Scandal: Why did a "Mad Men" scribe get axed?

Rumors fly that Emmy-winning writer Kater Gordon was sleeping with creator Matt Weiner. Does it really matter?

Published October 12, 2009 8:05PM (EDT)

On Sunday, Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke reported that "Mad Men" writer Kater Gordon has been fired -- three weeks after winning an Emmy for outstanding writing. Gordon began her "Mad Men" career as show creator Matthew Weiner's personal assistant, giving the whole thing Peggy Olson undertones ("There's not one thing that you've done here that I couldn't live without, Kater!") -- not to mention the inevitable David Letterman comparisons -- that make speculation about what really happened darn near irresistible, despite the lack of confirmed information, or even much trustworthy gossip.

What we know so far: The insider who gave Finke the dirt also noted that Weiner is known for giving big opportunities to relatively inexperienced talents, which is "one of the great things about 'Mad Men'" -- but that has a flip side, as a commenter over at "Mad Men" fan blog Basket of Kisses pointed out: "Anyone who wants to look at IMdB for a few minutes will quickly discover that there has been a lot of turnover on the writing staff."

Gawker rounded up some of the most provocative comments from the Deadline Hollywood thread, which include a couple of interesting thoughts. 1) Inexperienced talent is cheap talent; Emmy-winning talent commands a higher price, and Weiner might not be inclined to rearrange the budget accordingly. 2) Weiner is a well-known control freak, and furthermore, according to one commenter, "the lowest of the low in our business. He is a egomaniac [sic] and the likelihood is that he was incensed that he had to share credit and let alone an Emmy with her. A lowly former writer's assistant. As far as he is concerned, he is solely responsible for the success of this show and no other writer, producer, director, actor, key grip have done anything to contribute to the show's success. For Pete's sake, he didn't even let Kater Gordon say a word when they got up on stage. It was her moment as well but Weiner made it ALL about him."

Depressing thought of the day: I actually find it heartening that there's so much speculation, gossip and smack talk surrounding this story that doesn't involve the question of whether Gordon and Weiner ever slept together! It's so refreshing that Weiner's enemies have some less predictable ideas -- and for that matter, that Gordon doesn't appear to have many vocal enemies adding their two cents at all. (Though one commenter who's not a fan of her writing suggested she was fired simply for not having the chops.) However, in the wake of the David Letterman scandal, that question lurks. And Finke quickly updated her post, attempting to nip it in the bud:

A prominent female writer (she asked not to be identified) knows both Kater Gordon and Matthew Weiner and sets the record straight for me: "As a female writer who has worked with many strong showrunners, I have to say that any 'Letterman' talk on today's thread about Kater Gordon really disgusts me. The same kind of talk followed me and my success. So you see, you can't win. If you're young and female, you'll always be suspect. Success or failure, it can't be because you've actually got the goods. I feel compelled to come to both Kater and Matt's defense on this one. Kater was a fantastic writer's assistant, the best. She totally got the show and deserved the break she got. There was NOTHING illicit in her relationship with Matt. I believe Kater will go on to great success, if she so desires, and their parting of the ways was amicable."

Regardless of whether that source is correct about Gordon and Weiner, she's absolutely right that it's disgusting how swiftly some people will leap to the conclusion that any young woman who has a rapid rise to success must have slept with the boss along the way. As Hortense at Jezebel notes, similar speculation is currently haunting Molly McNeary, a co-headwriter on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night talk show. "Kimmel's relationship with McNearney was recently announced, and the 'uh-oh, Letterman!' comparisons began, based solely on the fact that McNearney worked her way up the ranks." Referring to Gordon, Hortense sums up the problem with such assumptions: "Surely, her promotions couldn't be the result of her, you know, talent, right? I mean, that would just be crazy, no?"

