Tube Tied: Mad Men, I Love You, But Your Fans Are Freaking Me Out

I admit that when I heard Mad Men was going to premiere just as I was starting this TV guestblogging gig in the otherwise rather deserted month of August, I breathed a sigh of relief.  If there is one television show that not a one of my communist, death-panel-supporting, child-killing liberal feminist friends is ashamed to admit to loving, it is Mad Men.  Mad Men, in short, has an acceptable television pedigree.  In my particular case, and I am not kidding about this, I started watching it because it was recommended to me by none other than Joyce Carol Goddamn Oates at a talk I attended a long time ago at the NYPL.  Talk about your "I-don't-even-have-a-tv" bookworm street cred.  And Feminist bloggers love Mad Men too.  In fact, it's just about the only television show that gets universal coverage in the feminist blogosphere, and all week, everybody's been gearing up for the Big Event.  DoubleX is live-tweeting it.  Some other prominent feminist bloggers, including Pandagon's Amanda Marcotte, are having a salon about it at RHRealityCheck.  And pretty much everyone I know who loves Mad Men loves to talk about how very, very feminist it feels to have so many nuanced portrayals of women on a single television show.

I, too, think that there is a lot of feminist merit in Mad Men - more on that in a second post this weekend, and I'll have thoughts on the premiere next week, it's gonna be a Mad Men heavy guestblogging experience - but I find it really problematic as a show to recommend to people who aren't feminists, or who aren't, at the very least, what I would call ready for a serious discussion of gender roles. Not to take us all back to grad school, but I'm always mulling over reader-response theories of interpretation as I watch it.  As someone who is unusually interested in questions of gender, I can certainly see that the writers of the show have that in common with me.  I can see that the actresses are coming to their roles with varying degrees of interest in these questions, and getting drawn further in.  But then I read things like New York Magazine's recent interview with Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays Joan, the office bombshell, where she talks about audience reaction to her work:

What's astounding is when people say things like, 'Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?' Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers," says Hendricks. "I'm like, 'What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!' It illustrates how similar people are today, because we're still questioning whether it's a rape. It's almost like, 'Why didn't you just say bad date?'

This is the sort of thing that worries, me, I suppose.  Joan's rape was not a particularly "hard case," as lawyers like to say - in the middle of it HER FIANCE IS HOLDING HER FACE DOWN.  There was nothing subtle about the message, and still, it appears, there are people watching Mad Men who didn't get it.

An even better example of cognitive dissonance in Mad Men's audience happened in last season's famous scene between Don Draper and Bobbie Barrett.  In a stunningly physical display of male domination, Don grabbed Bobbie's hair, inserted his hand into her vagina, and ordered her to compel her husband Jimmy to apologize to his clients.  She complies.

When I watched the scene myself, though, I thought - how masterfully they've set this up!  This is the dark underbelly of Don's charm, revealed!  And they've even set it up so that he's using his sexual dominance of Bobbie to make her do something that will benefit him professionally!  Oh I can't wait to see what people have to say about this!

And the reaction at Jezebel was typical of what I heard in most corners of the internet: shocking - but sexxxaaaaay!

To be clear, this scene, unlike Joan's rape, was depicting a "hard case" in feminist terms.  Bobbie was presented to us as a woman in full charge of her sexuality, and also as one who was unafraid of using it as a bargaining chip.  (Hence, her later remark to Peggy: "Be a woman.  It's a powerful business, when done correctly."  She means, literally, wielding sexuality is a powerful business, when done correctly.  Which, as we know, is synonymous with being a woman.)  Bobbie does not tell Don to stop what he was doing.  She is taken aback, clearly, but she is also clearly turned on.  And for a woman otherwise disposed to doing as she wants, when she wants, for whatever reason she wants, she certainly obeys his command.

