For years, Matthew Weiner has been hearing two different reactions to the casual workplace sexism depicted on Mad Men — with men saying it was unrealistic and women saying it nailed their experience, he told Larry King this week. The gendered split remained just as pronounced after this month’s mid-season premiere, “Severance,” which featured an excruciating scene in which Peggy and especially Joan are the targets of blatant sexual harassment. After it aired, Weiner said, the reaction was as expected: “As usual, a bunch of men get on and say, ‘This is outrageous. You went too far, it’s too unbelievable,’ and all the women are [saying], ‘You’re nuts. It’s still like this. You have no idea.’”
Since the premiere of Mad Men, I’ve heard many viewers say the frank, period-appropriate racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism of the characters initially made it hard for them to watch. But for fans, that verisimilitude opened a door, providing a chance to truly examine the history of American workplace attitudes. And that’s been one of the show’s biggest successes. Any consideration of either Peggy’s or Joan’s trajectory throughout the show forces us to run our minds over the poor treatment women have received from colleagues, clients, bosses, and underlings alike.
And it’s not just a historical artifact. Mad Men‘s depiction of office misogyny is accurate to its time period (many reviewers cite an acquaintance who once worked in advertising who says it’s true — I also have such a source), but it also accurately reflects things that go on today, though far less often or overtly. Leering, excluding, and gendered belittling are hardly dinosaurs of behavior in professional settings. And the reality that some male viewers anecdotally deny the truth of these depictions is even reflected in the show itself, in the blithe or callous faces of characters like Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling. Meanwhile, scenes featuring Peggy and Joan zoom us in to their bottled-up rage.
Joan and Peggy’s relationship, and their reactions to the hostile environment they’re placed in, is one of Mad Men‘s gems. They are sometime-allies whose different types of suffering (Joan is invariably sexualized or ignored; Peggy is desexualized, belittled, or ignored) and different choices invariably bring them into conflict. Perhaps their elevator confrontation in the premiere was too on the nose, but it also felt real, an example of internalized misogyny — and silence — exploding briefly and potently between the two of them. Peggy criticizes Joan for dressing too provocatively, a mirror image of the way Joan once admonished Peggy for dressing to dowdily and not like a woman. Years later, Joan snaps back with a hollow echo of her former complaints. Joan seethes and Peggy represses, and they snap at each other; yet they’re both actually mad at their powerlessness. The scene is made more poignant because at times they’ve been comrades, talking to each other about marriage, cohabitation, and sharing a moment of resentment when Don proposed to his secretary Megan out of the blue.
If there’s any room for criticism of gender on Mad Men, however, it is provided by the Don Draper storyline. The story backtracks on its alleged purpose of undermining the myth of Don Draper, and often the writers and Weiner himself appear to be caught up in the romance of his womanizing even when they want to portray it as an unseemly compulsion.
When we see Don with yet another leggy blonde or moody brunette — and, perhaps more egregiously, see them continuously throwing themselves at him — there’s a danger that glamor rather than disgust is the prevailing mood, and that Don’s male gaze is being transferred to us. I have found Don being stuck in the same old patterns feels more frustrating than the workplace being stuck, because the workplace at least has momentum to stand in contrast to: Peggy and Joan’s ascension (and, before she left, Megan’s). There’s a real point to the office boorishness this season: look at how far the women have come, and yet look at how they (and by extension we), must contend with the same old foolishness, it says. Feminism is only just knocking on the door.
Meanwhile, Don’s treading water feels lazier, more nihilistic. Lili Loofburow wrote about the problem of Don’s lack of arc in her excellent Dear Television piece on Mad Men and stasis:
If Mad Men’s moral is that people don’t change, can’t change — if they’re forced to compulsively repeat — then someone who changed as much as Don Draper did, from a clumsy, weak-mouthed private to a smooth lady-killing ad exec, would not be able to stop changing. Were he a high-school math problem, we should be finding his derivative, not his slope. He’d remain a chameleon forever: his lonely moments would reveal his lack of confidence in his own façade. Instead (and in ways that strike me as inconsistent with his origin story) Don seems trapped in the suit he’s become. Don’s marriage to Megan took him nowhere different. His affair with Sylvia took him nowhere different. Rachel’s death won’t take him anywhere different either.
Because the women who parade in and out of Don’s life rarely move his character forward, it begins to feel like the show is using and discarding them, exactly the way he does.