“Mad Men”: Year of the Woman

20 October 2010

Viewers of “Mad Men” are a tetchy lot, quick to express outrage at the show’s hairpin plot curves or that odd episode that didn’t seem to scale the heights one expects.  Not me.  This show sings to me — and I found this season especially riveting, with its emphasis on an emerging proto-feminist anger — especially by Peggy and Joan in the agency’s offices, and an even more deep-seated anger expressed by little Sally Draper suffering back home with her mother, Betty.  Which leads me to address two (related) kinds of criticism:  those who say the show glamorizes rather than observes the easy sexism of the 60s, and those who say it displays a fetishistic concern with period detail — detail that emphasizes style over cultural criticism.  SPOILER ALERT:  I’ll discuss details from Season 4 — and I’ll warn you again when I get to the season’s final episode.  

The show has only one true protagonist, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the brilliant ad man who exhibits fleeting attractions to smart women but ultimately opts for far less challenging game.  Yet the story of Don helping to elevate Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) from secretary to copywriter is mirrored in the show by the growing emphasis on Peggy’s interior life, such that she’s become the show’s full-fledged Number Two.  This season Peggy has taken on new degrees of responsibility, even oversight of other male copywriters.  Moss shows extraordinary acting gifts in tracing that transformation:  for the first time this season we see her begin to feel comfortable in her own skin (and clothes:  she finally seems to be able to afford outfits she actually likes), and we find her navigating her career with far more physical assertion than in earlier seasons.  Sure, she’s still stuck with inferior men, but no one’s surprised by that scenario.  When she arrives at Don’s office to argue about a pitch, she’ll put her hands on her hips in a way that indicates how much effort it takes to challenge him, and how important it is that she do so.  More than any other woman on the show, Peggy Olson explores what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, and it’s never easy.

It’s not easy because she’s surrounded by utter jackasses on her team of writers, who posture their male fraternity before her with alternate fun and aggression.  (This post is hereby dedicated to Anita Hill, who’s still being harassed 19 years later.)  One of them, Stan, insists that she’s repressed and ashamed of her body, so she strips down to her awful 1960s bra-and-slip set — and then down to nothing – to prove herself and get the upper hand in their work relationship.  But if Stan is an obvious boor, the cutie-pie freelancer Joey is an even more insidious problem.  Joey resents it when the fantastically curvacious executive secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) displays her managerial power over these boys, so he sketches a cartoon of Joan giving a blow job to a male employee — and he posts it on the wall for Joan and Peggy to find.  Joan dresses them down unforgivingly, but Peggy is still incensed.

Despite a chorus of whiney male pleas that “it’s a joke!” Peggy fires Joey, who spits back at her, “Y’see, this is why I don’t like working with women.  You have no sense of humor.”  Nevertheless, firing him feels like justice to her and a triumph for both women, such that at the end of the day when she enters the elevator with Joan, she looks up hopefully and says, “I don’t know if you heard, but I fired Joey.”

Joan, patronizingly:  “I did.  Good for you.”

Peggy, shocked:  “Excuse me?”

Joan:  “Now everybody in the office will know that you solved my problem and that you must be really important, I guess.”

Peggy, shaking her head:  “What’s wrong with you?  I defended you!”

Joan:  “You defended yourself.”

Peggy:  “Fine.  That cartoon was disgusting.”

Joan:  “I’d already handled it.  And if I’d wanted to go further, one dinner with Mr. Kreutzer from Sugarberry Ham and Joey would have been off [the account], and out of my hair.”

Peggy:  “So it’s the same result.”

Joan:  “You want to be a big shot.  Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon.  So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re a humorless bitch.” 

Moments like that make it all the harder for me to understand the criticism by some that the show glamorizes the sexism of the 60s.  The show doesn’t make sexism sexy (except to some, um, throwbacks); rather, as Stephanie Coontz claimed recently, it looks unflinchingly at the sexism of the era and shows how it affected real-life women without losing its subtlety or getting preachy.  In fact, I don’t see how any working woman today could watch that scene between Peggy and Joan without thinking, “I’ve been there.  Wait:  what year is it?”   Journalists have written about how the sexist world of “Mad Men” is still alive and well in some business worlds, and not just due to the gender pay gap.  It’s also worth noting that the show has a relatively high number of female writers, producers, and directors, especially after Season 1.  This record is not without highly notable glitches, as when creator Matthew Wiener fired the Emmy-Award winning, Peggy Olson-esque writer Kater Gordon a year ago, claiming patronizingly (and obscurely) that she had “reached her full potential.”  Still, the record is impressive:

  • Season 1:  5 of its 13 episodes were written or co-written by women; 1 episode was directed by a woman.
  • Season 2:  9 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 3 episodes directed by women.
  • Season 3:  10 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 6 episodes directed by women.
  • Season 4:  6 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 4 episodes directed by women.  

