The misogyny in Mad Men is ironic, all right

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.

Comments

  1. says

    Hm… JMHO I think you’re missing a lot of what they’re doing here. First off, they left a lot unsaid and to come. So much of the first season is groundwork, and btw Don is NOT a sympathetic creature in the slightest. Any sympathy you have for him will be unrelentlessly challenged in season two. Flawed, flawed, flawed.

    I like your point about Betty hands shaking, although I wouldn’t be surprised if that comes back. She thinks it’s passed, but has it? I think the message of her storyline was, women were completely stymied when it came to sexuality.

    Peggy not knowing she was pregnant? I grew up with stories from mother of that happening to girls. Joan set Peggy up to get the pills; there’s no indication what Peggy knew or didn’t know. That’s what Mad Men does; it leaves stuff like that out and tells us later. We learn about the pregnancy more in season two. The questions you have – you’re supposed to have them. It’s interesting that you’ve said that Peggy just gave up the baby; if I remember correctly that’s far from clear at the end of season 1. We don’t really know what happens after that moment of turning away.

    Joan, Joan, Joan… My favorite character. I think she represents the woman right before Peggy, seizing power where and how she can. In some ways, she has knowledge that’s so much more than Peggy’s, in other ways, Peggy has the benefit of coming along just a few years later and with a talent for writing.

    In closing, I don’t think the show wants you to give Don a break for one minute – They sure aren’t.

  2. says

    First off, they left a lot unsaid and to come.

    I didn’t miss anything. ;) Your interpretation did occur to me, but here’s the problem: it requires the viewer to assume the writers are NOT coming from a place of unconscious or conscious misogyny, defined as including a simple disinterest in writing the women characters accurately that was detrimental to them. That makes it a bit of a fanwank, sorry.

    I went into the show giving the writers that benefit of the doubt, but they lost cred with me when they depicted a woman with a physical disorder (a bad marriage simply does not make your hands cramp so badly you wreck your car) as simply in need of a good fuck. Whatever they intended (and I suspect it was to indict the era for forcing incredible layers of denial onto housewives, which is a good idea if executed well), they chose a method of execution that invoked the stereotype that women were just imagining a lot of the physical disorders that are now recognized and treated appropriately in many cases. (I myself have a condition that many doctors still believe is the woman’s own damn fault, despite tons of research proving that false.)

    Hmm. It was perfectly clear to me Peggy gave up the baby: she turned her head. That’s been a visual cue of rejection since people started doing plays on stages.

    Like I said, if a girl is kept extremely ignorant, it’s just barely possible for her not to know she’s pregnant until labor begins. But I know some people who grew up in the 60s in a condition of extreme ignorance about such things, and even they knew enough to see a doctor if their periods stopped. She’s an intelligent woman, and they had very good libraries in NYC with books on these very topics back then.

    I don’t see that Joan has any power at all. What exactly is at her command?

  3. says

    Well, I certainly do believe that the writers are not coming from a place of misogyny, so we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

    As I said, I agree with you that Betty’s illness and its passing are problematic, but I do expect that that storyline may be on the way back in. I also believe that our mental state does often effect our physical state, sometimes severely. However, I see your issues with how that storyline played out.

    Peggy turned her head in that moment. Surely, in that moment that’s what was being communicated, but given how the show twists and turns, I, for one, wasn’t making any assumptions about what happened next or what to expect going into season 2, and indeed, we are still learning about what happened with the baby. Due to the stories I’ve heard from my mother, I find the fact that she ignored or didn’t realize about the pregnancy very realistic. My mother told me about a girl she knew who lost a tampon inside her until a gynecologist pulled it out. I can’t personally imagine how that’s possible, but many girls didn’t touch themselves, look at themselves. There was very little sex education. Peggy had issues, that at least was for sure. She was finally getting opportunities at work; I would think the last thing she wanted to deal with was anything that was going on with her physically. It’s easy for someone busy and young to just ignore stuff like that while time flies by. Peggy in season one struck me as someone swimming in waters she didn’t fully understand.

    As for Joan, she commands the entire secretarial pool, a great deal of what goes on in the office, and in the first season she has a fair amount of control over Roger Sterling.

  4. MaggieCat says

    Like I said, if a girl is kept extremely ignorant, it’s just barely possible for her not to know she’s pregnant until labor begins. But I know some people who grew up in the 60s in a condition of extreme ignorance about such things, and even they knew enough to see a doctor if their periods stopped. She’s an intelligent woman, and they had very good libraries in NYC with books on these very topics back then.

    I haven’t seen the show, so this is just based on the information about the situation given here, but it’s possible for someone who knows exactly how pregnancy and all its symptoms/signs go and still appear “not to know” — it’s not ignorance, it’s a case of deep clinical denial. It’s seen mostly now in teenage girls, even the ones who had sex ed, usually they give birth in secret and leave the baby behind because some part of them simply cannot cope psychologically with facing the reality. It doesn’t seem impossible to me for an unmarried young woman just starting to get her career off the ground in that time period having the same illness. (Total random shot here: if her name’s Peggy, is there a chance she’s Catholic? If she was raised religious in the ’50s that might make it even more likely.)

