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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