The show isn’t just a workplace drama, of course.  Even though Betty Draper’s role was diminished this season, the show revealed chillingly how angry and dissatisfied she is, and how much she has replaced Don with a paternalistic new husband who chastizes her and demands that she behave.  In fact, when Betty (January Jones) confesses to her friend Francine that they’d had a fight the night before, she says, “I misbehaved.”  Her deep-seated childishness and awful petulance have roused bitter hatred among fans, but I can only express my admiration for Jones’ pitch-perfect, icy performance.  Betty is trapped inside the hell of her own small-minded expectations; to get out of it would mean jettisoning everything she ever learned as a child, everything she witnessed at her mother’s knee, every lesson that taught her that sulking gets you what you want.  Of course she’s not a sympathetic character — in that respect she’s much like Sandi McCree’s perfect performance as De’Londa Brice in “The Wire.”  Things are not going as Betty had been led to expect, so heads must roll — as in this horrific scene only available at AMC.com.  You can just imagine what it’d be like to have such a woman as your mother.  Or, rather, we don’t have to imagine, because 10-year-old Sally Draper emerges as a complicated character in her own right this season via extended conflicts with her mother.  And what an actor Kiernan Shipka proves to be in that role.

These are hardly the only ugly things shown by “Mad Men.”  We see the execrable Pete Campbell rape an au pair in his apartment building, yet he experiences no consequences.  In a parallel moment, Joan’s husband rapes her to remind us that there was no such thing as “marital rape” in the 60s.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I'm coming close to discussing the season finale now!]  Viewers are made irate by these scenes, but they seem to feel that by showing them the series is endorsing such violence.  (Which reminds me of a story I heard recently:  a university professor is getting hate mail from parents because she teaches a class on the history of witchcraft – which, parents believe, amounts to advocating witchcraft.  Remind me never to teach a class on the history of slavery — and just imagine a world in which no one teaches students about the Holocaust for fear of appearing to endorse violent anti-Semitism.)  During the final episode of this season, Don abandons the first worthy girlfriend he’s had since the divorce – the lovely, savvy consultant, Dr. Faye Miller, who had seemed to be a true partner for him – and he gets himself engaged to his secretary instead.  It’s one of the creepiest sequences of scenes they’ve ever shown:  after several episodes of finally coming to grips with his lies and self-deceptions, Don makes one of those 180° turns back toward self-delusion, just like Roger Sterling (John Slattery).  Heartbreakingly, a critic at my beloved Bitch website decries this as an endorsement of Don’s choice.

So how can anyone mistake the show’s darkness for glamor, you ask?  I’ve decided after much scholarly consideration (hem hem!) that it’s not the show’s obsession with getting every single detail right, though I know some complain that that obsession is overly distracting.  Rather, it’s the way the show is filmed.  Every shot establishes a scene that seems so stilted, so self-consciously staged, that it attains an air of surreality and demands close attention as if it’s being shot via microscope.  This is as far from neo-realism as you can get:  it’s a kind of theatricality we don’t see elsewhere on TV.  A scene in the back of a cab erases all New York City street noise to focus up-close on the micropolitics of the end of a date; a scene of Don alone drinking in his perfect office evokes the quiet desperation of those men in grey flannel suits.  After four seasons, we’ve grown accustomed to the show’s visual style, but we shouldn’t overlook it:  it’s so important as to nearly constitute a character on the show.  The show’s filming should remind us, constantly, that we are being asked to look on these scenes with a particular set of eyes; it should remind us to see every scene as a subtle, and often horrible, analysis of a world of men and women that lacked the language of feminism.  These scenes emphasize deep divides between people, a profound loneliness, and the way certain kinds of architecture and design might make the world cold rather than warm and homey.  “It’s lonely in the modern world,” the blog Unhappy Hipsters reminds us – “Mad Men” is doing the same in narrative form.

