Mad Men, Rad Women: Who Won the Battle of the Sexes?

By Josie Brown

Camelot. The Pill. Women’s Lib. The Sexual Revolution. In the 1960s, the earliest members of what is now known as the Baby Boomer Generation (born between 1946 and 1964) brought a different sensibility to love, lust, relationships and marriage.

For those of us who weren’t there, Mad Men, AMC TV’s hit series (beginning its fifth season on March 25, 2012) which takes place in an imaginary version of one of  New York’s hottest advertising agencies, puts this era in perspective.

Or does it?

One thing is for sure:  Mad Men has caught the retro zeitgeist and the imaginations of its viewers.

During the Kennedy Era, New York’s advertising mecca, Madison Avenue, may have looked sophisticated, but men’s attitudes toward women, both in the office and at home, bordered on the barbaric. This show captures both the agony and the ecstasy of their lives. Take for example:

Don Draper

It is on Don’s broad shoulders that the show is carried, for good reason: tall, dark, handsome and mysterious, Don aspires to be the über Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but his fair sense of play in regard to his clients and the women in his life (his divorced wife, Betty; underling Peggy; former mistresses, including  beatnik Midge, and client, Rachel; to up the his newly bedded and wedded secretary, Megan), keeps getting in the way.

How He’s Down with Love: Throughout the first four seasons, Don thought nothing of having affairs with women who attracted him, physically, mentally, and emotionally–as opposed to his now ex-wife, former model Betty, who is as pretty as a picture…and just as bland. Finally fed up, it was Betty who imploded theCheeverish/Cleaveresque life they’d built together, by running away with a political operative willing to marry her the before the undesirable label of divorcee could ruin her social standing.

Retro, Rat Pack or Radical? Totally rad. (Why else do we watch?) He’s already wised up to the fact that fitting in with the Mad Ave’s buttoned down boy’s club is an emotional dead end. We’ll love it when he can just be himself, with the right woman. And it will pay off in next big wave in advertising: counterculture consumerism. In the battle of the sexes, he’s a winner.

Roger Sterling

The ad agency’s head of account services loves thick steaks, dry martinis and curvy women who aren’t his wife.

How He’s Down with Love: His ideal office break used to be a little behind-closed-office-doors over-the-desk slap-and-tickle with the agency’s office manager, Joan-until he was sidelined with a couple of heart attacks. Having divorced his wife for his secretary,  Joan’s cush tush still represents Nirvana to Roger. She’s held him off–until last season–and is now pregnant with his child.

Retro, Rat Pack, or Radical? Definitely Rat Pack. He’ll always look and touch-that is, as long as women will allow him to do so. Then again, when the psychedelic ’60s hit, he’ll go from Camelot Casanova to dinosaur in a nanosecond. In the battle of the sexes, he’s a loser.

Pete Campbell

A blue-blooded preppy, Pete started out as one of the agency’s young turks, and a consummate conniver who will step on anyone to get ahead: all the way to partner, in fact. That includes his name on the door.

How He’s Down with Love: In his circles, marrying your college sweetheart (in his case, Trudy) is de rigeur–despite his inability (and lack of desire) to understand her needs. Hey, isn’t their Park Avenue apartment enough proof of his virility?

And while he’d like to think of himself as the office Lothario, his one and only conquest-Peggy, Don’s virginal former secretary-was a two-night stand that broke her hymen as well as her heart, and got her pregnant.

Retro, Rat Pack, or Radical? Retro. His kind of behavior is is a caveman throwback, one he’ll never grow from. That his wife will eventually leave him is a given. Whether he’ll ever meet his son is doubtful. Even the sudden death of his father leaves him cold. Unless the birth of his child warms him up, he’s doomed himself to a loveless life in a changing world.

…and Their Rad Women

Betty Draper

This  former model’s self-imposed prison is her ivy-covered doll house in the ‘burbs. Last year she was Bambi in headlights when it came to communicating with her hubby, or reading his moods. In past seasons, she’s turned into an uptight wife and a passive-aggressive mommy dearest. Maybe her shrink’s tattletale stance with Don jaded her toward men…

How She’s Down with Love: Her edginess might have something to do with all the times she sniffed another woman’s perfume on Don’s ring-around-the-collar. Retaliation had Betty  turning brittle-and is flirting with disastrous men–and a new husband, who might just be her knight in shining armor.

Retro, Rat Pack, or Radical?  Retro all the way. In a couple of decades, she’ll be the grandmother you live to avoid: you know, the chain-smoking bitter divorcee, who lives for her three-martini lunch with the girls-and picks apart the Gen Next (and the one after that) for living their lives with the guts she wishes she’d had. In the battle of the sexes, she’s a loser.

Peggy Olson

A virginal hick from the sticks, Peggy learned the hard way what an office romance can cost her-and has the kid to prove it. Her only consolation is her new job as the agency’s first female copywriter. While it’s her badge of courage, it won’t warm her cockles on cold nights.

How She’s Down with Love: For years, she’d flirt, but backed off when it came to putting out. It was her penance for passing off her baby as her married sister’s kid. Last season she opened her mind, heart and legs. She’s looking for love–hopefully in some of the right places.

Retro, Rat Pack, or Radical? Radical. She’s not older, just wiser-and yes, bitter about love. But her character grows in every episode, personally as well as professionally. Eventually she’ll take another chance on a man. As for birth control, soon her whole generation will embrace the mantra: “Where there’s the Pill, there’s a lay…” In the battle of the sexes, she’s a winner.

Joan Holloway

The agency’s office manager is also its queen bee. Men salivate over her sultry attitude (not to mention her bodacious bod). The other women at work fear her, but don’t respect her. That comes with the territory, not with the title.

How She’s Down with Love: She’s married to a doctor, so on paper, it looks as if the gal done good. Besides, she knows Roger will never leave his (now second) wife for her–he can’t afford to!–and that’s okay. The role of mistress is one she doesn’t mind. Why be the cow when you can be the cream?  Besides, if the heel was on the other foot, she’d miss the sex. Will divulging that she kept her baby put the kabosh on their hots? I doubt it. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder…

Retro, Rat Pack, or Radical? Rat Pack. She sees her office liaisons as petite amusements, and she only does them on her terms. (In other words, Paul Kinsey, it ain’t happening…again.) She can be had, but she can’t be bought. In the battle of the sexes, she’s a winner.


Josie Brown is’s Relationships Channel Editor. Her most recent novel, Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives, has been optioned for a television series by producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

More SMW Articles

Are You a Wedding Slut?

Harry Potter: Sex and the Single Wizard

Marriage Over 40: More Boomer Singletons Are Shedding Spinsterhood