Some Clarifications Re: ‘Mad Men’ & Feminism

*I first started writing this as a comment on PostBourgie (my original ‘Mad Men’ article was cross-posted there), but it got really long and involved, so here’s my response in article form.

First of all, WOW. Half the time, I am craptastic at responding to comments on my own blogs, so post an article of mine on someone else’s blog, and forget it. I just saw those comments at PostBourgie a couple of days ago, practically a whole week after the fact.  I suck.  I’m sorry.

Needless to say, the commenters on PostBourgie raised some good questions about my ‘Mad Men’ article.   While I’m confident that my education has not failed me where feminist history is concerned, one commenter pointed out a hole in my argument where I mention The Feminine Mystique. As he stated in his comment, Friedan was indeed referring to the suburban housewife and not working women like Joan and Peggy. I’m well aware of this fact, but the way I wrote it made it sound like I was lumping in all women of the 60s.  I wasn’t; I specifically had Betty and her social class in mind, but I can see why one would think otherwise.

That being said, I still stand by my claim that ‘Mad Men’ isn’t feminist.

I guess the biggest question raised was “What makes a show/movie feminist?”  Perhaps this is a copout—and I already know it’s an answer a lot of people won’t like—but I don’t think there’s a clear-cut, definitive answer.   No, I don’t think that a feminist TV show/movie requires the “woman is victim–>woman becomes empowered” formula.  Sometimes it works out that way, but it’s certainly not the only way to go.  However, I think there’s more to it than giving female characters depth (is that really all it takes to be feminist media these days?).

Look at any film—or filmmaker, for that matter—that has been referred to as feminist (films by Agnes Varda, Gurinder Chadha, or Laura Mulvey, for example).  Sure, their female characters have depth, but there’s more to them than that one fact: they film/director usually takes a position on something.  Sometimes the position is subtle (Vagabond), sometimes it’s not (Teeth), but at the very least, the filmmaker is taking a stance and/or making a statement.

‘Mad Men’ does nothing of the sort.  From Michelle Dean’s Bitch article:

An even better example of cognitive dissonance in Mad Men‘s audience happened in last season’s famous scene between Don Draper and Bobbie Barrett.  In a stunningly physical display of male domination, Don grabbed Bobbie’s hair, inserted his hand into her vagina, and ordered her to compel her husband Jimmy to apologize to his clients.  She complies.

When I watched the scene myself, though, I thought – how masterfully they’ve set this up!  This is the dark underbelly of Don’s charm, revealed!  And they’ve even set it up so that he’s using his sexual dominance of Bobbie to make her do something that will benefit him professionally!  Oh I can’t wait to see what people have to say about this!

And the reaction at Jezebel was typical of what I heard in most corners of the internet: shocking – but sexxxaaaaay! … [W]hat I thought would be a discussion about the more difficult spaces in which male domination can play out – that even where we might be said to want it, structurally it’s no good for us as people – turned into a reflexive admiration of how totally hot misogyny can be.

‘Mad Men’ isn’t resisting stereotypes, nor is it trying to challenge people’s viewpoints.   It isn’t out to change the world, or even make you question the world.  Honestly, I don’t even think the show is particularly trying to educate people about how women’s/men’s lives were in that era, because its target audience already knows the story.

‘Mad Men’ simply just is.  That’s part of the reason I love the show (yes, I am a fan, even though as a brown person, I’m definitely not the target audience).  It’s a realistic, well-written drama set in a historically-accurate period.  It’s not trying to sway people one way or the other.  Women aren’t always victims, men aren’t always bad guys; everyone has their faults, (almost) everyone has their redeeming qualities—i.e., they’re real people.  The costumes are amazing.  And yes: I also love that it’s a feminist/gender analysis goldmine.

But there’s a big ass difference between feminist analysis and actually being feminist.  One can analyze anything through a feminist lens.  You can analyze Hostel II through a feminist lens.  Does that mean Eli Roth is feminist?  Hell.  No.

Is ‘Mad Men’ in and of itself itself feminist?  I maintain my firm “no.”

But if you do want to call ‘Mad Men’ feminist, may I ask exactly what kind of feminist it is?  Is it the kind of feminism that’s soon to hit 1963 (i.e., the kind that rejects women of color, lavender menaces, and poor people, while allowing upper middle class women to empower themselves)?  Or is it modern day feminism (i.e., the kind that many WOC are still wary of, but in theory now includes anti-racism along with its triad of socioeconomic/political/gender equity)?  Just askin’.


About Melissa

I love donuts. Chocolate iced, hold the sprinkles.
This entry was posted in feminism, television and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Some Clarifications Re: ‘Mad Men’ & Feminism

  1. yeah and, i think it’s clear from the pilot episode that the protagonist is a sexist man… certainly does nothing to challenge mulvey’s male gaze theory.

  2. licia says:

    yeah and, i think it’s clear from the pilot episode that the protagonist is a sexist man… certainly does nothing to challenge mulvey’s “male gaze.”

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