In this positive review don’t accuse me of abandoning my blamer credentials, for I most certainly aspire to the wicked keyboard stylings of Twisty Faster — and it’s not that I don’t have my own criticisms of the show.  But it deserves quick and firm defense against the most facile interpretations.  Even after four seasons, I’ve never seen anything like “Mad Men” for its subtle writing and dead-on historical accuracy.  Now I just need to teach a class on it.

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12 Responses to ““Mad Men”: Year of the Woman”

  1. DRush76 Says:

    ["The show isn’t just a workplace drama, of course. Even though Betty Draper’s role was diminished this season, the show revealed chillingly how angry and dissatisfied she is, and how much she has replaced Don with a paternalistic new husband who chastizes her and demands that she behave. In fact, when Betty (January Jones) confesses to her friend Francine that they’d had a fight the night before, she says, “I misbehaved.” Her deep-seated childishness and awful petulance have roused bitter hatred among fans, but I can only express my admiration for Jones’ pitch-perfect, icy performance."]

    Doesn’t it piss you off that the only character on the show that is openly labeled as childish, is a woman? Especially since ALL of the major characters (including Don, Peggy, Pete, Joan, Roger, etc.) have engaged in childish behavior again and again? Doesn’t it?

    • Didion Says:

      Absolutely — but I can’t see her outside of the historical context of the time, which rendered so many women childish. You’ve identified exactly the point on which people have argued about the show: does it endorse her behavior, establish Betty as a simple antagonist to Don and her children, or is it trying to make a point about the pre-feminist era? I believe it’s the latter: I think the series is trying to show us how devastating life in the early 60s could be before feminism gave women a language for talking about true equality. If Betty Friedan’s “problem that had no name” book, The Feminine Mystique, wasn’t even out yet — how else could Betty express her anger except to use the modes that had worked for her earlier on — childishness?

      Here’s a much clearer argument by the historian Stephanie Coontz, an op-ed piece called “Why ‘Mad Men’ is TV’s Most Feminist Show.”

  2. drush76 Says:

    So, how do you explain the childish behavior of the other characters? I’m sorry, but no matter how you explain it; I find it hard to label Betty as childish, when the other characters are equally childish.

    And why is it that most fans have failed to consider Betty’s behavior in S4 as a sign of her erupted anger over her marriage to Don and the divorce? It seemed to me that she was having a season long nervous breakdown, just as Don was having his breakdown in his own way. Only, he wasn’t labeled as a child.

    • Didion Says:

      You’re too right, Dee, that other characters act childishly as well. And I must confess I answered your previous point too hastily. What I should have said, first & foremost, is that what makes me angry is how much women were treated like second-class citizens during the early 60s. I do get peeved at some of the public’s responses to Betty — some people just hate her almost to the point of irrationality, don’t they?

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think both of us agree that what’s to be hated in the world Mad Men depicts is the pervasive cultural misogyny in 1963 (no wonder Betty was so angry all the time). Thus, I think you & I agree that some of the most virulent public/viewer hatred of the character of Betty Draper is misplaced — if not misogynistic on its own.

      And I don’t mean to indicate that I like Betty. In fact, I suspect that if I knew her — whether in today’s world or if I were transported to 1963 — I really wouldn’t like her. Setting aside the question of whether she and I would be friends, though, there’s something SO disturbing about Betty’s childishness and moodiness, above & beyond that displayed by the other characters, don’t you think? She’s SO angry, and so powerless to do anything about it except act horribly. She acts especially badly toward people who have even less power than she does, like her children. That’s why I have the feeling that she’s a woman who would have finally gotten around to reading The Feminine Mystique and would have found it a revelation. The other truly despicable and childish character who comes to mind immediately is Pete — but I would hasten to note that the crucial difference between Pete and Betty is that he has actual power in the world (and he wields it with no morals whatsoever).

      Further, Betty’s such a contrast with everyone’s other favorite female character, Peggy, who’s finally figuring out how to operate in a man’s world, even as she’s also seeing pretty clearly how the glass ceiling works.

      I wish you & I could watch a few episodes and compare notes on its plot developments — I don’t have a viewing partner here, so I always feel like I’m watching silently!