    It was used in the play Agnes of God, but unlike the fictional troubled ignorant teenager the real case that was believed to have been based on was of a nun in her mid-30s with a Master’s degree. She was found not guilty of killing her child by reason of insanity — she swore she didn’t remember being pregnant — and that was in 1977. It doesn’t have to go that far, even going to a hospital to give birth (possibly not even knowing what’s “wrong” until told), as long as the woman isn’t forced to confront the reality of the pregnancy until absolutely forced to do so.

    Like I said I don’t watch the show, so I have no way of knowing if they’ve presented any evidence that supports any of that, but there are ways for it to work. If they want it to.

  5. Eileen says

    I’ve gone back and forth over MadMen myself, appreciating the complicated characters and then feeling very uncomfortable about how much the writers seem to be reveling in their time period. Ultimately, I think the problem is that the writers do revel more than they criticize, and it has made it impossible for me to keep watching. It would maybe have helped if they hired some talented female writers who were on fire about women’s treatment in this time period. They haven’t though.

    The show is about Don Draper and it has a definite modern male viewpoint. The writers see the injustice, but they aren’t all that worked up about it, and it isn’t as interesting to them as the decor seems to be.

  6. sbg says

    I’ve gone back and forth over MadMen myself, appreciating the complicated characters and then feeling very uncomfortable about how much the writers seem to be reveling in their time period. Ultimately, I think the problem is that the writers do revel more than they criticize, and it has made it impossible for me to keep watching. It would maybe have helped if they hired some talented female writers who were on fire about women’s treatment in this time period. They haven’t though.

    This.

    I feel like I’m supposed to love this show, and some aspects of it I do. I think it’s well acted and sometimes well written.

    But overall it leaves me with a feeling that it’s misogyny masquerading as art. In some ways, I find that worse than plain, in-your-face misogyny.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, I certainly do believe that the writers are not coming from a place of misogyny, so we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

    Please don’t reinterpret what I said. I never said they’re coming from a place of misogyny. I’m saying I was no longer able to give them the benefit of the doubt which they, in their privilege, assumed their audience would extend them no matter what. And from that place of uncertainty, of not being sure where they’re coming from, it becomes impossible to support your interpretation from the text alone – fanwanking interpretations are required.

    I apply the same standards to my own work. When I fail to prevent my own privilege from making me say something stupid, I expect people to call me on it and I do not expect others to fanwank what I’ve said.

    As for Joan, she commands the entire secretarial pool,

    Given how disposable and unimportant the secretaries are, that’s like saying a shepherd has power because he commands a flock of sheep.

    a great deal of what goes on in the office,

    Examples, please?

    and in the first season she has a fair amount of control over Roger Sterling.

    Really? What did she make him do?

    @Maggie, Peggy was a very popular name at the time among Protestants as well as Catholics, so I wouldn’t read religion into it. As I’ve said, one can certainly fanwank Peggy’s ignorance of her pregnancy so the show makes sense, but only at the expense of Peggy. She’s not a teenage girl in a desperate situation. She’s a self-starter who’s figured a lot out for herself, so the idea she wouldn’t be worried by a lack of periods just doesn’t wash for me. Bottom line: they’ve gone very “urban legend” with Betty contracting palsy from a bad marriage (not Real Psychology TM), so I got the distinct feeling the amount of research that went into Peggy’s unknown pregnancy was, “Oh, I don’t know if we should do an abortion storyline. Wait, what if she didn’t know until labor, and never had a chance to abort? That way neither side can yell at us! It’s possible, right? You’ve heard of it? Me, too! It’s a go!”

    And finally, WHAT EILEEN SAID. That’s exactly it in a nutshell. They revel more than criticize, and while they’re deeply concerned about getting dresses, cars and sets “period”, they’re not nearly so concerned about nailing the women’s issues of the day.

    I would also add that they’ve neatly skirted dealing with African-American issues by simply rendering them invisible and giving a nod to injustice with the scene where we learn two black workers were fired for thefts committed by white men. While that’s very true to the period, it’s also a very privileged artistic choice, and certainly not the only choice the writers had.

  8. sbg says

    I do have to say, though, that I don’t think we’re supposed to feel sympathy for Don. I think his awful background help explain why he is why he is, though not nearly well enough. He’s a terrible human being, and no amount of backstory will change that.

    Hmm, I’m still stuck about this show. I can’t seem to express my thoughts. I do have them on Betty, Peggy, Joan and a number of other characters. My views don’t exactly match yours, Jennifer, but they’re all still a mixed bag.

