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For the past five years, the weekly dramatic series “Mad Men” has been the toast of American television. In its first four years on the air, the show won an unprecedented four straight Emmys for Outstanding Drama. Its top stars, including Jon Hamm as Don Draper and Christina Hendricks as Joan Davis, have become pop icons. Both appear in TV ads to flack for major companies — Hamm for American Airlines, Hendricks for Johnny Walker Scotch. In recent months, the “Mad Men” craze has led paparazzi to chase Hamm through the street, hoping to snap a shot of the bulge in his pants. The tabloids openly speculate about the size of his penis and whether Hamm goes out in public without underwear (i.e. “dresses commando”). Hendricks — a dazzling redhead with an hourglass figure and a 40-plus size bosom – is no slouch, either. She’s recently been credited by fashion experts with bringing back the “voluptuous look.” In fact, a study conducted in Britain in 2010 found that breast implant surgeries in the UK had increased by over 10% since she joined the cast.
And yet, the media elite, especially feminists, remain deeply ambivalent about “Mad Men.” Is it any wonder, though? While hailed as historically accurate and brilliantly written, there’s no denying that the charismatic alpha males that rule the roost at Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce – the fictional Manhattan advertising agency at the center of it all — are, by contemporary standards, sexist pigs. On a daily basis, they screw, bully and lie their way through their professional and personal lives, all the while hopped up on high-priced booze and their own unbridled egos. Most of the women around them – when they’re not being summarily fired, verbally humiliated, or cheated on – labor in obscurity in the firm’s secretarial pool or quietly tend to the children at home, resentful but alone.
But not all do. And that’s precisely where the show’s dramatic tension and extraordinary crossover appeal – an embarrassing 57% of “Mad Men” viewers are women, it turns out — seems to lie. Hendricks as Davis, for example, is one of the few women to break through Sterling Cooper’s glass ceiling, having joined the firm’s circle of senior partner in Season 5. But how she came to accomplish that feat is telling. Roger, a senior partner who was infatuated with her, bedded her down and later helped her escape her marriage to come back to the firm to manage the secretary pool. Later, when a coveted client – a crude and pudgy man twice her age – took a shine to her, the male hierarchy hatched a plot: if Joan agreed to sleep with him, helping to close the deal, they’d offer her a seat at the table. Joan, insatiably ambitious and calculating, agreed, but only after receiving a sage piece of under-the-table advice from another male partner: demand a senior partnership and a percentage of the gross. Desperate for the new account, the group acceded.
Watching “Mad Men” can be a truly toxic – but mesmerizing – experience. The scene in which Joan sleeps with the client repeatedly cross-cuts between the client’s clumsy “seduction” of her and Don’s polished sales presentation to the firm the same day. (In a characteristic “Mad Men” touch, Joan politely corrects the client’s elocution as he’s fondling her). In fact, both Joan and Don are “selling,” and the deliberate cross-cutting, and the sight of the dazzling and graceful Joan giving herself over to a man so far beneath her station in every way but economic, is grueling to watch. There’s a reason feminists are so appalled by this show: it seems to relish just a little too much the crass deception and depravity that it so artfully reveals. But so, in fact, do the show’s characters, including Joan, who expresses a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie for having “played with the big boys” and “taken one for the team.”
Not all the scenes in “Mad Men” are quite so venal. Some of the best and most poignant ones are those in which both genders drop their masks and express genuine warmth and vulnerability. Sometimes the language is coarse — as when Roger confesses to Joan: “You are the finest piece of ass I ever had. There are a lot of things in my life that I would like to forget, but you’re not one of them” – but they can also be painfully tender. Peggy, the perky working class girl who gets promoted to ad copy chief, succumbs to an impulsive office “quickie” with her boss, and gets pregnant, but doesn’t tell him. A year later, he’s still infatuated and she finally confesses the truth – that she’d given birth, and given the child up for adoption. He’s stunned, especially when she gently tells him the reason: “Pete, I wanted other things. One minute you’re there, the next, you’re not. You keep hoping that this person you know will come back. But then you realize. No, he’s just gone.” At moments like these, Mad Men is simply the best show on television.
But now, as Season 6 unfolds a powerful wind of change is blowing through the series, leaving its future in doubt. Its flagging Nielsen ratings – and failure to win a 5th straight Emmy – seem to have followed a thematic change in the show. Suddenly, almost inexplicably, the entire white male edifice appears to be crumbling from within. Don’s glitzy fairy-tale marriage to his fashionable former secretary is foundering. After bedding down his neighbor’s wife – who abruptly ends the affair after he starts to bully her – he’s on the verge of a nervous collapse. Pete’s wife finally wants out of their “open” marriage. Joan is beginning to rebuff Roger’s advances and insists on being treated completely professionally, while flirting with a younger man at the firm. The women are all rising up, while the men are all falling. Even the firm’s office culture has changed: after an unexpected merger, the two management teams need to co-operate and compromise to get things done; there’s more transparency, fewer shady dealings, and less vicious back-stabbing. “Mad Men” appears to be rapidly morphing from vicious and often brutal patriarchal lair into something more “modern,” feminized, open, and presumably more enlightened.
But is this what Mad Men” viewers really want? The show thrives, it seems, because it harkens back nostalgically to a pre-feminist era in which women who agreed to stay in their place could reasonably expect to be provided for. It also taps into post-feminist angst about the unanticipated difficulties some women have experienced as they’ve moved into the workplace and have struggled to find satisfaction in their marriages. It could be that many female viewers still long for an era in which patriarchy, as cruel as it could be, also bound the two genders tightly together, and gave men a vested interest, however paternalistic, in supporting and promoting the women they favored and adored. Consider a recent (April 2013) poll (largely ignored in the States) conducted in the UK: 75% of British women said they felt pressured by their peers to be “independent” and an even greater number said they wouldn’t mind “being taken care of” by a male partner. These are the ambivalent sentiments that provide such fertile ground for a show like “Mad Men”.
There may be other, less prosaic, reasons for the show’s success. These are some of the most impeccably groomed and most stylishly dressed actors anywhere on television. Some scenes are so well lit and staged that they resemble less a TV show than a fashion shoot. Walk into any Banana Republic outlet and you’ll likely run into a display case of cheap knock-offs of clothing worn by Draper & Co. There’s even a name for this new/old style – “Mad Men chic.”
For all of these reasons, “Mad Men” could well lose its core audience if it succumbs to political correctness and tries to tame its men’s – and women’s – outlandishly wicked ways. “Good” politics is good, but for retro lovers, especially, it may be too dramatically uninteresting to survive as good television.
Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org