  3. drush76 Says:

    ["Setting aside the question of whether she and I would be friends, though, there’s something SO disturbing about Betty’s childishness and moodiness, above & beyond that displayed by the other characters, don’t you think? She’s SO angry, and so powerless to do anything about it except act horribly. She acts especially badly toward people who have even less power than she does, like her children."]

    She is not the only one who does this . . . behave badly toward others who have less power. Don had been doing it to Betty throughout their entire marriage. I’ve seen Roger, Joan and even Peggy behave in this manner to employees with less power. I have not forgotten Joan’s comments to Sheila White back in S2. And Sally has a tendency to target her younger brother, Bobby, whenever she is in a rage. Is it because Betty’s targets are children that make her disliked by fans? Which is odd, considering that Sally seems more upset over Don’s lack of attention than Betty’s anger.

    ["The other truly despicable and childish character who comes to mind immediately is Pete — but I would hasten to note that the crucial difference between Pete and Betty is that he has actual power in the world (and he wields it with no morals whatsoever)."]

    Aren’t you contradicting your earlier response? First, you had agreed that all of the main characters do behave in a childish manner. Now, you’re hinting that Betty and Pete are basically the only two characters to do so. And you’re trying to tell me that they are the only two “truly despicable and childish characters”? Because I don’t agree.

  4. Didion Says:

    Hmm. What do I mean by “childish”? For me, it’s not reducible to “irresponsible.” It’s a form of behavior I associate with characters on the show who have very little power, yet who use means of gaining power or hurting other people that reveal their small-mindedness. So it’s hard for me to characterize Don and Roger Sterling (for example) as “childish,” insofar as they have great power over others; they may behave in shockingly irresponsible and immoral ways but they don’t seem “childish” according to my definitions. In contrast, when Pete says something cruel to his wife or to a secretary, it appears to me a petulant way for him to make up for his overall feeling of not having power on the level of Don.

    I’m certainly not saying that there are only two characters who have behaved in despicable and childish ways. In fact, what strikes me about the show is the way each character takes surprising turns — impossibly sympathetic in one episode, only to become abominable in the next.

    The real heart of your question is not whether other characters are childish, of course, but why have fans levied such crazy rage and exasperation at Betty? I certainly don’t deny that it might well be the result of the particularly awful misogyny of our own age. The public seems to love to hate a few select women. And oh, the anger with which the public loves to hold forth in online comments sections. One only needs to read the online comments following any episode to see how much vitriol gets bandied about over virtually anything…and attacks on women are one of the easiest such attacks to make right now.

    In the end, I want to repeat that as much as I find her a disturbing character, I think she’s one of the most interesting characters on TV right now and that if only we could get the rest of the public to ask questions about exactly why they find her so disturbing, the public might well come to some of the conclusions I’ve reached. And who knows? Maybe next season, with Friedan’s book in hand, Betty will become a pioneering feminist activist.

  5. Rosie Says:

    ["And who knows? Maybe next season, with Friedan’s book in hand, Betty will become a pioneering feminist activist."]

    The majority of the other characters have not changed much. Why is it so important that Betty becomes a pioneering feminist activist? And your reasoning that only people with very little power can only be considered “childish” when they behave abominably doesn’t really grab me. It doesn’t make sense to me. I think anyone is capable of childish behavior, regardless the amount of power one has in society. There are all kinds of immature behavior, not just one or two. So, I believe that some of Don and Roger’s behavior have been just as childish as Betty’s, Pete’s, or anyone else’s.

    • Didion Says:

      That’s fine with me re: alternate definitions of childishness. It seems apt that many of us have different reactions to the characters’ behavior. One of the primary things that fascinates me in both my academic work and the world around me is the way different individuals seek to gain power in their lives, and I strongly believe it’s an individual’s perception of their own relative degree of power that motivates him or her on many levels; so for me, calling a character “childish” needs to mean something beyond “immature.” But it’s not important to me that I shove my meanings down anyone else’s throat — I was just trying to clarify why I might have called certain behavior by Betty or Pete childish but not used the same term to describe many of the actions of Roger or Don.

      And to be clear, I was being facetious when I said that maybe Betty would become a feminist activist next season — it’s not important to me! Nor do I think it will actually happen!

  6. Rosie Says:

    Even pioneering feminist activists are capable of childish behavior.


  7. [...] Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, [...]


  8. [...] the end of Season 4 (which I wrote about here), I could feel Don’s inexorable march toward Megan (Jessica Paré). No matter how much I [...]


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