  9. Gategrrl says

    Let’s not leave out the current advertisements for Mad Men on AMC: one of the ads directly says in the announcement, “Misogyny!” and then shows a myriad of clips of the women in the office being felt up, having a BB gun aimed at one, and all sorts of comments by the men about the women and wives and how *useless* they are.

    The advertisment itself revels in the misogyny in the show. It *celebrates* that angle of the show. It even sounds up-beat.

    I am not of the projected audience, I guess: AMC has completely cancelled any interest I might have had in this show all on its own.

  10. says

    a bad marriage simply does not make your hands cramp so badly you wreck your car

    I don’t remember the specific scene, or my reaction to it at the time – I don’t suppose you have a link to a clip just of that bit?

    From the purely physical point of view, hyperventilation (eg from anxiety/panic attack) can cause severe hand cramping to the point of tetany. The feet cramp too – carpopedal spasm – and it is typically also be association with numbness of the hands and face and feet.

    It could certainly be bad enough to crash a car, especially if someone has oh-so-helpfully previously told her to “take deep breaths” when she starts feeling this way.

  11. Fraser says

    I don’t see arguing that this is all fixed in second season is much of a defense. If I were this disturbed by a series’ sexism (I gave up on the show very early for other reasons so I haven’t seen anything touched on in the post), I wouldn’t have much incentive to watch and see if the second season reveals hidden depths.

  12. says

    Lauredhel, I looked on YouTube for a clip to no avail. She’s driving along with the kids (without their seatbelts, climbing all over the car, played for ironic laughs) when her hands start cramping. She ends up driving into a neighbor’s birdbath at a slow speed. No one is hurt. The kids wind up in the floor of the backseat.

    That’s a really good thought you had there, but she doesn’t hyperventilate – ever. Nor does she exhibit any other physical symptom I’ve ever heard of for an anxiety attack, nor does she ever talk about a any feelings that sound like a panic attack. If they wanted us to be thinking, “Oh, no, the poor woman has an anxiety disorder, and this is decades before they have the medications and therapies we have for that now!” I think they’d have included some hyperventilation or something to clue us in.

  13. sbg says

    That’s a really good thought you had there, but she doesn’t hyperventilate – ever. Nor does she exhibit any other physical symptom I’ve ever heard of for an anxiety attack, nor does she ever talk about a any feelings that sound like a panic attack. If they wanted us to be thinking, “Oh, no, the poor woman has an anxiety disorder, and this is decades before they have the medications and therapies we have for that now!” I think they’d have included some hyperventilation or something to clue us in.

    Betty’s whole portrayal stems on her being externally vacant, and we don’t see enough of her beyond this shell, this empty jar, to know what’s going on inside her. That’s a HUGE part of my problem with her. She’s very blank all of the time, which makes her the perfect vessel for Don’s misogyny. All we get to see is that she completely this exteriorly-pefect nuclear family.

    Even her therapy sessions (all controlled by Don, essentially), we don’t get any clues at all there’s anything in there. There were maybe a few sparks with her pregnant neighbor, but she disappeared somewhere.

    I do not like this woman = empty shell/jar/vessel thing at all.

  14. says

    Can you define “fanwanking” for me? I don’t know that term.

    Overall, I guess what I see is that they are incredibly hard on every single, miserable character. The men have obvious priviledge, and yet they are, for the most part, just as miserable and trapped by having to be one certain type of person. Personally, I find watching Mad Men feels like watching science fiction. I don’t know how any of them could stand it.

    As for needing the second season, things that are left unsaid are left unsaid at the end of season one. Without season two, you need simply recognize what you don’t yet know. To expect a show not to leave things unsaid and open-ended and needing to be developed is to ask Mad Men to be far, far less than it is.

    For example, my take on Betty’s illness is that it’s likely she *does* have a more serious illness which is now progressing untreated because of the assumptions of the day. What we do know is that when this woman was sick, this is what happened. And it’s horrid.

    Frankly, I find your comment about the secretaries offensive. Women took the steps they could take. Running the secretary pool and office decisions like what to do with the new copy machine (season two example, it’s been an age since I saw season one) are Joan’s pride. Oh, she runs the lipstick testing. As for Roger, I’d have to review season one. But the point is, are her accomplishments so meaningless? She advanced within the framework she was given and commands what respect she can command. She’s seriously impressive, and yet still horribly flawed as them all in some ways.

    The ad sounds horrible. People who put together trailers and advertising often completely screw with what a show is really like/about. It’s totally annoying.

  15. says

    It means doing the writers jobs for them (or fixing their mistakes) by filling in plotholes and fixing discontinuity.

    For a non Mad Men example:

    (spoilers for Supernatural, Firefly, and Serenity)

    When the Firely crew breaks into the hospital on Ariel, Simon’s reason for coming up with the job is to use the hospital’s equipment to study River’s brain in order to figure out what the goverment did to her. In fact, he spends much of the season trying to figure all this out. He even tells the rest of the crew in the first episode that he had no idea what was going on when he went to rescue River; he went simply based on the short coded message she sent him.