But I'll tell you what.  I don't find this scene hot.  I worry that people do.  I know, I know, evo-psych, biology, everybody likes different things sexually, etc. etc.  But what I thought would be a discussion about the more difficult spaces in which male domination can play out - that even where we might be said to want it, structurally it's no good for us as people - turned into a reflexive admiration of how totally hot misogyny can be.

It's a chicken-and-egg question, of course, the connection between pop culture and personal attitudes.  I don't know of anyone who argues, with a straight face, that there's a direct causal link between the two.  But they do feed each other, and I can't help wondering, sometimes, if people are watching Mad Men and seeing beautiful clothing and sexy Don Draper and not really thinking about what it all means.  I wonder if some guy will see Don's move here and think to himself: aha, some women like that, so it would be okay for me to try it out if I deem it appropriate.  I wonder to what extent Don is just saying what men are thinking, and the extent to which they experience his angst, his humanity, as a ratification of those attitudes within themselves.

And it's something I can't quit thinking about when a non-feminist acquaintance of mine asks me if they ought to be watching Mad Men.

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Comments

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Sigh...

Hear, hear! There are several folks (oh, fuck it, they're all men) in my graduate program who hail Don Draper and his antics, no matter how unsavory, and it troubles me to think that these men long for a time when men's domination was the norm and that they long for the good old days (i.e. not having to deal with their killjoy feminist colleagues who point out just how problematic their enjoyment of Don's hand rape actually is).

I also find it troubling that both Joan and Bobbie's rapes are depicted as "sexy" in the trailer for the new season.

http://www.movieweb.com/video/VIDQUGIDfZT9IE

It's awesome to be Don Draper, so why is he miserable?

Good essay, but let's give "Mad Men's" male audience more credit. The show skews toward an older, more educated (and unfortunately relatively small) viewership. Few are apt to think frat-boy like, "Hey, women dig misogyny and control. I'm gonna go out and get me some."

It's unfortunate that the men in your grad program don't truly get the show. It's hardly pro-misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc. Quite the opposite. The common thread seems to me to be about how all of the characters are suffocated by the early 60s' narrow definitions of "male," "female," "straight," "gay," "normal," and "freak."

They're all trying to live up to the harsh standards; hiding their real desires. Yeah, the clothes were awesome and you got to drink, smoke and red meat guiltlessly, but the rigid standards leads to a lot of fucked-up unhappiness. I keep thinking about how the late '60s are going to throw this world into upheaval. The Vietnam war, Kennedys' and Martin Luther King's assassinations, the Yippies and hippies, miniskirts, psychedelic rock, women's liberation, Altamont, and the summer of '69 are right around the corner. How's Barbie Housewife Betty Draper going to deal with that?

[SPOLER ALERT]:
So, what about Draper, the mad man at the center of this pre-Woodstock world? He's perfect: successful, broodingly handsome, got the pretty wife, kids, prestigious job, house in the burbs, mistresses in the city. Men want to be him; women want his finger where it don't belong. But it's all a sham. He literally isn't who he pretends to be. The guy is constantly trying to escape from his perfect life; typified by his mysterious disappearance to California last season. He returns to New York because of his responsibilities, but you know he'd much take up with the first Mrs. Draper, work on cars, swim in the ocean, and just be - for lack of a better word - free.

The next time your classmates hail how awesome it is to be Don Draper ask them why Draper himself is so depressed and unhappy. Why is everyone on the show living lives of quiet desperation?

BTW, "Mad Men's" creator Matt Weiner said in an article that the inspiration for the show occurred when he was in a Draper-like situation. He was working on a hit show ("Sopranos"), had a lovely wife & kids, great house, lots of money and creative freedom -- everything every Hollywood writer/producer wants. So, why was he miserable all of the time? Why did he want to run away?

Just my two cents -- more like five bucks considering how I rambled on. Ah, the curse of the unemployed writer.

Thanks,
Lauren

PS: Don fingering Bobbie: totally hot. Joan's rape: so not.

If my colleagues' reactions

If my colleagues' reactions were as nuanced as yours, Lauren, I'd be a much happier camper in my grad program.

