The Gender Politics of Mad Men

Micha Ghertner takes me to task for saying that a lot of guys enjoy Mad Men because they like to glimpse the world when men were men who had hot secretaries and bars in their offices. Micha says:

I don’t know what Will was thinking of when he wrote this. Maybe he just hasn’t watched enough episodes yet? The overall point he is trying to make is a fine one, but Mad Men displays exactly the opposite of what he is trying to express.

What I see when I watch Mad Men is a bunch of privileged dominant white males – and their trophy wives – who are absolutely miserable, partly ( largely?) because they can see their privilege and dominance cracking under the weight of inexorable social change.

That’s why Peggy seems to creep everyone out except Don, who is too busy trying to juggle all of the various lies he has made to his wife, kids, coworkers, mistresses, and clients to care that Peggy is breaking the glass ceiling, getting impregnated out of wedlock, and doing all of the things a woman of her station in life shouldn’t be doing. Don sees himself reflected in Peggy, as a rule breaker and successful social status climber who has to navigate a new, false identity.

No one is truly happy in the show, and we the audience, with the advantage of 50 years of hindsight, know that things are only going to get worse for those characters desperately trying to clutch onto some romanticized, illusory past.

Notice the title sequence of a businessman falling from the top of a skyscraper, eliciting a sense of vertigo? It’s not that subtle Will, and you were an art major!

I think everything Micha says is right on. I like to watch Mad Men for the menswear and a sense of the superiority of my postmodern egalitarian consumption partnership. But that’s not inconsistent with the idea that lots of guys who like the show don’t get the point of it and like to imagine how sweet it would be to have women take care of all the annoying details of life and smoke at work.

Like Micha, I see Mad Men as a show about status and status anxiety in an age of cultural ferment. Let’s talk about it! In this week’s episode [SPOILERS, if my stupid tendency toward abstraction can actually spoil anything] I particularly enjoyed the contrast between Peggy and Joan.

Joan is omnicompetent, authoritative, and in full control of her abundant femininity. She has fully mastered the arts of mid-century haute bourgeois womanhood and she knows it. Yet her clear clerical, sexual, social, and domestic excellence cannot guarantee her a status among women–a status among wives–equal to her own sense of her worth. Her status, in the end, is a function of her husband’s. And she does not seem to second-guess that this should be so. She gambled and lost with Sterling and is now confronting the suspicion that her fiance is not really good enough for her. And she is getting on in years. Despite her flawless performance of womanhood, her ambitions may end up stymied by the flaws in her men.

Peggy is equally talented and ambitious. But in stark contrast to Joan’s knowing, cultivated breed-standard womanly completeness, she is a naive, raw, curious puppy of a female. She is anxious and awkward about how she stacks up in the world of women and she is anxious and awkward about how she stacks up in the world of men. But she is toughly confident in how she stacks up as a creative worker. The new willingness of the world to reward her for what she does rather than for what she is grants her a power to independently realize her ambitions unavailable to perfect, normatively realized women.

As I see it, Mad Men is centered on Peggy, not Don. The very possibility of Peggy’s success is the engine of dramatic conflict. It threatens to devalue the relative status both of the professional men with whom she directly competes and of their wives with whom she doesn’t compete so much as humiliate by rejecting the grounds of their social and self-esteem. She is not yet in a position to really much threaten anyone, but the broader movement of liberation she represents will seem to many as little more than a violent, unfair, ad hoc emendation to the rules of the game they shaped their lives around.

Don is comfortable with Peggy, for now, because he sees these rules as little more than a fixed creative constraint, like the form of a sonnet. Don knows everyone is a manufactured thing, a product, advertising him- or herself in some market niche or other. (Don cannot believe Sterling is happy rather than performing happiness, which he finds unbecomingly “foolish.”) The fact that Don is a self-conscious and thus superlative performer explains both his outward success and his sense that it is empty. But what if self-construction does not necessarily mean living a lie? What if something like authenticity is compatible with success? In the end, Peggy may threaten Don more than she threatens the hierarchies of the trads by proving the possibility of successful integrity–by creating a persona, however awkward, that is both outwardly successful and inwardly satisfying.