    In Serenity, though, it’s shown that Simon already was told the basics of what happened by the people who helped him rescue River. More importantly, the doctor at the facility she is being kept in tells him quite a few specifics. Even specifics we had yet to learn on the show.

    This is obviously bad continuity. But fans understand that the change was necessary in order to bring movie goers who never saw the TV show up to speed and to condense what would have been several episodes into one movie. So they come up with excuses for it. (Simon didn’t believe the doctor. Simon lied to the crew to protect River. etc.)

    Now, as for Mad Men, I haven’t seen it so I can’t really say for certain how I would interpret Peggy’s pregnancy. But I will say that unless there is a lot more that is said/shown than any of you are saying, I agree with Jennifer that Peggy’s complete ignorance about her pregnancy seems very out of character and/or unrealistic to real life. Which means that any excuses for it must come from the fans since it’s obvious the writers aren’t giving very good reasons for her actions themselves.

    There’s a difference between the writers not saying everything explictly and sloppy storytelling.

    For example, I don’t need to be told that Bela on Supernatural is hiding something about her past. But without the blip of her father standing manacingly at her doorway when she was little, any speculation I make about why she killed her parents is just that – speculation. And without that blip, the episode in which all this is revealed doesn’t make sense; Dean and Sam’s deep sympathy for her predicament is completely illogical and out of character otherwise. I don’t need anything more than that, though. Just that one blip. I don’t need to know what her father did or if her mother was involved. I don’t need to be explicitly told that hints of what happened were in the file Dean was given. I can infer that Dean knows what the viewers know based on how he reacts to Bela’s call.

    Without that blip, though, guessing that was the reason why Dean was sympathetic to Bela would be simply fanwanking.

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    Can you define “fanwanking” for me? I don’t know that term.

    Mickle did it so well, I defer to her.

    To expect a show not to leave things unsaid and open-ended and needing to be developed is to ask Mad Men to be far, far less than it is.

    Yes, but to require someone to watch the second season before criticizing the first would be like me insisting you must read ten other posts on this site because commenting on this one. :)

    And frankly, I’ve seen shows do “leaving things unsaid” better than this one. Sandbaggers had a main character who is brilliant and admirable and deceitful and terrifyingly dangerous, and the creator never tries to explain where he’s coming from (some characters guess, but they always have only a piece or two of the puzzle, and never agree with each other). We don’t know why Neil is like he is, and we’re free to love him or hate him, or both. Mad Men, however, takes us into Don’s sad past – to explain or to excuse? Unfortunately, that too is one of the things the show leaves unsaid.

    Frankly, I find your comment about the secretaries offensive.

    It was supposed to be – that’s how they were seen by men. You said Joan had power, when the entire point of her arc was that she thinks she has power/respect and pities Peggy, only to find out Peggy’s actually getting at least some respect from the men and Joan is the pitiable one – she’s just a fun time to the guys, nothing more.

    That was one aspect of the show I liked and wished they’d developed more. There WAS no power for Joan to get, not by the route she was taking, anyway. That was an expensive lesson women learned in the 60s, and part of the reason second wave feminism blossomed when it did. And now young women are learning it all over again because some pop culture Grrl Power bullshit in the 90s branded itself as a form of feminism and sold them on the idea that women can have power over men by granting and withholding sexual favors. Which is patently stupid, because we’d be running the world already if it was that easy. ;)

    But the point is, are her accomplishments so meaningless? She advanced within the framework she was given and commands what respect she can command. She’s seriously impressive, and yet still horribly flawed as them all in some ways.

    This is not what you said. You said she had “power”, and that’s what I was contesting. She is impressive in a lot of ways, but I think it’s a very important part of her story to recognize she does not have anymore power than any other woman in the story.

  17. says

    I never said you have to see the second season to criticize the first. I said that things are left unsaid in the first season. To assume what’s missing is no different then assuming what’s to come. So let’s not.

    I think Betty’s illness will return, but looking at season one alone, that storyline stands as a portrait of what could have happened back then to a housewife with those symptoms. And it sucked. But it happened.

    My mother was a WASP who grew up in those times in New York. Perhaps because so much of the show reflects her own stories back to me – stories that make Peggy’s situation completely believable as it stands in season one – I have more belief in the show. I mean, the fact that you think that what happened to Peggy is so unbelievable really surprises me. Heck, my mother was still pretty innocent (obviously not about the basics by then!) when I was a teenager.

    Joan has power. It’s tenuous, but I would argue that almost every character on Mad Men exhibits tenuous power that could disappear in a heartbeat. In Roger Sterling’s case, literally. I think that’s part of the point. More specifically, Joan has more power than every other female employee in the place until Peggy is promoted. And even after that, once they settle into their new roles. Their relationship is one of the most interesting on the show.

    I’d already read more than 10 posts on this site; do I get a cookie?

