Mad world

We’re barely into the first third of the latest season of Mad Men, but the show’s power to inspire heated debates on gender politics is already in full effect.

The acclaimed A&E drama about a 1960s-era ad agency is a stylish portrayal of a world on the cusp of revolution—racially, politically, culturally and sexually. Season four, which started in late July, picked up with the show’s main character Don Draper teaming with colleagues to form a new independent ad agency after a British company took over his original company, Sterling Cooper.

Although the new season focuses on the trials of starting a new agency, its real drama stems from how it depicts its major female characters.

While the show’s secondary women are interesting—there are mistresses and artists, wealthy widows and business mavens—it’s Mad Men’s main women who draw the most attention from pop-culture pundits.

There’s Betty Draper, Don’s beautiful but repressed and put-upon spouse who, at the close of season three, took the couple’s newborn son and flew to Reno with her new boyfriend to file for divorce. As a mother, Betty is at best confused and overwhelmed and, at worst, cruelly and coolly detached from the couple’s other two children, Sally and Bobby.

There is also Joan Holloway, the office manager and requisite sexpot—a tyranny of curves and bright lipstick and smartly sashaying efficiency. She’s also in a complicated marriage. Her husband, who raped her, is alternately (and queasily) tender and condescending, passive-aggressive and supportive.

Then, of course there is Peggy Olson, the rising ad-agency copywriter forging her career and identity—awkwardly sometimes—by trading her secretarial-pool credentials for an office and the power to speak up to the male colleagues who both patronize and admire her.

But while all these characters are fantastic—they’re archetypes, sure, but also deeply nuanced and complicated—it’s young Sally Draper who most interests me.

Sally, played by the terrific Kiernan Shipka, epitomizes 1960s-era femininity. Born into a decade in which women’s roles were changing—and fast—she’s standing on the divide between expectations and potential. One side of the chasm is her mother who, caught in the throes of her own unhappiness, can’t muster up enough maternal warmth to ease the sting of the Draper divorce.

On the other side of that divide is the rest of the world. Sally doesn’t know it yet, but, unlike her mother, she’ll face a life filled with possibilities and choices—that include college, career and carefully deciding when to get married and have children (if she decides to at all), instead of blindly falling into those roles.

In the most recent episode of Mad Men, which takes place at the dawn of 1965, Don Draper is enamored with a college co-ed who makes bold statements about cultural change and gender roles. She was, I suppose, a nod to post-Feminist Mystique bra burners. But although it’s easy to imagine this young woman (who, it should be noted, neatly ducked Don’s advances) as the paragon of budding countercultural feminism, her character’s broad strokes can’t hold a candle to Sally’s eventual awakening.

Every day, 10-year-old Sally watches women redefine their roles, sometimes clumsily, sometimes painfully. She watches their mistakes and missteps and, I like to imagine, she learns from them.

The young girl will come of age in the 1970s—at the height of an active, very public feminist movement. And while poor Sally Draper, emotionally abandoned by her preoccupied parents, could be facing a lifetime on the therapist’s couch, I prefer to think of her as a future feminist—wary yet forgiving of her parent’s brutal mistakes, but always, always moving forward.