PS: Totally not on board with the hand rape=hotness, though.

The dom fingering would be

The dom fingering would be hot if it were about power play in the bedroom (emphasis on the word 'play'), but it's not, it's about Don demonstrating violence (and the potential of how far this violence might go) while making a work-related demand. NOT HOT.

Thank you!

I was trying to figure out why I found this scene so uncomfortable when I myself have experienced things like it in the bedroom. And you're right, it's the difference between playtime and not, the difference between prenegotiated plans for the sexual encounter (i.e. playing rough, etc.) and the use of force in a real scenario to extract some task or information that promotes self-interest. Thanks for helping me sort it out in my head!

Agreed.

Love this post. I think MAD MEN is too complex for a lot of people -- but unfortunately some of those people are watching it. Making it worse, as the earlier commenter points out, is the advertising for the show, which touts it as "sexy" and "seductive." I can't help feeling they are misrepresenting the show -- and yet, of course it's not surprising. I am reminded of how the advertising for ALIAS,another show I loved but people found too difficult, just showed pictures of Jennifer Garner in fetishwear and bikinis and such, taking it all out of context in order to trick people into watching the show.

When I first starting watching MAD MEN, I watched it on DVD, and it was the only DVD show I couldn't totally binge on and watch an entire disc of at once, because I found the atmosphere so oppressive. I really don't understand how you could watch the show just for the clothes and not see how utterly miserably everyone is (including even Don Draper). Misery is NOT sexy!

totally agree

That scene with Bobbie Barrett made me queasy -- we weren't even exactly sure what had gone on, but it reminded me of a scene from Smilla's Sense of Snow (at least in the book and I think the movie) where she suddenly grabs the vulva of her father's much-younger wife and hurts her in order to get something she wants. Unfortunately not all the way through Season 2 on DVD yet but the rape scene was already a spoiler, so no worries on that. Having not yet seen that scene however, I worry that somehow it was written to punish the character of Joan for being so in charge -- at least as far as she was concerned? -- of her own life?

not the case

[possible spoilers] Fear not: I didn't get the sense that Joan was being "punished" by the writers for being strong; rather, I get the sense that her "perfect" fiance was both punishing her for having had sex with Roger Sterling and marking her as his own territory. Very disturbing.

I feel bad for Joan!

I forget which episode it was, but do you remember how Joan volunteered to read scripts for the television department (to which her fiance replied, "You should be watching 'As the World Turns' with a box of bon-bons, not reading it." greaaat)? And she surprised herself and her co-workers by being really good at it. From the script reading job, Joan got a taste of professional success and was being taken more seriously -- not just another secretary/"piece of ass" (Roger Sterling's words!). And didn't your heart break when she found out that she was no longer needed for the job (because obviously she's just a secretary!)? When Joan is raped (and yes, I saw it as rape) in Don's office, you see a chilling shot from her perspective: the floor, the chair and table legs. I thought it meant that she is regarded very lowly in the world, and in that scene she was just realizing it. And let's not forget that around this time Peggy got promoted at work and got her own office. I think these events made up perfect storytelling and conveyed the mood of that time period.

There's an aspect of MAD MEN

There's an aspect of MAD MEN that I've always found more interested in reveling in the no-longer-acceptable bad behaviour of the era than in confronting the effects of those behaviours. On the one hand, MAD MEN (which is pretty bad history, like any period piece) functions best as an allegory of our contemporary society. On the other, the danger of allegory is that the fantasy is vastly more interesting and alluring than the reality it is meant to stand for. And taken at face value, MAD MEN troublingly anti-woman.

But...the show is not honest

As others have mentioned in the blogosphere, the show is not honest when it comes to racial relationships. Of course, racism is not the fetish. Power over women is the sex-say. Of course, they know not to offend non-white audiences, but the women....they kinda sorta enjoy the tension of power-over, don't they? Like Twilight, huh?