I trust I don't need to explain why the presumption that sex was exchanged for promotions is so offensive, especially to a generation that's supposed to see "Mad Men" as a startling reminder of how far we've come as a society. (For that matter, since the show itself attempts to illustrate damaging, not-so-bygone stereotypes without actually reinforcing them, even it hasn't gone there. Secretary turned copywriter Peggy and her boss, Don, have never so much as flirted, even though she's secretly slept with a co-worker, he's a notorious lothario, and some viewers believe the sexual tension between them is palpable. The audience is meant to see how Peggy's talent is consistently undervalued because of her gender, even without any whiff of her sleeping her way to the low middle.) And as Finke's second source makes clear, saying it about one successful woman casts a shadow over all successful women. When the Letterman story broke, I heard from a female friend who, early in her career, worked for a boss known for sleeping with female underlings. She was never one of them, but for years afterward, she was dogged by others' speculation about the "real" reasons for her rise up the ladder. Her former boss may have earned his bad reputation, but every young woman who ever worked for him sure didn't.

Speaking of which, I was discussing this story with friends over e-mail, and a much more obsessive "Mad Men" fan than I immediately recalled being squicked by a bit of DVD commentary on the episode "Six Month Leave," in which Kater Gordon makes a cameo "dressed just this side of Playboy bunny." My friend wrote that the commentary, by Weiner and "some other male production person" was "leering in a way that made me uncomfortable. Like, Weiner says, 'That's Kater,' and the other guy says, 'Really?' and Weiner says sarcastically, "Yeah, I hate coming into work, hahaha.'" And see, there's the thing right there: You say on the record that you view your young, female employees as sex objects (even when they've agreed to dress as precisely that for a scene), and people are going to talk, whether anything happened or not. And whether anything happened or not, it's not the male boss who's going to see any real professional fallout for it, but every woman who's ever worked for him.

In light of that, I'd like to ask the one question I haven't seen come up as a result of this story: So what if they did sleep together? Weiner's wife would have a right to be pissed, and it would suck for Gordon and every other female employee of his for all the reasons above, but it's worth noting that those very reasons are based on yet another sexist assumption: That a woman cannot simultaneously be attractive/attracted to her professional superior and be extremely talented. 

And that, of course, is based in the stereotype that pretty women are stupid and smart women aren't the kind the boss would go after -- a false binary "Mad Men" has been dealing with from Day One. Head secretary Joan is whip-smart but sees her sexuality as a stronger asset in achieving the most she can hope for -- which to her mind, in the context of the era, is being a successful professional's wife. Peggy is professionally ambitious and increasingly exploring her own sexuality, but part of the reason she was able to rise from secretary to copywriter was that she was desexualized by a pregnancy everyone else read as an unfortunate weight gain; Weiner himself has said of that story line, "Part of it was her becoming a guy. She was putting on a suit of armor to protect herself sexually and because of that she could begin operating as a man." (Yes, being pregnant somehow amounted to her "becoming a guy," which raises a whole bunch of other fascinating questions.) Betty, Don's wife, is clearly bright but has never worked as anything but a model and a housewife. One way or another, her primary role as an adult has always been to act as an ideal of beauty and femininity, and the character is increasingly depressed by the gulf between appearances and her internal life. This is exactly why so many women and so many feminists -- including most of us here at Broadsheet -- are tremendous fans of the show: The female characters are constantly shown struggling against the confines of those stereotypical boxes, while too many television programs are content to leave even contemporary female characters trapped inside them.

So the fact that any young woman who rises to success is still frequently assumed to have slept her way there is one marker of just how far we haven't come since the "Mad Men" era. But another is the fact that we so quickly assume any sexual relationship between a woman and her professional superior necessarily involves a quid pro quo. Can't sex and success ever be a coincidence? Can't talent in fact be a part of what might attract two people working in close proximity to each other? As another friend of mine said, even if Gordon and Weiner did have a relationship, sometimes "people sleeping together make really good art (hello, Fleetwood Mac)! Weiner and Gordon wrote fantastic episodes whose merits speak for themselves, so ...?" Exactly. 

It's a shame people automatically assume there must have been a sexual relationship based on zero evidence beyond her youth and gender and his power. But it's equally a shame that any actual relationship would be seen as grounds to deny Gordon's writing talent. I have no idea if Kater Gordon ever slept with Matthew Weiner (which, since it's none of my damned business, works out just fine). But either way, I think it's quite safe to assume that Gordon did not sleep with the entire Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to earn that Emmy. Female sexuality can, in fact, coexist with intelligence, skill and professional ambition. You'd think "Mad Men" fans, of all people, would have caught on to that by now. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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