Why "Mad Men" is bad for women

I've championed the show for its smart depiction of sexism -- but as the fourth season approaches, I'm not so sure

Published July 23, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

As a child of the 1950s and '60s who entered the workforce in the still-discriminatory '70s, I have deeply appreciated "Mad Men’s" frank and searing depiction of women’s lives both at home and at work. Created by enormously talented and meticulous artists, "Mad Men" often feels so real and compelling to those of us who lived through those times that watching it sometimes revives painful memories.

But as we approach the start of the fourth season, I fear that I’ve been wrong about its treatment of womanhood. The message that many women, especially those under 40, seem to have taken from the show is not relief or gratitude at what’s changed, nor an understanding of the past, but something quite different: Those fashions are cool! God, Don’s hot! Are you a Joan or a Peggy? Let’s dress up like them, have a "Mad Men" party and drink martinis!

I’m also increasingly disturbed by the striking difference in how men and women are portrayed — all the more curious and distressing since, although it was created by a man (Matthew Weiner), "Mad Men" is notable for the number of women on its creative staff. Even as it depicts rampant sexism, the show sides with the men. The men get off scot-free (if not scotch-free) while the women are subjected to repeated humiliation and misfortune, which is invariably attributed to their own flaws and poor choices.

In the skilled hands of "Mad Men’s" writers, directors and the actor Jon Hamm, Don Draper is a complex and alluring character who continues to win our sympathy despite his frequent affairs, excessive drinking, rough handling of women and outright desertions of his family. His callous treatment of his wife, whose suspicions he dismisses as paranoia, whose desires for connection he spurns, and whose grief at the loss of her mother he deems worthy of psychiatric treatment, is just short of despicable. Don doesn’t merely deceive Betty; he also belittles her, playing mind games to get her to doubt herself rather than him.

And yet Don is the suave hero of the show, enjoying an uncanny creativity, a successful and lucrative career, a succession of beautiful women who fall into his arms, and a wife who initially forgives and embraces him when he spills all his secrets (although she does change her mind not long afterward). As the famous "Saturday Night Live" parody, "Don Draper’s Guide to Women," astutely pointed out, his magnetism — despite the show's historical realism — is a James Bond fantasy. It is only in the penultimate episode of the third season that Don seems in any danger of being penalized for his transgressions.

The other men on the show are equally flawed and yet suffer very little. Roger Sterling is a raging alcoholic who abandons the loyal wife who stands up to him in order to marry a pretty young thing who lies down for him. Personifying the rich boy who is "born on third base and thinks he hit a triple," Roger’s sole talent, for converting Stoli into lewd comments, is portrayed as catnip not just for clients but even put-upon secretaries. While Don’s darkness is used to seduce the viewer, Roger provides comic relief, his open sexism and racism played strictly for laughs. So far Roger’s only punishment has been a couple of heart attacks that not only didn’t slow him down but actually rejuvenated him and drove him into the arms of a sultry young trophy wife.

Another rich boy, Pete Campbell, publicly demeans Peggy on her first day of work, a tactic that mysteriously causes her to sleep with him not long afterward, thus consigning her to a secret pregnancy and hidden torment. Pete thoughtlessly cheats on the wife who obviously loves him, apparently rapes a neighbor’s au pair, breezes through his days in expense-account-fueled meetings with clients — while constantly whining about how life isn’t fair to him. Upon finding out about his child with Peggy and having her reject his offer of love, he is temporarily dazed but then grows closer to the wife who adores him, forging what increasingly looks like a marriage of like-minded souls.

While some of the lesser male characters are more appealing — the gaffe-prone Harry in particular (although even he cheats on his wife) or even the terminally shallow but good-natured Ken Cosgrove (who we just know is headed for corporate success) — the only truly sympathetic male character is a gay man, Sal Romano, in large part because he is suffering oppression as well. Yet even Sal is guilty of marrying a woman under false pretenses and making her feel inadequate when he doesn’t love her the way she does him.

Hardly an admirable portrait of manhood, and yet the costs to the men of their bad behavior seem minimal — other than of course for Sal, who loses his job due to sexual harassment (thus dramatically co-opting a fate usually endured by women). By contrast, the women not only suffer but also do so with the clear message that the fault lies not in society, but in themselves.

Betty has always represented the "Feminine Mystique"-era woman, privileged yet imprisoned by the restrictions of her life. Beautiful enough to have been a professional model, fluent in Italian, and possessing a degree from Bryn Mawr, she nonetheless knew she had to marry before her sell-by date arrived and to produce children even if she didn’t really want them. After all, what were the alternatives? To stay single and be a waitress, teacher or secretary? To have only furtive sexual relationships in order to avoid social disapproval and to constantly worry about an unwanted pregnancy? To give up on having children even if you wanted them but didn’t want a husband? No, understandably enough, Betty made the same choice that most women did: selling her sexual appeal to gain financial security and ensure social approval.

But our sympathy for Betty is undermined by the extreme simplicity of her character, which is that of a child in a beautiful woman’s body. How much more powerful would this show be if she were a smarter, more mature woman who found herself trapped in suburban hell, instead of a shallow princess who can’t come up with more than "I have thoughts" when composing a love letter and who consistently behaves like a petulant 5-year-old, albeit one armed with a cigarette and a glass of wine?

Being stuck in a life of mind-numbing domesticity is tragic only when the person is capable of — and desirous of — much more. But Betty seems less limited by her situation than by her intellect and character. We have no sense of what she’d do with her life if she hadn’t married, other than perhaps be a Holly Golightly party girl in Europe. Even when she finally leaves Don, it’s not to become independent but only to go to another man who wants to marry her and take care of her every little need.

