I recently watched the first season of Mad Men on DVD. I got that it the sexism and misogyny in it were retro. I assumed the creators were painting a picture of how things once were, not how they long for things to be. In fact, I took a lot of it as an ironic nod to how much better things are now.
But the supreme irony was that the show itself really was misogynistic in several places.
Betty really was just a hysterical housewife who needed to get laid
At first I thought a degenerative disease was responsible for the hand cramps that caused Don Draper’s wife Betty to wreck her car and drop things. Medical science has a terrible history of dismissing female complaints as imaginary (women had it so easy, not having to “work”, what could possibly be wrong with us?) and failing to give women the care they needed. I thought this was going to be that story – that would be deliciously ironic.
But no. It turned out Betty was having this implausible symptom because she was really, really lonely and sexually frustrated – an hysterical housewife in the grip of severe neuroses. I’ll give the show kudos on one thing here: her psychiatrist happily reported her sessions to her husband, without single thought to her confidentiality as a patient. Betty’s loneliness – which was certainly the fault of Don with all his cheating – could also have been an interesting topic to explore, but even there the show fails: Betty’s realization that she’s isolated and desperately lonely comes in a creepy scene where she forces her company on a ten-year-old boy whose mother has told him not to talk to Betty because he has a crush on her. She cries and moans and holds his hand over his protests. She could’ve realized she was lonely in the company of a female friend, but then it wouldn’t have had sexual undertones. This show also comes after numerous scenes in which Betty attempts and fails to get Don to have sex with her, nearly cheats on him with a door-to-door salesman, and later fantasizes about the salesman while enjoying the vibrations of the washing machine. The message is clear. “Cock: the cure for whatever ails women.”
I did like that, at the end, we learned Betty knew of Don’s infidelity all along – it rescued her from seeming completely dim-witted about everything. But it was too little too late.
And the clincher? My mom watched the first few episodes with me. Unlike the show’s creator who was born in 1965, she actually remembers the 60s. And her reaction was that she didn’t recall women ever being as “subservient” as Betty was. A period piece doesn’t really work when you explore 90s/00s characterization for the lead male but make do with 1960s TV for your development of his wife.
Peggy: oh… so close!
I was pretty happy with Peggy’s storyline. I liked her journey, as the men who didn’t want her body discovered her brains and came to appreciate them. But the scene where she reached for a danish from the cart and then took something else as well clued me in early on to the disaster that was coming. I hoped I was wrong, but no: she was pregnant. I mean, given the show is for all intents and purposes a soap opera, somebody had to be, right? Drama + female = pregnancy!
I was prepared to overlook the cheap plot device, depending on the outcome. I did like that Peggy simply gave up the baby, wanting nothing to do with it. No myth that giving birth generates instant maternal instincts, here. But what killed it for me was the fact that she didn’t know she was pregnant until she went into labor. Now, if a young woman is extremely ignorant about periods and pregnancy, it’s not impossible for her not to recognize a pregnancy. But Peggy was savvy enough to go to a doctor and get birth control pills before she started having sex, so she’s not that ignorant. Therefore we absolutely must have an explanation, or the plot is laughably stupid: did she continue to have what appeared to be periods, as happens to some women? Did she think the Pill would cause her periods to stop and therefore thought nothing of it when they did? The show didn’t explain, so my suspended disbelief fell like a popped balloon and left me cringing with embarrassment for the powers behind the show revealing their own astounding ignorance. But of course, this ignorance got transferred to Peggy. It’s Peggy most viewers will think of as stupid, not the people behind the show.
I wanted to like Joan
I tried to see Joan as a complex character with a bit of an arc, but at the end of the day I think she was just a big ol’ mean girl who was not very nice to Peggy because Peggy wasn’t gorgeous, who got told (very kindly) in the end that she wasn’t as great as she thought she was (in the scene where Peggy informed her the guys in the office thought Joan was looking for a husband and a lot of fun, but not in that order). This came so close to being a story that exposed the idea that women have all the real power because they can manipulate men via access to sex for the myth it is. But it was under-developed, and I’m not sure what we were supposed to get out of it. Guess it didn’t matter.
Men are nasty even when they’re feminist allies
One other aspect of the show really bothered me. We learn that Don is a fraud and a cheater who lets his wife down in far more ways than just being unfaithful. We learn that Pete Campbell is a real menace who cares about no one but himself. Don is out knight in shining armor, fighting Pete Campbell for us. He’s also a proto-feminist ally, in that it’s 1960 and he has the sense to promote a secretary to copywriter when she demonstrates talent for the job. Don emerges as the most decent man in the story – he’s a cheater, but not exactly a womanizer! He’s living under an assumed identity, but he had war trauma! He’s a poor husband and father, but poor man, he was the son of a whore, so he’s damaged! So he practically made his little brother commit suicide – he promoted some gal at the office! Give the guy a break!
Normally, I like that sort of complex characterization – some people do behave better publicly than they do behind closed doors – but as the focus shifted more from Don’s bad deeds to Pete’s and we saw more of Don fighting Pete than of Don treating women like crap, I got the disturbing feeling I was being asked to forget about Don’s bad side and focus on his good side. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a show wanted me to sympathize with a Bad Boy.