  18. Karabair says

    Eileen wrote:

    It would maybe have helped if they hired some talented female writers who were on fire about women’s treatment in this time period. They haven’t though.

    Here are the Mad Men writing credits listed on IMDB:
    Matthew Weiner (26 episodes, 2007-2008)
    André Jacquemetton (5 episodes, 2007-2008)
    Maria Jacquemetton (5 episodes, 2007-2008)
    Lisa Albert (3 episodes, 2007-2008)
    Robin Veith (2 episodes, 2007-2008)
    Bridget Bedard (2 episodes, 2007)
    Tom Palmer (2 episodes, 2007)
    Chris Provenzano (2 episodes, 2007)

    That’s at least 3 women (Maria, Lisa, and Bridget — Robin may be a woman’s name as well?) . It’s certainly open to debate whether they are talented or concerned about women’s issues from the period, but I’d hate people to get the mistaken impression, which Eileen’s comments may have given, that this show is written and run entirely by men.

  19. MaggieCat says

    Peggy was a very popular name at the time among Protestants as well as Catholics, so I wouldn’t read religion into it.

    It was fairly common in real life, but I’ve just noticed that in anything pre-70s it seems to have a better than 80% chance of being coded Catholic in television and film. I’ve only noticed the trend so much because my mother’s family is Catholic and I was millimeters away from being a Peggy myself, so take that FWIW.

    As I’ve said, one can certainly fanwank Peggy’s ignorance of her pregnancy so the show makes sense, but only at the expense of Peggy. She’s not a teenage girl in a desperate situation. She’s a self-starter who’s figured a lot out for herself, so the idea she wouldn’t be worried by a lack of periods just doesn’t wash for me. Bottom line: they’ve gone very “urban legend” with Betty contracting palsy from a bad marriage (not Real Psychology TM), so I got the distinct feeling the amount of research that went into Peggy’s unknown pregnancy was, “Oh, I don’t know if we should do an abortion storyline. Wait, what if she didn’t know until labor, and never had a chance to abort? That way neither side can yell at us! It’s possible, right? You’ve heard of it? Me, too! It’s a go!”

    Betty’s unrealistic situation certainly doesn’t win them the benefit of the doubt. I can still see ways that really good writers could make it work because from personal experience I can’t ever underestimate the power of denial in anyone even when it’s in a way that’s clearly potentially dangerous and the person is reasonably intelligent and educated. The mind can do some seriously compartmentalizing things to cope, allowing just enough awareness to deal with something physically without ever admitting it intellectually connecting to it emotionally.

    As I said before though, I was just mentioning the info for reference since I haven’t seen this show. Given the talk about how she couldn’t not know, I felt like the fact that it *is* possible in real life needed to be mentioned because when something like this happens so many people around can say the same when the person in the middle needs help that they won’t get if people are blaming them for something they haven’t even processed. (Not that this is what you were doing, characters are obviously in a different ballpark entirely. This concludes my PSA for the day, heh.)

    Sam and Dean had deep sympathy for Bela? REALLY didn’t see that.

    Neither did I. I saw a tiny bit less hate when they knew she was trying to save her own life, and some understandable satisfaction about outmaneuvering her when she came to murder them, but no sympathy and NO indication that either has any idea why she really had her parents killed. That was for the viewers’ understanding as far as I can tell (understanding, not sympathy) not Dean or Sam.

    The viewers were shown the flashbacks, but also saw Bela lie to Dean about why she did it. Thinking she told him the truth at some point is the fanwank, I think.

  20. says

    I think Betty’s illness will return, but looking at season one alone, that storyline stands as a portrait of what could have happened back then to a housewife with those symptoms. And it sucked. But it happened.

    No, it did not. No one ever developed mysterious hand cramps as a lone symptom of their loneliness and horniness. It’s a joke.

    Heck, my mother was still pretty innocent (obviously not about the basics by then!) when I was a teenager.

    I’ve known a number of women from that time period who were kept incredibly ignorant, way out in the boonies – didn’t know about periods, didn’t know sex existed when they started dating, etc. And you know what? They knew about pregnancy because they watched their female relatives go through it. You can keep “penises in vaginas” secret, and you can keep “monthly bleeding” a secret until it happens, but pregnancy goes on right in people’s faces. And even in the boonies, schools taught a bit about pregnancy. That’s why I find this so ludicrous. We’re all in agreement that a scared young girl can fail to understand and/or get past her denial of what’s going on. But a self-educated young woman from Brooklyn who seems fully capable of going to the library? It begs an explanation that the show couldn’t be bothered to give because explaining DON is terribly important, but explaining Betty or Peggy? Eh, whatever.

    Bottom line: the fact that there could BE an explanation for Peggy’s ignorance doesn’t excuse the filmmakers not providing one, and leaving viewers plenty of room to conclude she’s an idiot. It is not the viewer’s responsibility to wank it until it makes sense. The creators are responsible for what they put – and didn’t put – on screen.