While the pressures of the traditional maternal role deserve serious examination, Betty’s coldness to her children (other than her new baby) repels any sympathy we might have. She takes no joy in her children, snapping at them to behave and thoughtlessly passing on her own repressive conditioning, like when she shuts down her daughter’s grief at her beloved grandfather’s death. Superficial and self-focused, Betty seems to enjoy very little, other than sex and the occasional party or jaunt to Italy — even her horseback riding is a clenched affair full of frustration and anger. Such unrelieved negativity undercuts the very real sufferings of women in her era, making Betty an ungrateful, whiny princess rather than an example of how even privilege can be a prison when it is challenge and autonomy that you desire instead.

Unlike Betty, Peggy chose a career, progressing from the "new girl in the office" to the New Woman just beginning to appear in the business world. But Peggy’s success has been shrouded not only by what she has been given to endure — a secret pregnancy that left her nearly catatonic and locked in a mental ward, the surrender of her baby, the gibes of sexist co-workers, the fumbling and hostile attentions of Pete, and most humiliatingly of all, having sex with a man named Duck — but also by how her character has been constructed.

While smart, creative and brave, Peggy isn’t allowed to be a full, rounded person and is instead portrayed as socially inept, humorless and utterly unable to connect with either men or women, remaining friendless and loveless. Her stiffness, introversion and social missteps are painful to watch, and her awkward attempts to be more "feminine" fall flat. In the third season, she was finally allowed a measure of sexual satisfaction, but only in a tawdry, loveless connection with a repugnant older man. Denied a satisfying romantic life, she lives to work and is molding herself into a female Don Draper, but minus the spouse and kids.

Yet instead of being a biting commentary on the social strictures of the time — when women truly did have to choose between the rare opportunity of a professional career and marriage and family — Peggy’s isolation is portrayed as the logical result of her social clumsiness and ambition. She’s not penalized for her choices (a valid historical point) but instead seems to be making the best use of a stunted personality by forging a career rather than ending up a lonely old maid. Watching her, I’ve increasingly wondered why we can’t have an attractive, happy, fully sexual, intelligent female character with a great personality on this show?

Which brings me to Joan.

There’s no way around it: Joan starts out the show as a bitch. In the first episode, she suggests that Peggy go home, cut eyeholes in a paper bag, put it over her head, and figure out what she needs to change about herself. Ouch.

But Joan is also portrayed as the one woman who has power. The classic queen bee of a female workplace, Joan rules the secretarial pool with a manicured hand, her prow of a bust gliding through the office like a warship going into battle. She rules the waves, both permanent and rollered, and takes no crap from anyone. What has made Joan delicious to many women is the way she handles the men on the show, her honeyed tones belying the razor-sharp put-downs she doles out not just to dazzled office boys but to the firm’s partners. And yet Joan is also impeccably professional, handling clients as adroitly as any accounts man, and keeping the office running as smoothly as Mussolini’s trains.

Perhaps most satisfyingly of all, Joan is initially portrayed as being as fully in control of her sexuality as she is the rest of her life. Carrying on a secret affair with Roger, she resists his attempts to confine her (symbolized by that bird in a cage he gives her), insisting on staying a free woman who chooses what — or who — she wants to do. Unlike the other secretaries, she doesn’t seem confined by her female-ghetto job, but triumphant in it. We believe her when she tells Peggy that she wouldn’t want her copywriter position.

Joan’s contentment is disturbed when she gets a chance to do media work and discovers that she’s a natural at it. Yet as quickly as the opportunity to use her talents is given, it’s taken away, and she faces the classic career bitch-slap of having to train a younger guy to do the same job, and for more money. So far, a great little history lesson about women’s struggles at work to gain recognition.

But both Joan’s discovery of her ambition and her disappointment are soon pushed to the side by the other development that’s been scripted for her, which is to give up her satisfying single life and marry a handsome young doctor. In perhaps the most wrenching event of the entire series, not only is there no happy ending for Joan, but her supposedly "perfect" fiancé rapes her on the floor of Don’s office in retaliation for what he senses about her sexual past. The free bird’s wings have been clipped, if not broken.

At this point, Joan could have both retained her autonomy and restored her dignity by dumping the guy. But no, she married him. And continues to apparently love him as well as literally support him, after his promising career fizzles out. Many women have made the choice to stick with even more violent men, but this is "our Joanie" (as fans often call her), a strong woman who seemed the least likely person to take anything lying down, much less rape. We expected her to find the nearest letter opener and do a little surgery on Dr. Cut-Up, or failing that, at least leave the jerk. The one woman who had a career, autonomy and a satisfying sex life is punished as surely as if we were reading "The Scarlet Letter." Even worse, she embraces not only her punishment but also her punisher.

Of the minor female characters on the show — the vapid Jane who finds blackface hysterical, the hapless amateur chiropodist Lois, the succession of giggly secretaries so inept they can barely answer phones, the catty and racist housewives — the less said the better. Ironically, a show that has launched a slew of fashion trends has also made womanhood seem singularly unattractive. The men triumph despite who they are and what they do, while the women suffer as a result of both their character and their choices. The men are mad, all right, but the women on this show are increasingly crazy-making. I may need that martini, after all.

Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer who blogs about Mad Men, movies, sex and relationships at Open Salon.

By Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer, an Open Salon blogger and the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

MORE FROM Nelle Engoron

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