Nostalgia for Those Louts: A “Mad Men” Salon

Sarah Seltzer

Astute and unflinching examination of gender politics has proved to be the secret of the rise of "Mad Men" in popular culture. Rewire is hosting a salon on the program.

Welcome to our Rewire roundtable on Mad Men, featuring staff writers Pamela Merritt, Amanda Marcotte, and Sarah Seltzer. Sarah kicks off our salon with the post below, and Pam and Amanda will respond later in the week with their thoughts. After the premiere (August 16), we’ll start a second round of conversation!

The feminist nature of “Mad Men” arrives as a surprise partway through
the first season, a counter-narrative of female angst and assertion in
the midst of the alpha-dog world of Sterling Cooper advertising. By the
time that feminist thread becomes apparent, more than one viewer has
given up on the show, unwilling to endure the fairly constant stream of
racist,  sexist office banter that pours out of the mouths of the
ad-men as regularly as the alcohol goes in.

But by establishing such thorny environment, the show turns its female characters into objects of fascination. Plus,
hearkening back to the uber-patriarchy has allowed creator Matthew
Weiner and his mostly-female staff of writers the freedom to examine
sexist culture with unflinching honesty.

Astute examination of gender politics has proved to be the secret of the show’s rise to the
top of the zeitgeist: in an entertainment world where good roles for
women are scarce and serious discussion of gender issues is scarcer,
watching Peggy, Betty, and Joan struggle doggedly to find their places
among the suits and lewd jokes has become compellingly mandatory
television.

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Which moments stand out the most? Well, this is a show whose
first two seasons are book-ended by trips to the gynecologist,
beginning with Peggy being put on the birth control pill and warned not
to be a slut, and ending with Betty’s desperation as she realizes,
after she’s kicked her husband out, that she’s pregnant. Those fraught visits both symbolize the larger conundrum of women in Mad Men‘s
world: they are in a position of relative powerlessness, with a male
authority figure literally leaning over them, but they are still
struggling to make the right choices for themselves and their future
with whatever agency they can muster.

In some ways, each of the main female characters represents a different
way of dealing with patriarchy. Betty relies on her beauty to create
the perfect family set-up but ends up trapped in a lonely suburban
hell. Joan tries to get ahead by being the “other woman” — attentive,
sexy, professional but not too smart — but is left with an unfulfilled
intellectual longing and later, a socially-condoned relationship that
looks pretty abusive. Meanwhile, Peggy tries to go the “man’s route” and
assiduously climb the corporate ladder, but she is distrusted by the
women beneath her and left out by the men at her level.

Through these three women, we’ve witnessed everything from rape to the
specter of illegal abortion to what may be a nascent eating disorder
(the Drapers’ poor daughter!) to the bored housewife’s plight. We’ve
gotten peaks at to the taboos around interracial relationships,
Catholic sexual guilt in full swing, and rampant homophobia. And of
course there’s the constant dance of women in the workplace, where the
secretaries are treated like prostitutes and more senior women are so
threatening they nearly cause meetings to implode.

And outside their orbits, there’s plenty going on as well, whether it’s
the servant class, mostly women of color, who noticeably flit in and
out of the frames, the frowning or absent mothers who come in and out,
or the little girls who appear to be absorbing the sexism of their
society.

Two of my favorite characters were Don’s first two mistresses. There’s
bohemian Midge, who leaves Don for a beatnik; it’s hinted that her new
paramour may may be as sexist and controlling in his countercultural
duds as Don is in his suit. And then there’s Rachel Menken, the savvy
daughter of an immigrant Jewish family made good but still excluded by
the mainstream. Rachel’s double-bind as a Jew and a woman in a
male-dominated business world, and Don’s initial revulsion and later
obsession with her, still has echoes in the way we treat powerful women
from Hillary Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor on down.

And that’s just the gender politics for the women. The show continues
the tradition of The Sopranos by taking a brutal look at the toll of
performed masculinity. It may be dangerous business to have a misogynist like
Don Draper be a sex symbol, but on the other hand, his bad behavior constitutes a critique of the very concept of the uber-suave American
male. Like The Sopranos did, Mad Men smacks us in the face with a
horribly biased remark or cruel action whenever we get lulled into
nostalgia for, or identification with, these louts. The message seems
to be: “Think it’s such a great life smoking cigars and drinking all
day? Look what these guys do when they think no one’s watching.”

As we gear up for the third season this week, Amanda, Pamela and I will be
talking about the show from every angle we can think of.  Pour yourself
an old-fashioned and join us as we, like the copywriters and Sterling
Cooper, indulge in some high-powered brainstorming.

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