Interview With Erin Levy, Emmy-Winning Writer for Mad Men on Women, The 60’s and Gender Equality
By Laurie Wheeler on 10/2/2010 | Read more from Laurie Wheeler
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Erin Levy rushes in to Susina on La Brea ten minutes late and orders a chai latte. Her hair is wavy and slightly wet from a shower. She’s donned sandals and a black cotton dress. I ask her cheekily who she’s wearing, and she smiles, exclaiming “Tar-jay! I forgot I parked in the boondocks last night. Miracle Mile, what a nightmare.” Her laugh is deep and throaty. It says a pack-a-day, but lies. Her teeth tell the truth; straight and white, remarkably so. Erin will say she’s gotten a few lucky breaks in her life, but her perfect smile is not one of them. That was earned, laboriously. Epic nightly brushing and flossing sessions, straight-edge rigidity about cigarettes, and a dogged loyalty to her nightly retainer regimen. Her flawless smile was as big as I’ve ever seen it last night, as she stood on stage accepting an Emmy for her writing on Mad Men. “My brother was texting me from the audience as I walked to the stage, and I just kept thinking, ‘Did they really call my name?’” Though it was her first trip up the red carpet, Hollywood is in her DNA. Her father, Lawrence Levy, was nominated for an Emmy for Seinfeld. Still, the Emmy win was a shock. “I was on cloud nine all night,” she recounts, “and when I woke up this morning my first thought was, ‘Wait a minute. I parked on the street cleaning side of the street.’ I ran out in my pajamas with my hair crazy and my Emmy make-up all over my face. Right back to reality.”
“My brother was texting me from the audience as I walked to the stage, and I just kept thinking, ‘Did they really call my name?’”
I lived with Erin at USC. There were five of us, packed into a two bedroom apartment just off sorority row. Talia was studying film, Lisa was in acting, Jackie and I were wandering through psychology majors, and Erin was in the screenwriting program. It was there that she met Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, in the only class he ever taught at USC. Her dramatic, character-driven script stuck out. Erin recounts that it coincidentally had a tone and pacing that translated well to Mad Men. So years later, when he found himself needing a writer’s assistant for season three of Mad Men, Weiner called up Erin. Her title changed from Writer’s Assistant to Writer, and the rest is history.
Weiner and Levy’s professional relationship has recently drawn parallels to that of the characters Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) on the show. Weiner brought Erin up the ranks, recognizing talent in an unlikely place, much like Don did for Peggy, but with a few crucial differences. “I think I got the mentor relationship with Matt that Peggy would love to have with Don. Way less verbally abusive.” She laughs, and then making certain she’s clear, “Not verbally abusive at all. It’s totally my dream job.” She whispers this last part, but it is no secret. Mad Men is a phenomenon. Most screenwriters would saw off their left hand with a felt tip pen for the chance to work on it, let alone win an Emmy for it.
Despite her good fortune, it is difficult to begrudge Erin her success, and impossible not to respect her passion for the work. During the year I lived with her, she would write deep into the night, and recite her character’s dialogue aloud through a heavy lisp, courtesy of the aforementioned retainer. When the rest of us were heading to a frat party, or watching The Bachelor, Erin was sitting down to work. I thought of Erin a few weeks ago while watching an episode of Mad Men in which Peggy strips down to her underwear to call the bluff of a male co-worker who proclaims that he works better naked. That is the same kind of dedication Erin showed when trying to prove herself as a writer. In college, I would wake up and find Erin at her computer, having stayed up the whole night tapping on her keyboard, not always totally clothed.
Winning an Emmy for writing is just slightly more rare than being a female executive at an ad agency in the 60’s was, a-la Peggy. So it’s no surprise that if Erin were to do a Mad Men spin off, Peggy would be the star of her show. (Roger is her close second, though he lends himself better to the canned laughter of sitcoms.) She can relate to Peggy, but when Erin talks about each of the female characters on the show, she seems to have sympathy for them all. “The era we work with on the show is extremely interesting. We get to watch all these different kinds of women navigate the world. We see someone like Peggy, who doesn’t completely fit into any gender stereotypes, trying to move up the ranks at a time when no women did.” Erin’s mentality is much like that of Peggy. She connects with the men on staff through finding common ground, not by differentiating. “The character Joan (Christina Hendricks) adheres to what is expected of her as a woman, using her charm and sexuality for influence and motivation. She is more traditional than Peggy, while still being such a powerful force in that office.” The contrast between Peggy and Joan works so well because of how they each go about their lives. Peggy tries to be like one of the guys and Joan embodies the advice given in season two, ‘Stop trying to be a man in this world. Be a woman in this world.’ Despite the advice, so far things seem to be working out better for Peggy—and for Erin.
When I ask Erin if the writers dislike Betty Draper, the spoiled ex-beauty queen/housewife, as much as the average audience member does, she laughs. “Betty is one of those characters that you can’t ever quite forgive because of how she treats the children. Personally, I see Betty as a victim of the times. She’s trying to be a certain type of person, the kind of person she thinks she is supposed to be, but doesn’t recognize that she actually doesn’t want to be that.” Betty accepts the financial and cultural accolades of the trophy wife, while displaying very little interest in the emotional well-being of her family. As her ennui dominates the household more and more, it seems that “the problem that has no name” does in fact have a name, and it’s Betty. “The depth of the women of Mad Men and the number of changes women face today allow the female audience to relate.” I can understand this, but I find that the distinct differences of their era from our own allow separation. We glimpse ourselves in the secret desires of these women, and then distance ourselves from their archaic roles when things get a little too real, too like us. It’s good TV.
