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'Mad Men' and the real women behind them

  • Story Highlights
  • There are 7 women on the 9-member writing staff of TV show "Mad Men"
  • Some dramatic show moments written from writers' experiences
  • Producer: Women shock male writers by revealing how female minds work
By Rachel Bertsche
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Oprah

(OPRAH.com) -- Men may rule the roost in AMC's hit drama "Mad Men," but behind the guys are a group of women whose lives shape the award-winning story.

Actors Jon Hamm, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery and Elisabeth Moss at a  2008 event.

Writers from the TV show "Man Men" pick up awards at the Writers Guild ceremony in February.

A young woman sits in a bustling office, wringing her hands as she waits to confront her boss. Nerves palpable, she is readying herself to demand four walls in a company where all the women sit at open desks.

"I need my own office," she says when she gets 30 seconds of face time. "It's hard to do business and be credible when I'm sharing with a Xerox machine. Freddy Rumsen's office has been vacant for some time. I think I should have it."

"It's yours," her boss says matter-of-factly.

"Really?"

"You young women are very aggressive."

"Oh," she recoils a bit. "I didn't mean to be impolite."

"No, it's cute. There are 30 men out there who didn't have the balls to ask me."

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So goes a typical scene in "Mad Men," AMC's Emmy-winning mega-buzz drama about the inner workings at 1960s ad agency Sterling Cooper, which just began its third season.

The exchange, from last season's penultimate episode, is between Peggy Olsen, an up-and-coming copywriter struggling to get ahead in a man's world, and Roger Sterling, a partner at the firm.

True, the interaction is dated. You won't hear that kind of dialogue in today's workplace -- not unless the boss wants a lawsuit -- but Robin Veith, "Mad Men's" executive story editor, would argue it's less a product of the decade than viewers might think.

"The truth is that a lot of these moments that seem period and horrible for women come directly from experiences that I and the other women writers have had in our lifetimes," says Veith, one of seven female writers on the show's nine-person writing team.

"Like the [first season] episode 'Ladies Room' where Peggy goes into the bathroom and there are women crying. That came from [consulting producer] Maria Jacquemetton's life experience."

That's not the only office drama Jacquemetton says she's seen firsthand.

"Peggy assumed that Paul Kinsey in Season One wanted to talk to her and valued her opinion, and it turned out he really just wanted to date her. That's something that has certainly happened to several women on the staff, including myself, in our early days out [in Hollywood]," she says.

"Men like women, and women want to be valued for more than just being attractive, and sometimes those things intersect. That's certainly not something that's decade-specific." Oprah.com: How to speak up to get what you want

What is time-specific, Veith says, is the way the ulterior motives are communicated.

"There's more decorum about it now," she says. "People have trained themselves to hide it better. I've worked in many offices, and that stuff still goes on. It's just not as blatant, and women have learned to draw lines a little more strongly."

Both writers are quick to point out that while gender biases still exist in the workplace, they don't exist in their workplace. In the "Mad Men" writers' room, a great idea is a great idea, they say, no matter who came up with it.

"We have a predominately female writing staff -- women from their early 20s to their 50s -- and plenty of female department heads and directors," Jacquemetton says. "[Show creator] Matt Weiner and [executive producer] Scott Hornbacher hire people they believe in, based on their talent and their experience. 'Can you capture this world? Can you bring great storytelling?'"

Much of that storytelling revolves around the three main female characters: Betty Draper (wife of main character Don Draper), an unhappy suburban housewife who's just learned she's pregnant; Joan Holloway, the sultry Sterling Cooper office manager who's always dreamed of a husband and white picket fence but is suddenly having second thoughts; and Peggy, the would-be careerwoman quietly climbing the agency's ladder. Oprah.com: Behind the scenes with January Jones

All three seem to fit nicely into convenient 1960s boxes, but Jacquemetton says the fun is in showing the characters' true complexities.

"Those are labels that we, as society, place on these three women," she says. "But we never talk about the characters in those terms in the writing room. Joan wants certain things, and we'll definitely discuss that she wants to move to the suburbs, she wants love. But they're people; they have different shadings. We don't think of them as, 'Okay, Joan's the sexy bombshell, so her storylines all have to be about using her sexuality to manipulate people.' We start with, 'This is a person who wants this...'"

It's all about staying true to the characters and the time period, Veith says, even when that means adding details that make the writers cringe -- say, putting a cigarette into the hands of an expectant mother.

"We always have to remind ourselves that we can't judge these characters. We try not to protect them," she says. "Women did smoke back then while they were pregnant. They knew it was wrong on some level, but they didn't think it was that wrong. No one's going to chastise another woman for doing it. So while it's horrible for us to watch, it's important for us not to change it, because it happened." Oprah.com: Why a writer should feel like he's over his head

While the "Mad Men" writers try to check gender at the door when they enter the writers' room, both Veith and Jacquemetton recognize that theirs is a highly unusual situation. According to a 2006 report from the Writer's Guild of America, women are under-represented on TV staffs 2 to 1.

"I don't think [having so many women] influences the way the female characters are written, but I think you have a larger pool of experiences to draw from," Jacquemetton says. "If you have a predominantly male staff, it's their point of view of how a woman would react as opposed to the actual experience of being a woman."

"Occasionally, we'll embarrass one of the guys by pulling the curtain back too far, and then they're shocked to see how the female mind operates at the basest level," Veith jokes. "But we sort of delight it in, and that's when we know that we're possibly saying something new."

They claim that, when it comes to the job, being female is secondary. Still, when Jacquemetton mentions her anticipation of the upcoming season debut, you can't help but notice she chooses different words than her male counterpart might. "It's always like birthing a baby when you finally get to the premiere." Oprah.com Books that made a difference to Jon Hamm

From Oprah.com by Rachel Bertsche © 2009

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