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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This is a wholly random collection, as you’ll see — aren’t they always?  It’s partly inspired by my wish to see a wider range of female parts get handed out, but these actors have stuck in my mind for ages, and I think Hollywood needs a nudge.

  1. Shareeka Epps.  She played the watchful, thoughtful middle-school kid in “Half Nelson” (2006) alternately inspired and disturbed by her self-immolating history teacher (Ryan Gosling). I can’t imagine what it must have taken for a 15- or 16-year-old  to step up to Gosling in that film, but she did — earning piles of awards nominations and several wins, including Breakthrough Performance from the Gotham Awards.  I’ve been watching and waiting for more from her ever since — but she’s suffered like so many young black actors by a Hollywood single-mindedly focused on white dudes.
  2. Michelle Forbes.  It’s not just the time she put in earning paychecks as Ro Laren in the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (or her utterly delightful turns in “Battlestar Gallactica” and as the psychopathic Maryann on “True Blood”), although any one of those performances might be enough for me to want more of this willowy, wicked-eyed, sharp-tongued, iconoclastic actor.  But it was “In Treatment” that nailed it, as the miserable wife of the psychotherapist Gabriel Byrne — her exasperating sessions with a man who’s simultaneously too smart and too deluded to change his destructive path to show her he cares.  Of everyone on my list, Forbes has gotten the most work during her career; and she might be perfectly content with her wide range of parts.  But I want more.
  3. Sandi McCree.  I’ve found myself several times defending her performance in “The Wire” as Namond Brice’s mother — some saw De’Londa as so hard-edged as to be a stereotype of the ghetto woman.  If anything, it was brave; but in truth I thought she did some of the best, quiet work of season 4.  De’Londa was dedicated to playing a particular role as the wife of a good soldier in Baltimore’s drug wars, and this wasn’t an easy role.  While her husband had sacrificed himself and was ticking away the years of a life sentence in prison on behalf of his bosses, De’Londa was left to 1) keep her husband’s memory alive in the streets; 2) enjoy the lifelong financial payouts from the bosses; and 3) raise their son to be just like his father.  Except that the payouts ended, and Namond was sort of a wuss.  No wonder De’Londa was angry a lot of the time.  I loved her then and want more of these unexpected portrayals of black women onscreen.
  4. Molly Shannon.  When she was on “Saturday Night Live” she was given a lot of the broadest comedic parts, like that of a spastic cheerleader; and she’s still used in bit parts for her knack for that style of sketch comedy.  But a few years ago she showed in “Year of the Dog” (2007) that she’s really good in bittersweet, subtly funny parts as well.  So now, whenever I catch her making a brief appearance — on “30 Rock” as Jack Donaghy’s sister; on “Glee” as a nutso teacher; and on SNL’s massive Mother’s Day/Betty White/women’s reunion extravaganza — I keep seeing the fine actor in her being blunted by the writers’ short-sighted demand for broad comedy.  There’s been an odd conversation in the media during the last year about funny women — at one point, Margaret Cho suggested that the funniest women were gender bending and/or gay, while others rationalized the lack of women writers on TV comedies by suggesting that women just aren’t as funny as men (I’m calling out Stephen Metcalf of Slate’s Culture Gabfest for an uncharacteristically bad moment).  Then there was the kerfuffle over “The Daily Show” and its dearth of female correspondants.  Anyway — my point is that there are lots of funny women and a few with the subtle talents of Molly Shannon, and that they’re under-used.

As soon as I post this I’ll probably think of more people — but I’m racing to the airport for one last short summer trip before the semester takes over my life.  Bon voyage, all!

I know, I’m late to this conversation — a cursory Google search reveals a pile of comments about this subject, most of them unflattering.  Clearly, I’m not the first to notice that HBO just won’t develop shows that have equitable gender ratio or even very interesting parts for women.  Sure, they threw us the half-hour cotton-candy show “Sex and the City,” full of fashion and cocktails and girl-talk about boys (cause we girls luv that stuff), but that show ended in 2004.  Still:  if “The Wire” never could bring its female characters to the forefront, it showed us gender in a way I’ve never seen on TV before.

Yes, it fell down on getting many women onto the show, or even into prominent parts.  David Simon, the show’s main writer and creator, confessed in an interview that he often wrote his female characters as if they were men — “men with tits,” quoting Hemingway — leaving it to his actors to add gendered subtlety.  He directed his true love to fleshing out men’s roles; one need only think of Bubbles, Omar, Bunk Moreland, or Bunny Colvin to see how rich and diverse his male characters could be (and so many of them black:  when have we ever seen that before?).  A quick look at the roster shows a few vivid female characters who were consistently overshadowed by their male counterparts in number as well as vividness: 

  • detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn)
  • Ronnie Perlman (Deirdre Lovejoy), the assistant state’s attorney 
  • badass muscle Snoop (Felicia Pearson)
  • officer Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan), who has an ill-fated relationship with McNulty
  • Brianna Barksdale (Michael Hyatt), who keeps her brother and son in check
  • Shardene Innes (Wendy Grantham), the strip club dancer turned informant
  • De’Londa Brice (Sandi McCree), Namond’s dragon-lady mother
  • Nerese Cambell (Marlyne Afflack), the take-no-prisoners City Council prez

That’s right:  eight prominent female characters in five seasons, with almost all the rest a shadowy group of wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, junkies, foster mothers, or middle-school teachers and girls.  I can’t even begin to count the comparable men in the series, but to give you an idea:  when you look at the Imdb.com list of characters, only three of the twenty-nine names that automatically appear on the page are women.