The male/female thing is a fetish to many. It's in a world with set designers, unmussed hair, and well-ironed clothes. But sexism is deadly serious. If you are safely in your entry level years on the job, statistically, you don't see the sexism. Wait until you want to mix work with husband or are up for a promotion or pay raise that a man with a stay at home wife wants, good luck. Guys kinda want to go back to that stay at home wife model, but the consequence is, they go to work and render judgement on all the women who work. They don't "need the job as much" as a man with a stay at home wife. You get laid off first, especially if you work in male dominated fields. You have to work twice as hard to be considered for a promotion or raise if it even happens. Yes. Mad Men is so fun to watch. How about a show with "nuanced" women characters not about women in a one-down fetish position?

Today's men still can't handle independent women

I agree with all these comments - even the cerebral hipster guys watching this show are part of the larger culture that is highly intimidated by smart, sexy, professional women in charge of their own lives. There is no script for them to follow that depicts healthy, equal hetero-partnerships with women. If I was pressed to speculate, I'd guess that when they watch Mad Men they are soothed by the depiction of a world in which the rules of society were made very clear to both genders and were generally followed by all involved. (If for no other reason than these rigid and concrete roles were something to fall back upon as mutually understood standards, none of which we have today.)

but it's not totally honest - it selectively shows history

As others have mentioned in the blogosphere, the show is not honest when it comes to racial relationships. Of course, racism is not the fetish. Power over women is the sex-say. Of course, they know not to offend non-white audiences, but the women....they kinda sorta enjoy the tension of power-over, don't they? Like Twilight, huh?

The male/female thing is a fetish to many. It's in a world with set designers, unmussed hair, and well-ironed clothes. But sexism is deadly serious. If you are safely in your entry level years on the job, statistically, you don't see the sexism. Wait until you want to mix work with husband or are up for a promotion or pay raise that a man with a stay at home wife wants, good luck. Guys kinda want to go back to that stay at home wife model, but the consequence is, they go to work and render judgement on all the women who work. They don't "need the job as much" as a man with a stay at home wife. You get laid off first, especially if you work in male dominated fields. You have to work twice as hard to be considered for a promotion or raise if it even happens. Yes. Mad Men is so fun to watch. How about a show with "nuanced" women characters not about women in a one-down fetish position?

"It's a chicken-and-egg

"It's a chicken-and-egg question, of course, the connection between pop culture and personal attitudes. I don't know of anyone who argues, with a straight face, that there's a direct causal link between the two."

Clearly you haven't been witness to radical feminists pontificating on the subject of pornography.

I found the scene with Bobby

I found the scene with Bobby awful, I was torn between being a bit shocked but thinking it brave they showed what a bastard their main character could be/is before realising that there's probably a whole bunch of people who think that sort of behaviour is perfectly acceptable and still worship at the alter of Don Draper. It's the Republicans loving Colbert situation, some people think it's an accurate representation of what life should actually be like.

I finally watched an episode

I finally watched an episode of Mad Men. Unfortunately, it was the one with the rape scene (how does anyone not read that as rape????). I was totally TOTALLY put off, but given the discussion here and elsewhere, I will give the show another try. Hopefully, I don't catch the one where Don dominates Bobbie.

Sexist

I like the drama, but at the same time, the show is incredibly sexist. It's POV appears to be from a male perspective.

The show isn't sexist, the

The show isn't sexist, the time and the characters are sexist. The way I like to describe it is that I can handle sexist characters, like Don Draper, but what I can't handle are sexist writers and producers. The difference is that the writers and producers of Mad Men are VERY aware of the sexism the show depicts, and they put it there on purpose to show how different (slash not so different) those times were. A sexist writer or producer, however, is one who writes/produces something genuinely careless and sexist without the purpose of promoting awareness or satirizing. An example might be stupid teen movies where the girls exist only to take off their shirts; I caught a few minutes of one called Fired Up the other day on TV and felt sick to my stomach for the rest of the day. Anyway, Mad Men certainly depicts sexism, but the show isn't sexist itself. Maybe if you elaborated a little more on your opinion, we'd be able to better address what you think its problems are. Hope that helps.