    I’m still waiting for you to give me one single example of this power you claim Joan had in S1.

  21. says

    Robin Veith is a woman.

    I think what the show needed was writers who were genuinely interested in what women went through, and maybe in pointing out how much things have changed. That person need not be a woman, nor even a feminist.

  22. argolis says

    regarding peggy’s pregnancy:

    I had a friend this past spring give birth in her bathroom alone. She claims she didn’t know she was pregnant. Her boyfriend said he suspected that she might be a few months along. They both are well educated about sex and are in their early twenties. They’re college graduates.

    A few hours after the birth, she left the kid in a basket on a porch in a nice area of town. It sounds unreal, but I swear its the truth. I could point you to the articles in our local paper.

    Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, baby.

  23. Eileen says

    what the show needed was writers who were genuinely interested in what women went through

    That’s a good point, Jennifer. My comment about the show needing women writers on fire about women’s treatment in this period should definitely be amended as you suggested, because it is what I really meant.

  24. tp says

    This discussion is fascinating, I have to say. I’m a huge fan of Mad Man, so I’m going to be on the defensive a little, but I really appreciate the intelligent comments made here.

    (**Mild spoilers for S2 ahead!**)

    First off, Peggy is definitely Catholic, for what it’s worth. I had pretty much the same reaction as Jennifer to the surprise pregnancy storyline – I thought it was soap opera and out of character for Peggy (though, having said that, I don’t see Peggy as one to be researching sex ed in the local library). To give the writers credit, though, they did pick up on it a lot is S2, and, without giving too much away, seem to be heading towards something like MaggieCat’s theory (at least in my opinion).

    Joan is someone I’ve always had issues with, but I think that one of the themes of the show when it deals with gender politics is that women can only achieve a certain amount – or certain types – of power before they’re stopped abruptly (and I don’t *think* anyone here would argue with that, at least from a 60s worldview). Ultimately, the women in the show go as far as they can and then have to accept the rest. Is that enough for the show to be telling us? Maybe, maybe not. I’d love them to explore it more, but I think that’s the message they’re trying to give.

    Betty. I love Betty. I have to agree that the hand spasms made little to no sense in context, but I think the message was more subtle than “Cock: the cure for whatever ails women”. Betty is desperately lonely and sexually frustrated, but I thought it was made clear that her hand cramps were caused by her mother’s recent death, and the unrealistic burden of perfection she’d loaded onto her daughter – not anything to do with sex (well, one is caused by the other, probably. Betty has a *lot* of different and competing neuroses, which is one of the reasons I love her so much. Heh.)

    Thanks for the blog, and for the opportunity to contribute!

  25. Gategrrl says

    LizRiz, you don’t get a cookie, but you do get a big thumbs-up from me for contributing to what’s turning out to be a fascinating discussion!

  26. Gategrrl says

    I’d also like, if anyone is up to it, a possible comparison to Desperate Housewives?

    DH focuses on the women (I assume) and their own wacky lives in the present day. It did start out partly as satire, which I think is what Mad Men also aspires. I don’t watch either show, but I do wonder if any comparison is feasible or even worthy.

  27. says

    Joan being the direct supervisor of the entire secretarial pool is power.

    I didn’t find the Peggy turn in the last episode of season one remotely unrealistic or in need of any filling in to be realistic. In the scene where Peggy sees the doctor for the pills you can see how little she understands and how uncomfortable even getting them is. The joy of season two, however, is in finding out the details. For the record, my mother was upper middle class in New York and has a bachelor’s degree. People didn’t talk about sex or if they did it was misinformation city.

    And I recently had sleepy hands in the morning for a couple of months, causing me to drop things and be unable to grasp things. Yeah, I went to the doctor and had x-rays and an MRI. Turns out it was probably a pinched nerve and it went away on its own and would have even if I’d done nothing. (Although learning I needed cold not heat was key relief!) My point being, it was scary as hell and ultimately, it was nothing. I still can’t believe it was nothing. I was convinced it had to be something horrible and serious. The Betty storyline may have been a bit melodramatic, but I really think the point was how she’s treated and regarded by the doctors.

    It seems that you don’t agree with any of my points, so I believe that we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    I will point out that one of the texts used in the creation of Mad Men is Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown. I believe there was an interview regarding the election night party episode where one of the writers said that they actual had to back off some of what she’d written because it was so, so much worse than what’s depicted in Mad Men.

    Thank you for the discussion! Many interesting points and viewpoints. I *am* clearly coming from a place of love for Mad Men, so there’s that. :)

  28. says

    If I may, I’d like to add my two cents… I’m a huge fan of Mad Men, but I can still recognize that there are quite a few missing links in the show. However, I don’t think they all necessarily have to do with misogyny (I’m not saying that’s what you’re saying in this post, only that you give the impression that some of these plot devices/characterizations are misogynistic misses when they might just be plot holes, plain and simple). Only time will tell whether these things will be revisted and/or resolved (plenty of other examples of weird hanging threads: Rachel Menken’s disappearance and elopement; Roger Sterling’s daughter’s behavioral(?) problems; Salvatore’s homosexuality; Ken Cosgrove’s potential as a writer; the whole business with the neighbor Helen Bishop, etc.).