Anyway, I’m totally overinterpreting. But that’s how I’m guessing things might shape up. Also, menswear!

34 thoughts on “The Gender Politics of Mad Men”

  1. While you might have struck an off note with the Mad Men hypothesis, I've always thought that ]nostalgia for patriarchal privilege underlay many men's love of The Godfather and most of the mafia/gangster genre.

  2. Nice post. A few thoughts:I don't think Micha is correct that nobody is happy on the show. How about Burt Cooper and Ken Cosgrove?I see Don as being comfortable with Peggy for a less abstract reason: because she is really competent (and discreet). Don also seems to have a greater capacity for self-examinination and change that I suspect would prevent Peggy from threatening Don in the sense you describe. Nevertheless your explanation of Don is also a plausible one. That, BTW is why I think that the show really is centered on Don: he's such an interesting character. People identify with him (at least in part), but he's really hard to understand definitively.

  3. Your analysis of the show is good, but I think you overestimate its popularity among the men you suspect would like to live like Don. It's a show aimed at women and men who would never consider pinching a woman's ass.The real example of what you were talking about is Gran Torino. And sbeath's gangster movie hypothesis.

  4. Hmm… I considered Ken Cosgrove, but then remembered that his happiness is dependent on naiveté. Compare his reaction to promotion to Co-Head of Accounts to Pete Campbell's, for example. At best, Ken demonstrates that happiness can be achieved, but only by remaining blissfully ignorant. Cooper doesn't strike me as happy so much as eternally befuddled. We don't get to see much of him (or Cosgrove), his motivations and feelings, compared to the more major characters.Don is interesting, but it frustrates me how unrealistic his character is. Were it not for a team of talented writers (in real life, not in the show) feeding him his lines and reactions, I can't actually picture a person like him existing in the way I can picture all of the other characters. Don is superhuman and artificial in a way the others are not.

  5. From the anecdotal evidence I've collected on Facebook, Mad Men is indeed more popular with women. I've seen female FB users “Mad Men” themselves by becoming a cartoon avatar inspired by early 60s animation. I've also been asked to rate a friend (“hot or not?”) auditioning for Mad Men at a website run presumably by the show's creators.

  6. Gender politics aside, it's an incredibly lethargic, boring show with no likable characters to speak of, and no interesting conflicts to speak of. Unless you like watching shows that basically pat the present on the back for not being so socially backward, there are other shows with completely unlikable characters to watch that are at least funny (e.g. Seinfeld, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

  7. Gender politics aside, it's an incredibly lethargic, boring show with no likable characters to speak of, and no interesting conflicts to speak of. Unless you like watching shows that basically pat the present on the back for not being so socially backward, there are other shows with completely unlikable characters to watch that are at least funny (e.g. Seinfeld, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

  8. Maybe I'm not clever enough or not picking up on my own subconscious, but is it possible you all are over-analyzing things. I watch Mad Men cause the acting and writing are quite good (for the most part). That makes it entertaining to watch. Too simple?I don't want to be Don, cause he serially cheats on his wife. That guy is messed up. Also there is his background of taking other guys identity after guy dies in war cliche. Really, hasn't that been done to death??I look at Pete Campbell as a constantly whiny guy (if I am thinking of the right character). He just annoys me. Gets a chance at the head of accounts at what, 5 years?, 8 years out of college and complains about it. Cosgrove (the single guy), gets a chance at that promotion and is simply happy. Why is this complex?I like Joan's character, cause she has a great walk, and is not some hot, secretary babe, stereotype. Plus, it is just good TV to watch her really, really, great walk!Finally, I agree with others that Peggy is the most interesting character. Mainly, cause she says the things that make the most sense. Plus, very well acted.

