Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show

Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show

by Stephanie Newman


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Mad Men has captured the imaginations of millions of viewers, winning fifteen golden globes and four Emmys. Perhaps more than the gorgeously stylized visuals and impeccably re-created history, it's the show's richly drawn characters stumbling through their personal and professional lives that get under our skin and keep us invested.

In Mad Men on the Couch, Dr. Stephanie Newman analyzes the show's primary characters through the lens of modern psychology. Lending her trained professional eye, she poses and expertly answers pressing questions such as:

Why does Don constantly sabotage himself?
Why is Betty such a cold mother and desperately unhappy housewife? (Hint: It's not just because her "people are Nordic.")
Why does Pete prevail in adversity when Roger crumbles?
Why is Peggy able to rise profesionally in the male jungle of Madison Avenue when Joan can't?
Can these characters ever really change?

With critical commentary that is both entertaining and insightful, Mad Men on the Couch will provide viewers with a unique persepctive on the show.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250002983
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/28/2012
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.54(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

DR. STEPHANIE NEWMAN is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst with over fifteen years' experience providing insight-oriented talk therapy for those with anxiety, depression, and relationship, health, and workplace difficulties. She is a co-editor of Money Talks and a regular contributor to the online edition of Psychology Today. Dr. Newman is a faculty member at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education, affiliated with the School of Medicine, NYU, and teaches candidates in the Institute's analytic training program.

Read an Excerpt

Mad Men on the Couch

Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show

By Stephanie Newman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Dr. Stephanie Newman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01443-6


Meet the Mad Men and Women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce

Things are looking up for the men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) in 1964. Don has managed to extricate himself from an unhappy marriage and has made a fresh start with Megan, his gorgeous secretary. The admen have freed themselves from the British agency that had taken over their company. And Joan and Peggy have each been promoted. But, as always, appearances do not tell the whole story.

Sure, the office and the people within it look great. The new agency's sleek lines and design are in the style of Mies van der Rohe, and evoke an open atmosphere. But while the ever-so-modern glass partitions may be transparent, the characters within remain closed off, their relationships complex and opaque. Don's true identity; Roger's most recent dalliance with the firm's office manager, Joan, and her resulting pregnancy; as well as Peggy's history with Pete and the birth of their child all remain closely guarded secrets. Don's office romps with Faye, Megan, and others are also kept secret — until he can no longer conceal them.

And while the fledgling firm gives the appearance of prosperity — with 1960s op art and abstract prints adorning the walls, a C. Jeré sculpture in the entranceway, and Danish modern furniture at every turn — what lies within the modern, stylized rooms is pure turmoil: Lucky Strike, which generates the lion's share of revenue for the partnership, has announced that the agency's services will no longer be needed. Glo-Coat Floor Wax defects soon after, despite the shiny Clio Don was awarded for his work on their campaign. After this one-two punch, SCDP's finances become so precarious, it is unclear whether the agency will survive.

With business so tough, the stakes are financially, professionally, and personally high for the agency's employees. They have all bet big on the firm's success — and on one another — leaving the stability of Sterling Cooper for this fledgling agency. Peggy thrives at the office; the workplace provides a major source of gratification for her. Pete bets big on his partner; he loses a $4 million government contract, a huge portion of the business he has brought in, to protect Don from a routine background check (Season 4, Episode 10, "Hands and Knees"). And Don needs SCDP to survive, perhaps more than the others. The agency is his home, professionally and psychologically. At least three of Don's partners (Roger, Bert, and Pete) know that Don has a secret past — and they accept him despite his deception.

Without the agency, Don might have fewer opportunities for employment. He is hiding a fake identity, after all, and not every agency would let that slide. He needs this job; without colleagues like Roger and Peggy to look over his shoulder, and a home to go to at the end of the day, he might fall apart. In psychological terms, Don is someone who desperately needs outside supports like rules, conventions, deadlines, and tough-love confrontations to function. His life becomes especially difficult after his wife, Betty, insists on a divorce and quickly remarries, for example. At his nadir, Don's solace is whiskey, his companions outside the office mostly waitresses and prostitutes, and his life nearly spirals out of control. Just what would happen to Don without a professional setting on which to hang his hat and define his place in the world?


Tall, dark, and handsome, stoic and macho — Don is a silver-tongued image-maker who is himself a creation, having stolen the identity of the real Don Draper, a soldier who died serving in Korea. Like the Marlboro Man, the iconic brainchild of admen, the "new" Don exudes confidence, self-assurance, and masculine strength. But for him and the cigarette icon, the machismo is merely a veneer; what lies beneath is darker and more complicated. The actor who played the Marlboro Man is ultimately killed by the very product he hawks, and serves as a cautionary tale and a metaphor for Don's life. Draper and his colleagues suffer under the brutal pace and nature of the advertising game — a ruthless pressure cooker that threatens to destroy those who earn their living making images. Duck and Freddy develop crushing alcoholism. Roger has two heart attacks at the office.

Though Don seems to thrive under work pressures when we first meet him, he begins to fold as his unhappy home environment and secret past close in on him. As his true identity and extramarital affairs become known to his wife, cracks begin to show in Don's refined and competent veneer.