    Here’s my stance on the problems you mentioned, to add to the opinions of fellow commentors:

    Peggy:
    argolis makes a good point about denial. While I find it hard to believe that someone could be pregnant without their knowledge, there’s plenty of evidence that this can and has happened (even in this day and age, let alone the 1960s). Moreover, once Peggy found her footing at Sterling Cooper, which she definitely has by the end of season 1, she starts developing a bit of an ego. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that she’s in complete and utter denial about the
    pregnancy. Maybe she sort of knows, deep down, but she’s not willing to accept it as it falls so far outside of her worldview and her plans for the future. People have convinced themselves of and repressed far weightier matters.

    See this BBC article about surprise pregnancies and this article about denied pregnancies from the Journal of Psychosomatic Research (vol 61, issue 5).

    Joan:
    I would definitely argue that Joan has power, although I think the ways she has to articulate that power have changed over the past season and a half (this discussion is particularly germane to one of her current storylines regarding her job and its limits…but I don’t want to spoil it in case you’re not keeping up with the show). Peggy certainly unseated Joan’s sense of hierarchy/mastery over the space of the office, but I think she’s gained it back. Perhaps Joan’s power isn’t really feminist, in the sense that she uses her sexuality and is very manipulative, but I think she is a highly respected member of the office, arguably the highest ranking woman, until Peggy, that is. Still, in order to provide evidence for this, I’d have to re-watch all of season 1 and cite lots of tiny individual examples, and I simply don’t have the time (although that’d probably be fun). I’m not even sure I can provide concrete evidence (what would that entail, anyway?) so that’s just the sense I get about her character.

    Betty:
    Betty is problematic, and I was also flummoxed by the whole housewife hysteria business (I too thought it was going to be some sort of undiagnosed neurological illness). However, I agree with tp that her neuroses were a little more nuanced than lack of cock. I read the whole incident as her suffering from the isolation of housewife-dom, not having an outlet for all her frustration over Don’s philandering, etc., more than anything else. That much inoccupation and loneliness could drive a lot of people crazy, and I’m pretty sure hand-shaking and loss of control could constitute symptoms of an anxiety attack or, dare I say it, hysteria.

    I do agree that they did a poor job of resolving that storyline, although I would argue that her symptoms seemed to abet more because of her psychoanalysis (the “talking cure”) than because of sex with her washing machine. Although, who knows. Still, as much as we’d like to believe hysteria is a completely made up and sexist illness, it is actually a documented mental illness with unpredictable symptoms (of course, it afflicts men, too).

    From the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine (my emphasis): “Patients with hysterical disorders, such as conversion and somatization disorder experience physical symptoms that have no organic cause. Conversion disorder affects motor and sensory functions, while somatization affects the gastrointestinal, nervous, cardiopulmonary, or reproductive systems. These patients are not “faking” their ailments, as the symptoms are very real to them.”

    Also, this article about the history of hysteria and its decline is interesting (I haven’t read it through entirely, only skimmed it, but it’s certainly relevant): “On the “Disappearance” of Hysteria: A Study in the Clinical Deconstruction of a Diagnosis”.

    Okay. I’m going to stop now. I hope this is at least of some interest, even if you don’t agree.

  29. says

    Bottom line: the fact that there could BE an explanation for Peggy’s ignorance doesn’t excuse the filmmakers not providing one, and leaving viewers plenty of room to conclude she’s an idiot.

    I agree to an extent, but it’s also not unreasonable for a viewer to leave room for a possible future explanation.

    In season two, it becomes clear that Peggy grew up in a staunchly Catholic house where she bucked all her family’s norms to move to Manhattan and start working as a secretary. Flashbacks to her time in the hospital after having the baby show that she was in deep, deep denial about it. She was raised in a very conservative and religious family, and in her attempt to branch out on her own for the first time, she ended up sleeping with a married dude and getting pregnant. Not exactly what she was mentally prepared for. Plus, she is simultaneously attempting to juggle an unprecedented job move: a jump from the secretarial pool to doing copy editing in a male-dominated field. She has no training for this, no one to talk to, and her family seems to offer little support. She even has to work side by side every day with the man who unknowingly got her pregnant.

    A television series is bound to have cliffhangers, and so did Mad Men. We were left wondering about a number of things at the end of season one, and yes, one of those questions we had was whether or not Peggy was psychologically unbalanced, naive, or just an idiot. However, it would be rash to assume that just by leaving the question open for debate they were automatically branding Peggy as an idiot.

  30. says

    Let me try to explain it one more way.