The psyches of the men get equal screen time on Mad Men. The show’s main character, Don Draper, embodies the traditional male archetype, complete with philandering, cut-throat business acumen, and an inability to talk about his feelings. Draper is basically bottled testosterone. The other men on the program are trying to keep pace with Draper’s enigmatic masculinity, and all the women are trying to understand him. So what makes this strong male character so appealing to both genders? Erin thinks it’s his softer side. “While at times Don can be very harsh, his character is written so that people always understand where he’s coming from. They have sympathy for him. And in those moments of honesty, where he does something tender, we can see that he cares about people, and you see that he isn’t bad. There’s a lot of good in him, and I think women look at a character like Don and want to find good in him at all times. He’s troubled and misunderstood. That can be very appealing.”
“Writing in a room like that is like group therapy, and you know what? We’re all there because we need it!”
Despite the patriarchal content of the show, Mad Men’s writing room is anything but macho. Weiner has created an egalitarian environment for his creatives, quite the contrary to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the advertising agency Mad Men centers around. When prompted about what it’s like to be a woman working on Mad Men, Erin pauses, “It’s hard for me to think of anything to say about that. I can tell you how it feels to be a writer working on Mad Men, amazing, but I really don’t feel my gender at work at all.” One reason for this could be that the majority of the writers are women, very unusual by Hollywood standards. When a conflict arises in the writing room, it is generally about the merits of a storyline or character trait. There’s little debate over the importance of the gender or sexism in the plot. “No one has ever said, ‘No I don’t want to do that story. It’s too feminist.’ We go right for those story lines.” Of course, the women working on Mad Men—Levy included—have their fair share of gender-related grievances from other jobs and relationships, and much of the content from the show comes from the real life experiences of the writers. Erin says, “Writing in a room like that is like group therapy, and you know what? We’re all there because we need it!” The fact that the staff’s personal experiences translate easily to a show about the 60’s paints a less than rosy picture of how far we’ve come. Still, on the set of Mad Men, gender equity seems to be the norm. Erin relates, “I’ve been lucky to work with men who respect women for their talent, and hire them. I know that is not everyone’s experience.”
Although Mad Men puts the 60’s war of the sexes under the microscope, the shows popularity has had some unanticipated and less than evolved consequences. Some men have started latching on to the gender roles depicted on the show. Terms like retrosexual and menaissance have been coined as Mad Men has risen to prominence. When I ask Erin about the sexist attitudes the show might be inadvertently rekindling, she is quick with a response. “The times were sexist. The show is not. I know this because of how sympathetic the audience is to the female characters, towards Peggy and Joan, and maybe slightly fewer towards Betty (laughs). The audience identifies with them when they are forced to be what they don’t want to be, when they are constricted by the rules of the world they are living in. It’s amazing how many things happen to them that the show just brushes past. I think it’s a really interesting commentary on the way women’s lives were then. These major events occur, Joan getting raped by her husband, for example. We watch Joan, this strong female character, in a position of helplessness. We witness this very intense, horrible moment, and then we watch her move on, because she has to, and we don’t really revisit that. But you are with her in that moment. You’re on her side. That’s how I know the show is not sexist. The audience is rooting for those women, and watching what they had to go through to get us where we are today.” That is the magic of Mad Men. It allows us to examine how things were then, through our politically correct lenses.
Women did have influence in one field during the sixties, that of research psychology (think Anna Freud), and this is highlighted in the current season with the introduction of Dr. Faye Miller. Pitting the notoriously stoic Draper against a professional female shrink with a talent for getting people to talk represents the changing male-female relationship and the tense, gray area that began to emerge between the sexes during that era. By showing focus groups of twenty-something women, the show begins to address the growing buying power of the American woman. Erin explains, “The secretaries shift from inconsequential to potential customers. We witness them expressing their needs and wants for the first time.” Most of these desires still revolve around getting a husband and having children, but it is a start.
With some women pulling ahead professionally and personally on the show, inter-gender tension is created as well. (Watch the scene from 1:10-3:20 in the video above) This is something that Erin can relate to. “I think women need to be more aware of looking out for other women. Sometimes in the workplace you’ll see women competing against each other, instead of working as allies. I think we need to move out of that mentality and into one where we are working together more. We should be working towards advancing together, not trying to knock the other one down. There isn’t only room for one woman anymore. There is room for all of us at the top.”
A couple of weeks after the New York Times blew the American twenty-something out of the water, this is nice to hear. It’s nice to see one of our own finding success on such a grand scale. The last thing I asked Erin was what advice she has for writing interesting characters. Her advice, “Enter the psyche of the character. Think about how they move, how they talk, figure out how they breathe and what they eat. I have to relate to the women of that time in order to write them. I guess that is one thing I’ve learned as a female writer on Mad Men. Through studying these characters I’ve learned a little about what it was like to be limited by your circumstance of your time, and I’ve learned how lucky I am to be a woman living today.“ So, to sum up Erin’s advice, if you want to understand the female characters of Mad Men a little better, walk a mile in their pumps, slingbacks, or Mary Janes.
All photos by Laurie Wheeler except Erin Levy with Emmy Award (courtesy Erin Levy).
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