  9. But Ken is the one who recognizes that the bosses are playing himself and Pete off each other and refuses to play that way. Pete is the one who doesn't get it, feeling entitled but coming up short in some small respect. Ken's not blissfully ignorant, though neither does he have Don's hyper-awareness. I don't think there really is a possibility for blissful ignorance on the show. Ignorance is treated the same way the Greek tragedians treated hubris.I think I agree with you about Don. It's difficult to imagine all the different parts of him fully realized in one person. But I think that's a pretty traditional approach: you don't tell stories about boring people. Peggy's audacity despite her awkwardity (pretend that's a word) seems improbable too, frankly. The unreal aspects are the most suggestive and provocative. It's the place where the artist enters to pick at the tensions in the setting they've created. The Wire certainly had a similarly interesting tension between authenticity and the needs of story telling.

  10. Re Ken, I'm not sure Ken is naive, but he does seem like an optimist.Re Cooper, he doesn't seem befuddled so much as disarmingly wise, but I grant you we really don't know whether he is happy.Re Don, he definitely has some strange characteristics, but I can't decide if that make him unrealistic of just unusual.

  11. Agreed. To be honest, despite my avatar, I despise Mad Men for everything but style. It's the classic show you watch on mute — the characters are so incredibly cliche, and while the quality of the acting is high and the setting has excellent possibilities, I find the writing drab and predictable. So sad. It's like watching Hitchcock as interpreted by Joel Schumacher.

  12. Hardly anyone watches Mad Men, as I've blogged. IT gets 1.something million viewers, not very much, and compared to Burn Notice 7.6 million, it's no contest. Furthermore, Mad Men is written by loopy, privileged women, who make up 7 of the 9 writers, many of them with no real life experience. The head writer is Marti “I Ruined Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Making it my therapy session” Noxon, who's rape/suicide themes predictably crop up in Mad Men. Gays and a few women, wealthy, upper class, privileged watch Mad Men, but that's it.The Show's appeal is that of beautiful but victimized women and the bad boy dangerous types they love but abuse them. There IS an audience for that, but its limited. It's “Twilight” (basically the same themes writ in “adulthood”) for women of age 45 instead of tweens. But it's as immature and pathetic as Twilight. It does not ever address how a woman actually succeeds in family and career — by the “boring” but necessary requirement to have a “beta” husband who is supportive, hard working, loyal, that enables a woman to have kids and a career. But he is NOT: exciting, dominating, desired by every other woman, and sleeping around.A poster on my blog characterized most female entertainment as the story of how women screw up their lives by predictably stupid choices, and the ripples of that affect everyone else on the show. How the female characters create drama by acting stupidly with men, because they can. This seems to fit Mad Men — a story about women's ideas of men, not an actual heterosexual man's.

  13. Buried somewhat in the background premises of the show is that Don's marriage is in trouble just because he is so much smarter — call it intellectual sophistication if you want — than his beautiful wife. Note that the affairs we are shown are all with equally high-caliber women, and he pursues them even though anyone can see that his wife is more attractive than they are. The only person in the office with anything near Don's talent is Peggy, so one of the reasons (not the only one, of course) he pushes her career is to have someone interesting to work with. If the show keeps on going, at some point the writers will have to decide whether to make them into some sort of couple. For all I know, it happens this season. The show relies on an elderly adult's perspective on being a young adult. In this sense the show's introductory theme — Don Draper falling — unites the sense of advertising as forever falling through and past illusion after illusion with descending ever downward to retirement and death.

  14. Pah. Mad Men is not an actual depiction of what life in early 1960s America was like – it is a Leftist, feminist caricature of what life back then was like. The only purpose it serves is to allow 2009 liberals to congratulate themselves on their moral superiority.