A classic beauty from a privileged background, Betty receives a top-of-the-line education and goes on to marry a rising and talented adman, Don Draper, with whom she lives in a picture-perfect house in a wealthy Westchester community. But her glamorous veneer unravels in tandem with her husband's emotional struggles. Soon after Don and Betty set up their beautiful home with their 2.2 children, we see the Drapers begin to grow apart. Don buries himself in his work, seems unable to give much emotionally or communicate with his wife, and has many lovers. Betty fantasizes about cheating with an air-conditioning salesman but remains loyal to Don, though she ultimately does have a one-night stand and an emotional affair with Henry Francis, the man she will marry a short time after the Drapers divorce. Though Betty has all the trappings of wealth and privilege, she has become increasingly desperate and lonely throughout the series thus far.

Being married to a man like Don Draper might explain some of Betty's emotional difficulties, but fans of the show are frequently puzzled by the way in which she grows angrier and angrier, even after her marriage to Don has ended. Some participants in a recent online vote on a popular Web site have even urged Matthew Weiner to kill off her character entirely. Why is she so reviled? Is she merely the angry, rejecting woman fans love to vilify? Like all the others on the show, Betty is more complicated. Her actions are in large part a result of living during an era in which women had few choices, while her psychology reflects her family of origin. We learn, in fact, that what has prevailed is a "like daughter, like mother" scenario; when Betty was a child, her own mother was very much like her, if not worse.


Peggy, buoyed by her ambition, refuses to be stymied by convention or traditional gender roles. Single-minded in her pursuit of a career, she gets ahead at work and breaks free of traditional male-female boundaries in ways other woman of her time, like Betty and Joan, do not.

Traditional sex roles held that women were subservient and complementary to men — they served as "looking-glasses" for them, as Virginia Woolf famously decried in A Room of One's Own. Women were not supposed to compete with or challenge men by taking away jobs and entering the workforce. Sociologist Helena Lopata noted in Occupation: Housewife in 1971: "Women [were] expected to move from birth and home-centered childhood into school attendance for a time sufficient to find a husband, but not so long as to waste valuable youth on knowledge used only for a short time. The next appropriate stages [were] work ... [marriage], giving birth to a limited number of children, rearing children, caring for the retired husband, widowhood, and death."

It was not easy to stray from the social script. Though Peggy refuses to adhere to the rigid constraints of the era, she risks being stigmatized by her refusal to marry or devote her primary energies to the care of men and children.


Pete sleeps with Peggy the night before his wedding but marries Trudy, a woman from a social-climbing, wealthy family. Pete's family connections and his wife's father's money allow him to live on Park Avenue, though his salary is just seventy-five dollars per week. And while Pete may have the right address, his ethics are less than sterling — at least at first. In his home life he is selfish and disloyal. He urges his reluctant wife to compromise her ethics and induce a former flame to publish one of Pete's short stories in a national magazine. He cheats on her multiple times.

At work Pete is also cutthroat and devious. He takes a confidential report out of Don's trash and shares the results with a client in the first of many attempts to go head-to-head with Don at the agency. And though Pete strives to be one of the gang, he does not seem to fit in. He tries to befriend Don, but to no avail. Though his manner is initially off-putting (Don wants to fire him for attempting to break the chain of command but cannot because of Pete's name and connections), Pete ultimately finds a place for himself and learns how to blend in. He and Don forge an alliance that works, as long as Pete does not challenge his authority.

While Pete may be one of the boys when it comes to his devaluing attitudes toward women, he ultimately undergoes a bit of personal development that allows him to break from the group and move ahead of them in his attitudes. We see him become a father and get closer to Trudy. These relationships seem to help mature him and allow him to develop more of an awareness of the needs of others. Likewise, Pete distinguishes himself from the others in terms of his professional standing within the agency.


Roger is cocky, full of bravado, and an elitist. He laughs his way through serious situations, quipping about Miss Blankenship, "She died like she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for" (Season 4, Episode 9, "The Beautiful Girls") and announcing, "I've got to go learn a bunch of people's names before I fire them" when the agency is ailing (Season 4, Episode 12, "Blowing Smoke"). He laughs at the world, and eats and drinks whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. But Roger's bravado is a cover-up for his fear — of aging, of his own limitations, and of his frail health.

Like Pete, Roger is well-heeled, the son of prominent family. But though they are of similar background, they demonstrate differences in their strength of character and levels of resiliency. Roger is fragile and fails to be assertive in the face of adversity, while Pete shows himself to be of much tougher psychological stock — at least for the time being. After Pete fires his biggest client in order to protect Don, he girds his loins and successfully defends himself from Roger's attack at the partners' meeting (Season 4, Episode 10, "Hands and Knees").

