from secretary to copy chief. As the show's seventh and last season comes to a close, the ad agency, Sterling Cooper & Partners, is dealing with the fallout of getting purchased by another agency, McCann Erickson.

The series ends (or ended, depending on when you're reading this) Sunday night. Mad Men writer and co-executive producer Semi Chellas joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss the show's complicated female characters.


Interview Highlights

On Joan threatening to call the ACLU and Betty Friedan after she's sexually harassed and offered only a portion of her post-purchase payout

I think she's using feminism. I think she's using what's in the news around her and ... the water she's swimming in to get her money. And she walks out with 50 cents on the dollar, so I find it heartbreaking. As fun as that ra-ra moment is, I'm left — I'm left sad.

On whether they considered an ending in which Joan triumphed

It was something that I think the show took very seriously — was not to be a platform, not to be didactic, but to always live in those characters. And the truth is Joan was never going to walk out of there with all her money. She doesn't really scare Jim Hobart [head of McCann Erickson]. As he says, you know, he says, "Do you know how much advertising we have in The New York Times every year?" He's not afraid of the media, or he's not as afraid as she thinks he might be.

On Peggy and Joan's relationship

One of my favorite moments in Mad Men ... it was before I was on the show, but [it's] when [Creative Director Don Draper] announces that he'll be marrying Megan, who at the time was his secretary. And Peggy and Joan have a cigarette in their office and their [indignation] is so great that they can barely speak.

But they don't have a lot in common besides being women and being ambitious and working at the same place. They're from very different backgrounds. They see themselves very differently. I don't think that they compete. But I think that, you know, part of what we see is that a woman's movement is not necessarily born out of shared femininity or shared femaleness.

On whether the show's female characters are thinking about feminism

When Joan first arrives at McCann, some female copywriters come in and sort of try to befriend her and recruit her and she sees right through them and says, "You're in here to get in my business." ... And so, you know, I think these women, these characters, are not thinking about feminism, they're not thinking about a movement or changing the world. They're very much in their own lives. But, you know, out of the aggregate of women doing that and making those changes and wanting a little more, something greater than all of them I think was born into the culture.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tonight, we find out Don Draper's fate, or maybe we don't. Who knows what the creators of "Mad Men" have in mind for the season finale? To help us prepare for the end of the "Mad Men" era, we took a look back at the show with Semi Chellas. She's co-executive producer. And I asked her about a recent episode she cowrote. Here's the back story to that episode. Joan used to be an office manager. Now she's a bigwig in the advertising firm. She's getting sexually harassed by a colleague. When she tells her boss, he tells her to suck it up. And then Joan threatens to sue. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

H. RICHARD GREENE: (As Jim Hobart) You want to threaten us? You'll be all alone.

CHRISTINA HENDRICKS: (As Joan Harris) No. I think the second I file a complaint, I'll have the ACLU in my office and Betty Friedan in the lobby with half the women who marched down Fifth Avenue. I guess you didn't see the headlines about what happened at Ladies' Home Journal or Newsweek.

SEMI CHELLAS: I think she's using feminism. I think she's using the what's-in-the-news around her and the water she's swimming in to get her money. And she walks out with 50 cents on the dollar. So I find it heartbreaking, as well as, you know, as fun is that ra-ra moment is, I'm left sad.

MARTIN: But did it have to be thus? I mean, did you ever play around with a scenario where she did walk out of there with all of her cash, where she did get to triumph?

CHELLAS: You know, it was something that I think the show took very seriously was not to be a platform, not to be didactic, but to always live in those characters. And the truth is Joan was never going to walk out of there with all her money.

MARTIN: You know, another thing that always struck with me was the relationship that Joan and Peggy have. They both started at the bottom of the ladder. And they have climbed as far as that ladder will let them in some ways.

CHELLAS: They don't have a lot in common besides being women and being ambitious and working in the same place. They are from very different backgrounds. I don't think that they compete, but I think that, you know, part of what we see is that a woman's movement is not necessarily born out of shared femininity or shared femaleness.

MARTIN: Just because they're women in this environment doesn't mean they have to be best friends or allies even.

CHELLAS: Exactly. And I think these characters are not thinking about feminism. They're not thinking about a movement or changing the world. They are very much in their own lives. And - but, you know, out of the aggregate of women doing that and making those changes and wanting a little more, something greater than all of them, I think, was born into the culture.

MARTIN: So speaking of the culture, I mean, this show has latched itself on to our popular culture in amazing ways from style and clothes that of come out of that and you see on the covers of magazines - how have you seen that happen? Is that just fun? It means, oh, cool, you know, we've created something that's transcended just this hour on television. Or is that nostalgia for the period? Are we somehow fetishizing it to a degree that is, perhaps, missing the point of the show?

CHELLAS: No. I mean, I don't think people are missing the point of the show. I think that it's wonderful the chord that it's struck. I think, you know, there has been a delight in seeing people, you know, drinking at work and getting up at midnight to cook a steak for their husband - you know? - and smoking cigarettes and the style and, you know, God knows, the underwear. I think that people really have responded very much to the aesthetics of the show. There is something so deeply connected to reality about the whole way the show is made, the whole way the show is written, and I think it struck a chord.

MARTIN: So I've read that Matthew Weiner, the creator, had a vision of where he wanted the show to end. I mean, is that a burden for you? You've known the ending for - what we talking about - many months?

CHELLAS: I experienced a deep sense of loss in my first week because I was like, oh, now I'm going to know what happens on "Mad Men."

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHELLAS: You know, it's - I know there's sort of a, like, hilarity about the spoiler-free culture of "Mad Men," but it is part of the pleasure of the show. You never know what's coming. And I think every season has been profoundly different in what it grapples with in its themes and even tone sometimes. And it's one of the pleasures of this show. So yes, it was, like, a great loss and a great gain to know what would be coming.

MARTIN: Semi Chellas is co-executive producer of "Mad Men." The series finale airs tonight. Semi, thanks so much for talking with us.

CHELLAS: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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