  15. Don understands secrecy. When Peggy gave birth and rejected her child, Don somehow showed up at her bedside and said, “It will shock you how much it never happened.” He sees a kindred spirit in Peggy – she is the only character that Don seems to respect. She has reinvented herself, and has talent. Don likes both. I don't care about the supposed demographics of the viewing audience – I watch it and definitely don't belong to most of those groups. It is well written and well acted; I do vaguely remember the “style” of the time, and in that respect is achingly accurate. And to those who say that early 60s people really weren't like that, welllll…. the only time I ever heard my mother diss people was a tableful of men like this in a restaurant. They were in marketing or advertising, based on their loud conversation, and I was astonished to hear my mother seethe later about how “phony” they were. She was a solid GOP'er, and the Mad Men of that era made her skin crawl. Yes, most of the characters are unlikable, and that is the point. What we are watching is essentially a decade-long, slow motion train wreck of a type of personality. Not that the 70s were much better, considering what passed for “style” in that decade – but I drift into Lilek's world with that.And to those who think that all 60s adults were like this, remember that they are the parents of the Baby Boomers. Perhaps this does explain why we are so screwed up.

  16. Good point re: Cosgrove.As for Peggy, I don't find her character improbable because I personally share her traits of audacity combined with social awkwardness, though not her work ethic.

  17. I suspect Mad Men's limited audience has more to do with the network it is on than any other factor. I don't think I ever watched anything on AMC prior to Mad Men, and other than the initially promising but now rapidly declining Breaking Bad, I don't watch any of their other programming. Is AMC even widely available in the cable market? It certainly doesn't have the cross-brand promotion that channels like USA, FX, and TNT have.Had Mad Man been picked up by HBO, or one of the traditional non-cable broadcast networks, I bet its ratings would be orders of magnitude higher.

  18. I'm a male of “middle age” and I watch Mad Men because of the extraordinary acting. I watch it least of all for it's portrayal of life in the early 1960's which I find revisionist and largely false. It is the post-modern “liberated” homosexual view of a world of straight male primacy: straight white men bad-women victims. Men are portrayed here as drunkards, oppressors, fools, and clowns, while women are either powerless or sluts, or stupid. If they are married they are secretly miserable. How ridiculous. How utterly insultingly ridiculous. Believe it or not, many people were happy in the 40's, 50's and early 60's. How can this be, you scream, as they had not had the great “entlightenment' of the revolutionary 60's? Were'nt they all repressed and/or greedy? Uh…no. Many of them, us, were quite happy and enjoyed full and satisfying lives going to the club, dancing, visiting friends, and in NYC, seeing extraordinary theater, Broadway musicals, great baseball, and affordable housing. No one happy? Think again, friends. We never had it so good again.

  19. But of course Don is underestimating and oppressing his wife, not allowing her to develop the potential that she plainly has to be much more than she is (in fact, much more than she thinks she can be, seeing as how modeling is to date the limit of her ambition — but not of her potential). Don cannot conceive of a role for outside the one he has so far considered, and can't conceive that she should want more. This is the greatest oppression depicted on the show.In terms of the progress of women, Peggy Olson serves as the opposite pole from Betty Draper, pursuing a creative career alongside the men, despite all the obstacles they put in her way.Standing between these poles are the women of the office, many there by their lights only to find the means to leave the working life for the nirvana of Betty Draper-hood, with Peggy Olson-dom as an unthinkable fate to be consigned to. But in fact they each play important roles in the workplace without which the agency would grind to a screeching halt. Their self-conception has not caught up to the extent they have in fact self-actualized to some extent more than Mrs. Draper has.The men are on the show largely there for comic relief and, as Will says, style, though the character of Don does represent well the almost-vacant-but-still-vaguely-yearning soul of modern nihilistic capitalism.