Now consider Roger. When he is told by Lee Garner Jr., the heir to Lucky Strike cigarettes, that after a twenty-five year relationship, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's services are no longer needed, he makes a sole, emasculated attempt to challenge the decision. Lee tells him that the board's decision is final, and Roger backs off immediately. He conceals this bad news from the partners for weeks, and when they are tipped off by a rival, Roger feigns ignorance. He further deceives them when they insist he call Lee to demand a meeting — which he does, finger pressed down on the dial tone. It is in this moment that we see Roger at his most craven and least resilient. He clearly fears the humiliation further rejection would confer; he does not enjoy feeling powerless and needing anything from anyone else, and he would rather lie to his partners than feel weak or in need with a client (Season 4, Episode 11, "Chinese Wall").


Joan, the office manager, is a smart and organized woman who is always graceful under pressure — and who is, above all, a survivor. She rises up through the ranks of the secretaries to a supervisory position and is clearly running things at the agency, having earned the respect of the partners for her broad skills. Whenever there is a mess, it is Joan who is called in to clean it up (Season 4, Episode 9, "The Beautiful Girls.")

The capable woman who carries a gold pen around her neck also has a sexual side. Joan struts around the agency in stylish, curve-hugging outfits, and does not mind when all eyes are on her physical assets. She is comfortable with her sex appeal and the power it confers. In the series premiere, Joan unabashedly instructs Peggy: "Go home, take a paper bag, and cut some eye holes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are" (Season 1, Episode 1, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes").

Joan's two selves allow her to navigate the difficult and sexist work environment of the early 1960s. In Joan's world, using sexuality is a woman's only way to get ahead. Though she displays an aptitude for the more substantive — and less secretarial — work of reading scripts and finding television advertising opportunities for the agency, she is demoted as soon as a male replacement appears (Season 2, Episode 8, "A Night to Remember"). When Joan is finally promoted, it is only to a glorified administrative position, director of agency operations (Season 4, Episode 13, "Tomorrowland"). Like the professional she is, Joan dusts herself off and heads back to run the secretarial pool each time she is devalued by her male bosses.


How can we understand these characters, their behaviors, and their psychologies? Psychoanalytic psychology offers the best and most comprehensive approach to understanding human beings and their relationships.

What is psychoanalytic psychology? It is in everyone you see and it is everywhere you look. It is in your spouse's road rage, your coworker's tendency to trip herself up time after time, and a mother's unwitting power struggles with her two-year-old.

When people think about psychology or psychiatry, most think about depression or anxiety, which are common ailments. But in order to truly capture the essence of another human being, it is equally important — and endlessly more fascinating — to consider more than just symptoms and current emotional state. To truly understand another, one must look deeply into his or her psychological makeup; meaning traits or manifestations of personality that stick over time — as opposed to transient moods that can and do change, sometimes quickly and unpredictably. In other words, someone who mopes around and is viewed by family and friends as a "Debbie downer," would be viewed by psychoanalysts as a depressive personality. In addition to noticing that she feels sad, they would recognize her tendency to engage in the lifelong pattern of taking rejection hard, pushing people away, and seeing the glass as "half empty."

If the terms depression and anxiety refer to someone's current state, those in the field of psychoanalytic psychology concern themselves not just with this, but with understanding that which remains fixed and constant over time: character traits. These are so often responsible for the paradoxes in and the patterns of behavior we notice in our family members, friends, and coworkers.

Who are Don, Pete, Roger, Peggy, Joan, and the rest of the gang at SCDP? They are more than just characters on a popular TV show when viewed through the lens of analytic psychology, the study of people and personality, of personal foibles, patterns of relatedness, and internal dilemmas. Through this lens they become examples of different personality types. They offer an opportunity to expound upon analytic principles and ideas.

Mad Men on the Couch will view Don, Betty, Roger, and the rest of the show's residents through the lens of a psychoanalytic perspective, attempting to shed light on their psyches and explain exactly what makes them tick. The analytic approach provides insight into how our collective thinking has changed from the 1960s to the millennium — and how it has not — and offers a view into the zeitgeist of the Mad Men age, the era that shaped who we are today. We can think about how we might confront the challenges faced by the show's characters, and we can wonder: Should we approach things differently today?

In other words, by understanding analytic principles, we can understand not only these characters, but our family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers — and ourselves.


The field of psychoanalysis emerged in the 1880s and '90s in Vienna when Sigmund Freud, Joseph Breuer, and a few other pioneers in this form of treatment discovered that when people said whatever popped into their minds, a process known as free association, they could put into words painful traumas from the past and thus escape being imprisoned by them. Freud famously wrote: "Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences" to describe his discovery that with certain patients, once the unconscious was made conscious, their conditions improved. Freud called this "the talking cure."


Excerpted from Mad Men on the Couch by Stephanie Newman. Copyright © 2012 Dr. Stephanie Newman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xiii

Introduction 1

1 Meet the Mad Men and Women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce 5

2 The Culture of Narcissism 21

3 Working Stiffs 49

4 Sex, Drugs, and Johnnie Walker 69

5 Sexism and Misogyny 87

6 Family and Child Rearing 113

7 Sex, Marriage, and the Politics of Infidelity 139

8 Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Homophobia 159

Afterword 175

Notes 179

Bibliography 195

Index 201

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