    A show needs a cliffhanger? et’s imagine this is a show about tough dudes, and the cliffhanger is that one of them appears to get blown up (or did he???) by a booby trap right at the last frame. Do you show him:

    –Walking up to a very clever trap that even his awesome, say, Special Forces skills would not have prepared him to expect?
    –Walking stupidly up to a trap he totally should have anticipated, as did your 10 year old niece, in hopes the audience won’t interpret your hero as stupid?

    Either you’re concerned about avoiding any possibility of the audience perceiving your character as stupid or you’re not. I have noticed for years that writers worry much more frequently about insulating MALE characters from the possible perception of stupidity than female (because, I suspect, they perceive that women can “get away with” being stupid, poor dears). I think it’s quite well known that a huge number of (ignorant) people don’t believe it’s ever possible for a woman not to realize she’s pregnant. While that is certainly asinine, film and TV makers are conditioned to write the the lowest common denominator – i.e., the least intelligent, open-minded person in the audience. They could have resolved this problem with, for example, two lines of dialog:

    Peggy (upon realizing she’s been pregnant and not known it): “How is that possible?”
    Doctor: “It happens.” …and rushes her off to delivery.

    Then, even if the audience doesn’t buy it, we know the writers think this is plausible, and by the standards of their world Peggy is still no fool. That they didn’t bother suggests a lack of attention to detail in women’s issues – oddly telling in a show that’s meant to deconstruct male entitlement.

    This was the same exact lack of detail I picked up on with Betty’s situation, when they invoked the stereotype of the hysterical housewife exhibiting physical symptoms of a neurosis. They probably didn’t mean to invoke this stereotype. They probably just didn’t think through that giving her a symptom of a degenerative disease without the disease would remind some of us of “Mother’s Little Helper” being handed out as the panacea to any complaints housewives had. I suspect the writers were trying to create a visual device to illustrate Betty’s legitimate emotional complaints – i.e., Don’s treatment of her. Great idea, except… don’t they know what a problem women have had getting treated for real physical problems? Didn’t they consider how that would play?

    If a show claims to deconstruct male entitlement, but it’s creators don’t even do the basic research to avoid implying The Patriarchy Was Right About Them Whiny Gals, then you can’t argue the problem lies with the audience, or with certain members of the audience.

  31. wiggles says

    Aw, damn. I’m all late and stuff, but I’ve just recently started watching Mad Men and I’m kind of obsessed with it right now and not sure if I like the direction it’s taking and this is the only interesting discussion of it I could find.
    Betty’s hands don’t cramp. They go numb. She comments that she can’t feel them. The numbness that led to the car accident was triggered when she saw the divorced neighbor struggling to move a big heavy box into her house by herself. It obliquely indicates Betty’s anxiety about the uncertainty of her situation; her emotionally unavailable and philandering husband could easily take up with someone else and leave her in the lurch. But she doesn’t want to acknowledge that directly so it plays out as a physical symptom in her hands. But I too was surprised and a bit disappointed that it wasn’t some undiagnosed disease like MS or something. I’m almost all the way through the second season now and the numb hands have yet to reappear; I think that part of the story has been blown off, unfortunately.
    I like how Betty’s messed in the head about beauty compliance. At least in the first season, it was interesting to hear her associate her looks as her value in a way that I thought was unusually sympathetic and relevant. That’s another aspect that seems to have gone by the wayside in the second season, as I’ve heard nothing more about it.
    And as far as Peggy’s pregnancy goes, I’d attribute that to denial. I’ve had some pretty clued in friends and relatives who didn’t acknowledge they were pregnant until well into their second trimesters. Given Peggy’s era and her Catholicism, she’d have more motivation to block that out than those friends and relatives of mine.
    I’m not sure about how the show’s treating black people. I understand them being pushed to the background to some extent, but I want more of them. Betty’s had actual (but brief) conversations with a couple of black women – her housekeeper and her father’s maid (who may be her former nanny). Something about those scenes didn’t sit well with me, but I can’t put my finger on it. Too quaint and folk-wisdomy? I’d be happier if they had a running subplot of the housekeeper’s home life. Off to read what the womanists have to say about it…

  32. wiggles says

    And another thing! They revealed too much too soon about Don’s past. You can’t keep him ‘mysterious’ when you tell me everything in one season.

  33. Aleksandr-like-The-Great says

    What made me lose interest in the show almost instantly was the character of Rachel Menken. At the start, she shows Don her teeth and doesn’t take his shit. This earned my respect and ignited a hope that perhaps — PERHAPS! — there was a female character worth a damn in this show (keep in mind, I was watching this back to back with season two of American Horror Story, also set in that american time period).
    But the moment Don and Rachel are alone, she ops to fuck the douche-bag. What the hell is that?
    Fuck this show and its strawman-feminist bullshit.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The misogyny in Mad Men is ironic, all right | the Hathor Legacy "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." (tags: tv sexism) [...]

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