This post is so damn hand-wringy.

Here from Pandagon.

I doubt I'd watch Mad Men, as I'd find it depressing. But why, exactly, should we have to give up satire or complex drama just because a lot of people are st000000000pid? I suppose we shouldn't teach A Modest Proposal in the schools, either, because some kids will come away with the message that baby-eating is fine?

As Amanda Marcotte says, look at the goddamned name of your own publication. OMG SEXISM!!!! Or, um, irony?

Thanks.

Thanks, anon, for reminding me why I no longer read Pandagon.

And the arguments in the piece you linked are weak at best. All the same could be said of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: it has profound things to say about rape culture, but people come away from it with the "wrong" message on a regular basis. There is, nonetheless, no denying that there's some profoundly sexist and vile stuff going on in the premise, and both Fox, which produces Dollhouse, and AMC seem equally willing to take ratings numbers from the feminist viewers and from people who tune in to see the "omghawt" stars' assets.

(I'll concede that based on their Virtual Porn!Echo desktop app, the Fox promo department doesn't really seem to get Dollhouse either.)

You're pretty much right.

You're pretty much right. There's this discussion board I frequent, of the highly-offensive sort. Most of the people there are men. Anyway, there's a long-running Mad Men thread there. I found the participants' reactions there to both of these events (Joan getting raped; Don fingering Bobbie) quite interesting. To paraphrase:

Joan getting raped: "Holy shit! Joan GOT RAPED by her fiancee! What an asshole that guy is."

Don fingering Bobbie: "YEEEEEAHHH DON'S BACK, BABY!"

Also, I didn't see any mention of the moment earlier in the episode, when Bobbie presses Don to have sex in the car after he initially says no. I wonder if it was placed as such to counterbalance the later fingering.

That strip tease and girdle!

Re: the strip tease in the Season Three Premiere.

I watched the mid-century modest garments drop to the floor, one by one. The fitted suit. The cloche hat. The pumps. Finally, there was nothing left between the stewardess, the ad exec, and their one-night stand -- except a girdle.

And I wanted to know -- how was that stewardess planning to get that thing off without turning hot sex into farce?

When my daughter was eight years old, I explained the girdle facts of life to her. I took her to a department store and let her watch me pull three of the darned things on and off. It worked. She told me I should "be myself."

You can read all about it at my blog. http://BarbaraFalconerNewhall.com/

It is an intelligent show

It is an intelligent show for intelligent people. It's not for simple, at face value viewing. They need to hand out Cliff Notes to those who just walk away from it with,"It's hot!". It is actually very disturbing and loaded and says a lot about our history and society, where we were and where we are. It's a novella of sorts.

MM and domination

I was very angry at Pete and thought, "You little twit. Ghee, imagine a thing like that." It was selfish and only to apease his low self esteem.

The scene with Don from last season, made me uncomfortable when I watched it. I was not turned on and was sick. Again, I couldn't believe how low Don could sink to show domination and maintain an account. This season when he decided to take the road trip and the young man knocked him out, I actually was happy the bastard got what he deserved.

Joan's rape episode was awful. Joan is a sex kitten and this scene did nothing to portray that. She was not animated and got dressed in a mechanical fashion, as if she were dressing for work and all alone. She didn't even look at him.

I love the show but these scenes and our cultures acceptance or denial of the situation is frightening. I never want to go back to a male dominated world, but actually, personal experience I am labled Bitch when a man is labled aggressive.

Mad Men rocks. It wouldn't

Mad Men rocks. It wouldn't be as good without the wonderfully written female characters. All the dudes look like boobs, its fantastic.
Last night, my boyfriend and I were saying that Sal is one of the few characters on the show that you actually sympathize with. I hope they bring him back somehow, because I can't deal with both Joan and him being gone.