But if they were outnumbered and overshadowed it’s still worth making the point:  what women they are.  I’ve sung the praises of Kima Greggs before, but Nerese Campbell and De’Londa Brice — to name only two — are brilliant, complex characters.  I’m watching Season 5 again right now, when Nerese comes more fully into view as the preeminent power broker during a moment of city-council shakeup.  She never smiles; although she’s one of the most conventionally beautiful women on the show, Nerese resembles the ghostlike, incomprehensible, drug-dealing Marlo more than anyone.  Like Marlo, she uses every opportunity to buttress her own position despite being already the most powerful woman in the city.  It’s a brilliant, unsung performance that shows her to be capable of any form of political maneuvering or corruption so long as it enhances her political armor. 

Take the scene in which Clay Davis (“shieeeeeeeet”) accuses her and her political machine of abandoning him during his corruption trial, and threatens to bring them all down with him.  “You can tell every last one that I do not fall alone,” he whines.  Nerese won’t let this fly.

“Just take a moment and think about what you’re saying here,” she says.  “You can have yourself a pity party, talk all kinda shit to some prosecutor.  You know where you’ll be then?  Out in the damn cold.  No connection, no allies, nowhere to hang your hat in this damn town.”  She softens her voice:   “Or you carry this for all of us.  Carry it as far as you can.  And if the worst happens—they take your seat, if you go away for a year or so to some minimum-security summer camp, so what?  You come back to a town that still knows your name.  Prosecutors come, and prosecutors go.  But win or lose, you’re still going to be back around before we know it.  Am I right, Senator Davis?” 

She’s brutal — it’s hard to capture textually the fierceness with which she delivers those lines to him, right up in his face; it’s like a school principal, a wife, a strong mother all at once.  She’s asking him to be a man in a way he’s not used to.  Davis’ face crumples, like a child’s.  It’s such a good scene because Nerese is so merciless — just like we hoped Hillary might be if she became president.  David Simon might be telling the truth about how he writes these characters, but his first-rate actors convert those lines into subtly gendered performances.  I could go on about De’Londa Brice, too, whom I feel has been wrongly attacked as an ugly portrayal of a black mother.  Come on, people:  just because we didn’t sympathize with her or see things from her perspective doesn’t mean De’Londa was a simplistic character.  Some of this feels like I’m teaching one of those graduate classes in which “but where are the women/class relations/African Americans?” suffices for useful criticism.

 

Okay, so the show couldn’t come up with many female characters.  But it endeared itself to me with its treatment of gender — its rich array of gay characters as well as its portrayal of men’s relationships with each other (and themselves).  To quote Sophie Jones’ nice turn of phrase on PopMatters, “Gay characters on TV are almost without exception stereotyped, ridiculed, or defined by their sexuality. The Wire doesn’t so much tear apart this convention as act like it never existed.”  And it wasn’t just the gay characters.  The drug dealers are obsessed with a particular kind of manliness — to be hard, to “step to,” which ultimately proved the irreconcilable difference between drug kingpins Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. 

Meanwhile, the cops throw around middle-school level dick and fag jokes — a banter that not only isn’t funny, but signals these men’s broader personal failures.  Those jokes appear so frequently as to become a theme about sorry masculinity.  Unlike similar jokes used in “bro-mances” like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” that sought to make audiences laugh, these don’t convey the sense that these guys are having a really great time together.  Instead, the stupid jokes symbolize the malaise and decay of the city — they function as a lingua franca between men who have nothing else to say to each other.

McNulty, looking at Detective Sydnor in disguise to make a drug buy:  “Where’s your mic?”
Sydnor:  “Down at my dick, man.  I figured they ain’t gonna go down there anyway, right?”
Carver:  “I don’t know, Sydnor, the way you twirl it around, it might be the first place they look.”

They’re lame, these jokes.  And they’re repeated so frequently as to constitute self-critique — and in this era of buddy movies, when do we ever see this gendered banter criticized?  The show loves those moments when the jokes no longer work — when McNulty and Bunk grow apart, when Hauk gets a new job and can’t find the right lingo to use with his new co-workers.  The jokes take the temperature of the failed personal lives of so many of the characters — McNulty’s pathetic bar pickups, the pathetic way Kima allows her relationship with Cheryl to fail, cops vomiting in the gutter outside their bar, only to go back in and drink some more.

If we want to complain about representations of women and gender on TV, start out with virtually anything else — “Saturday Night Live,” “Burn Notice,” “Two and a Half Men.”  In contrast, “The Wire” looks good for its convention-busting characters, both male and female.  Yeah, it’s mostly about men, and I’m the first to agree that’s a problem with TV overall.  Just don’t use “The Wire” as a punching bag for that larger problem.

Still, as I get ready to start watching Simon’s new HBO series, “Treme,” I wonder if I’ll start to get impatient with HBO again.  As much as I’m delighted to see actors like Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters get more work, there’s a point at which yet another show about guys becomes a problem.