‘Mad Men’ Women and Their Secret Power

Mad Men

It is inarguable that AMC’s drama Mad Men is largely based around secrets. Secret pasts. Secret lovers. Secret habits.  Secret children. Secret deals. Secret agendas. Secret desires. Everyone on the show, at one time or another, seems to have something they are hiding. It is how the show builds its tension and elevates its appeal. In an office setting, in general, people’s private lives are not often on display and feelings are normally held close to the vest. The main floor of the Mad Men ad agency, SC&P, is not very different, and the women of the show may be keeping the best secrets of them all.

Secrets are powerful. Keeping a secret is powerful. Sharing a secret is powerful. Revealing a secret could be fatal (Don in the Hershey’s meeting) or life-saving (Don showing his children the brothel where he grew up.) However, it may be without contest that the worse kind of secret is one that was never supposed to be uncovered, one that an innocent bystander walks right into the middle of. Secretly knowing someone else’s secret is a dreadful burden. Such is the case with Sally Draper. Sally accidentally catching her dad “helping Sylvia grieve” is not an occurrence she can eye-roll away. This moment catapults the adolescent into insurmountable amounts of secret shame and secret guilt. Keeping her father’s secret, or not, is bound to shape her into the woman she will become.

Beyond Sally’s obvious dilemma, shimmers of her secret hope that she can trust her father momentarily shine through. When Sally ditches her friend’s mother’s funeral and loses her purse, she runs to her father to come to her aid. Perhaps it is because she thinks he owes her one, because she sees herself in him, or because he is the one she really wants to rescue her. She needs him to repair the damage. All of it. But what does Daddy do instead? After trying to lie about why he was not at the office and raising his voice, Don dumps another secret into Sally’s lap. He tells her the truth, confiding in her about why he is not going to the office any longer. Sally is the first person within Don’s personal life he is honest with regarding his career. With maturity beyond her years, maturity built upon by knowing what it is like to harbor secrets, Sally listens to her father and is surprisingly empathetic.

Betty. Betty, Betty, Betty. Betty’s best kept secret is that she is her own worse enemy. Her character has so many opportunities to redeem herself, but she screws it up. She indulges in her hatred, of herself most likely, and she ends up taking it out on her children, her spouse, her ex-husband, or her friends. It is almost as if her popularity has nine lives. One minute she is lovely and likable, and the next minute she is Mommie Dearest. Beyond Betty’s string of casual trysts, her private disposition, and her close-lipped persona, perhaps her best secret is her true nature, kept under a tight lid. The lid is kept so tight, that viewers are hard-pressed to acknowledge which of Betty’s interior selves are the real thing: the heart-broken child, the unassuming sex kitten, the spoiled teenager, or the devoted wife and mother.

Joan is another wily one. Although she plays the part of having nothing to hide, the woman is teeming with secret agendas. Her detached nature gives her an advantage, most of the time, of no one being able to manipulate her. Punctual, tidy, impeccably put together, Joan gives off the impression that she plays clean. But it is a gimmick. Sometimes the look on her face says she wants all of their heads, but she never reveals it in the board room. She keeps it cool, she does not flinch, and when the fruit is ripe, she pounces, meticulously.

Megan’s secrets are seemingly harmless. Although the character often stomps her tortured soul around on screen, begging for relevance from a man who has given her a false sense of reality, she is not really hiding anything. At the moment, she has a secret day-to-day, living in the canyons of Los Angeles, and at one point in time she held a secret desire to become an actress, but at this stage, Megan has revealed her secret of wanting to become a verifiable actress. Along with it, the desperate lengths she takes to get there are no secret either. Megan more or less plays her character like an open book. She is modern and moving forward. It is not to get away from her past–there is nothing haunting her there, that viewers know of–it is because, void of Don, Megan can be clear-headed and able to capitalize on her potential. With Don, Megan’s obvious weakness, she loses focus. Megan’s secret is that she knows Don is her downfall, even if she cannot admit it to herself in a healthy way.

Peggy. Poor Peggy. Peggy’s big umbrella secret is that she wishes her secret life was more dramatic, but it fails to ever really spring to fruition. Peggy has plenty of secrets–her secret child with Pete, her secret love affair with Ted, stabbing her ex-boyfriend in the gut with a switch blade duct-taped to a broom–but they all fail to catapult her life in any one direction. She stays the same. Although Peggy has had a lot of successes, and her career has upward momentum, she kind of always settles back down into her static position, which is continually having to prove herself and stand her ground while surrounded by a bunch of men who barely give her work, or her efforts, notice. Although Peggy’s attempts for a secret life fall flat, she has a resiliency that is both unique and inspiring.

Arguably, the best kept secret of the women of Mad Men may be that they are not as corrupted by their secrets as their male counterparts. Both Peggy and Joan are able to hold their head high and leave the past in the past. They take the career opportunities that were afforded them and do not let grief or shame get in their way. Megan dives into her secret life with energy and enthusiasm for her future. She uses her successes and dreams as a motivational tool in her marriage to try to wake Don up and make him notice her. Megan’s secret desire of lifelong romance with her husband is her driving force. Although Betty is riddled with some sort of grief or guilt in her private life, viewers have been able to witness the demur character turn on a dime and enchant the pants off of any suitor who may be walking by–not necessarily a secret trait of Betty’s, but definitely a secret guilty pleasure. Sally, unfortunately, is the female in the show who is most burdened by her secret. By the end of Mad Men’s final season, viewers will hopefully get to see how holding onto this secret, or not, will play out for Sally and the others attached to its power.

Opinoin by Stacy Feder

Los Angeles Times
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