A lot has happened since 2010 when we got to witness Sally Draper’s temper tantrum as a little girl, and feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte made the astute observation that Sally Draper was a feminist hero. That tantrum was our first glimpse into what would later become Sally’s numerous instances of resistance against a broken old world order. She has internalized every dysfunction of her parents and her culture and rejects it. It symbolized the great uprising of women and people of color that would follow; Civil Rights marches and Gloria Steinem would be the epic “tantrums” at large that would reshape the country forever. Four years later in our current TV time, Marcotte predicted correctly.
As an avid superfan of “Mad Men” from the get-go, it’s fun to realize that I have been growing up with Sally now for almost her entire life-span: childhood, puberty, now young womanhood. But from the end of last season up to now, I have been especially jolted by the writers’ particular and deliberate crafting of Sally’s character as a feminist force. It’s no mistake that she is shaping to be the most feminist character in the series. Joan, Peggy and Megan certainly come close, but Sally truly represents the next generation. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
Sally has been butting heads with the status quo from the very beginning. The rejection of her parents symbolizes the way her generation was starting the social revolution at large. It is no question that her terrible parents (yes, I truly think they suck) represent the landscape at large which the marginalized are fighting against. Don has always consumed and then disposed of women. But Sally won’t allow herself to be disposed of by her father (who represents the patriarchy), and it renders Don stunned. He cannot relate to his daughter in the slightest, because he doesn’t understand her utterly human self; she is not a female he can label.
Don is incapable of viewing women as fully human figures with complex inner lives, but by the same token, he cannot even define his own inner self. He can’t even bring himself to be honest about his “sabbatical” with Megan, nor can he live with her (HIS FREAKING WIFE), mostly because she doesn’t need him anymore. Don doesn’t want women who do not need him. It’s clear Sally doesn’t need anything from her father emotionally, only coming to him as a last resort because she is still financially dependent on her parents. That paused, furrowed brow face that Don has always reacted with is increasingly moving towards a pathetic confused face (you know the face I’m talking about) in front of these women. When Megan tells Don it’s over, he makes the same pained face as he did in the car with Sally. Don cannot compute.
Last week’s episode ended with Sally and Don’s relationship having undergone yet another layer of change since the infamous “walking in on Don screwing Sylvia the neighbor” scene. Sally has indeed recovered, and has separated from her father in a much different way than just a normal teenager acting all moody and hormonal. They haven’t been father and daughter for a long time —maybe ever — and her independence is tangible as she exited his car flatly yelling “I love you” without waiting for his response. Juxtaposed against Betty admitting “I guess I’m old fashioned,” it is clear that Sally, in contrast, represents all that is thoroughly modern. Sally has moved up the ranks emotionally and ideologically the same way that Dawn and Joan have moved up the ranks in the firm. Sally also clearly sees Don for his true self the way many young women were starting to see men in their society: roaming, lying losers interested in using women instead of working alongside them. The girls are all unimpressed.
Along with “Mad Men,” there are many television shows where women are not secondary characters (duh, “Scandal”). Sally Draper on “Mad Men” is special because we see her whole journey. Some men may not realize this, but girls actually come of age, too. We have concerns, woes and passions that don’t have to do with men and children; we are three dimensional humans with complex inner lives JUST LIKE YOU. Only you wouldn’t think it seeing as how many women characters on TV shows seem to just swirl around the men as caricature bit-pieces: “The Mom,” “The Slut,” “The Old Lady,” “The Stewardess,” and even “The Dead Hooker” (this one’s a common favorite). I remember watching TV as a child and thinking, Wait, what is that giant-breasted woman’s life like? What does she wake up thinking about? I couldn’t relate to her, because I woke up had dreams and aspirations just like the male protagonists. What were these living female cut-outs doing when they weren’t serving a man’s purpose? In “Mad Men,” we see the opposite with all of our main female characters. I don’t think it was unintentional that Bobby, Sally’s little brother, has virtually no voice or function except to show how terrible of a mother Betty is. (I could not handle that tragic gum drop scene in Sunday’s episode: “EAT YOUR CANDY!”). The only glimmer of traits we see from Bobby is that scene from last season where he rips off wall paper like an incarcerated psych patient a la “Boy, Interrupted.”
What I took from Sally’s beautiful line “I am so many people” — which has been deeply lodged in me for the last two weeks — was that we are now becoming privy to Sally’s existential ennui. Each and every one of us, man and woman alike, are many people. We are all utterly complex. Finally, TV writers are starting to realize that women are this way, too — on our own and without men. When was the last time you remember ever experiencing a female character on television who has ever made such an existential proclamation? Sally is my Sartre, my Camus, my own Hegelian hero. She’s not even a main character like Peggy or Joan, yet she is the most three dimensional character I’ve ever witnessed on television. She shows the full timeline of a woman, revealing that we aren’t molded in a factory and then stamped with a type, coming out fully-formed as a smiling side piece ready to go flail and prop up the soulfully intense male figure (“True Detective”?).
Sally’s character is our coming of age story. She is the even more badass female Holden Caulfield, the Alexander Portnoy, venturing into Manhattan alone and with purpose, flawed, but full of depth. She is the new generation of woman and the antidote to all of the token half-written “others” who fill up the spaces in between men. Sorry, dudes, but Sally is here to stay.
Katrin Higher is a standup comic in New York City. Follow her on Twitter!