  20. The very possibility of Peggy’s success is the engine of dramatic conflict. It threatens to devalue the relative status both of the professional men with whom she directly competes and of their wives with whom she doesn’t compete so much as humiliate by rejecting the grounds of their social and self-esteem. She is not yet in a position to really much threaten anyone, but the broader movement of liberation she represents will seem to many as little more than a violent, unfair, ad hoc emendation to the rules of the game they shaped their lives around.Don didn't seem all that threatened by Rachel, who occupied a far superior position of authority to Peggy in a business partnered with Sterling Cooper, in which interactions she insisted on, and got, treatment from the men as a business equal. Don seemed to be more stimulated than threatened by her. To me, thus far he seems more interested in promoting (literally) Peggy's career, whereas if he were threatened, it would seem he would thwart it as he does Campbell's.Rather, it seems to me that it is the advancement of his wife past the role he has assigned to her that represents the greatest threat to his security, if his behavior is to be believed (and what else is there to consider?). i realize that Wilkinson has this angle covered as well as far as being able smugly to place himself ina situation far removed by societal progress from the one depicted onscreen.Btw, I realize the smugness in this post is self-conscious in that it has been suggested that modern-minded folks watch the show to experience their superiority to a backward time, to which Wilkinson says, “As we should.” However, self-conscious smugness is no less smug, and no less pathetic, than any other down-your-nose historical-judgement smugness. Those who point out that this show couldn't be further form the lived experience of the era it portrays should, despite the fact that it is for all its fabrication a thoughtful depiction of gender relations, be heeded.

  21. I think what Micha misses is that sometimes large amounts of people can like a show or a book for the totally wrong reasons and get the wrong message out of it. I think this is what happens in Mad Men. It's a show about the old guard losing its hold on things and slowly becoming relics of the past. The last episode makes this painfully obvious as dissected by Alan Sepinwall:…However a lot of that flies right over the heads of a large segment of the male audience, who tune in just to see Don act cool, smoke, drink and womanize as they fantasize of being in his shoes.Similarly in England there were supposedly many racists and skinheads who were fans of Til Death Do Us Part, the BBC show All in the Family was based on, who didn't get or didn't care that the show's intention was actually to mock racism, not celebrate it.

  22. Wrong. It may have been “aimed” at those people but it has reached mass popularity, must-see-Sunday type status. Everyone has watched it now.

  23. This is probably correct, but I think it has more to do with “not caring” what the real theme is rather “not getting it.” Mad Men reaks of pseudo intellectual rigthousness (probably why so many libertarians seem to perk up when talking about it). Anyone can get that its trying to make some tired point about progress. But its entertaining anyways. Apparantly a big portion of the gay population finds the crazy bigot Rev. Phelps entertaining for camp value…same idea.

  24. For some people it is “not caring” but don't get it wrong, for many it's a case of “not getting it.” I say this because I have friends of the Maxim and FHM crowd who are not only totally oblivious to the show's larger themes, but actually think the show is an ENDORSEMENT of the old guard. Yes, people miss the point THAT badly. I try to tell them what the show is really saying and they just dismiss me as being overly analytical.Anyway, ALL viewpoints at this point in history are tired, whether conservative, liberal, men's rights, feminist, pro-white, anti-white, whatever. We only complain they're “tired” when they're contrary to our own viewpoints.

  25. I loved this post. Peggy is very much a misfit amongst the men and women. I feel frustrated in way, watching Peggy. But just feel sad when I watch Don's wife.

  26. I think Mad Men is more like watching theatre that most other TV or movie experiences I've had lately. There's no doubt a strong whiff of “unrealism” about it that feels deliberate on some level–like the goal is not to depict the 60s in a documentary fashion (despite all the careful art design), but more to grasp at a specific emotional experience through a pretty narrow slice–the self-created, “new” and somewhat off-the-rails culture of Madison Avenue. Even then, it seems a little beside the point to think *too* much about whether “all” early 60s ad execs and their families were really “like this”. All the characters are types–the career girl, the spoiled rich boy, the bombshell secretary, the (literally in Don's case) self-made man, the “perfect” wife, etc. There's entertainment and provocation that comes from juxtaposing and sometimes deconstructing these types (the career girl sometimes wants to be a party girl and vice verse, the perfect wife is anything but, etc.) But these aren't “real people” and it doesn't really feel like they're intended to be.

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