The Gender Politics of Mad Men

Micha Ghertner takes me to task for saying that a lot of guys enjoy Mad Men because they like to glimpse the world when men were men who had hot secretaries and bars in their offices. Micha says:

I don't know what Will was thinking of when he wrote this. Maybe he just hasn't watched enough episodes yet? The overall point he is trying to make is a fine one, but Mad Men displays exactly the opposite of what he is trying to express.
What I see when I watch Mad Men is a bunch of privileged dominant white males – and their trophy wives – who are absolutely miserable, partly ( largely?) because they can see their privilege and dominance cracking under the weight of inexorable social change.
That's why Peggy seems to creep everyone out except Don, who is too busy trying to juggle all of the various lies he has made to his wife, kids, coworkers, mistresses, and clients to care that Peggy is breaking the glass ceiling, getting impregnated out of wedlock, and doing all of the things a woman of her station in life shouldn't be doing. Don sees himself reflected in Peggy, as a rule breaker and successful social status climber who has to navigate a new, false identity.
No one is truly happy in the show, and we the audience, with the advantage of 50 years of hindsight, know that things are only going to get worse for those characters desperately trying to clutch onto some romanticized, illusory past.
Notice the title sequence of a businessman falling from the top of a skyscraper, eliciting a sense of vertigo? It's not that subtle Will, and you were an art major!

I think everything Micha says is right on. I like to watch Mad Men for the menswear and a sense of the superiority of my postmodern egalitarian consumption partnership. But that's not inconsistent with the idea that lots of guys who like the show don't get the point of it and like to imagine how sweet it would be to have women take care of all the annoying details of life and smoke at work.
Like Micha, I see Mad Men as a show about status and status anxiety in an age of cultural ferment. Let's talk about it! In this week's episode [SPOILERS, if my stupid tendency toward abstraction can actually spoil anything] I particularly enjoyed the contrast between Peggy and Joan.
Joan is omnicompetent, authoritative, and in full control of her abundant femininity. She has fully mastered the arts of mid-century haute bourgeois womanhood and she knows it. Yet her clear clerical, sexual, social, and domestic excellence cannot guarantee her a status among women–a status among wives–equal to her own sense of her worth. Her status, in the end, is a function of her husband's. And she does not seem to second-guess that this should be so. She gambled and lost with Sterling and is now confronting the suspicion that her fiance is not really good enough for her. And she is getting on in years. Despite her flawless performance of womanhood, her ambitions may end up stymied by the flaws in her men.
Peggy is equally talented and ambitious. But in stark contrast to Joan's knowing, cultivated breed-standard womanly completeness, she is a naive, raw, curious puppy of a female. She is anxious and awkward about how she stacks up in the world of women and she is anxious and awkward about how she stacks up in the world of men. But she is toughly confident in how she stacks up as a creative worker. The new willingness of the world to reward her for what she does rather than for what she is grants her a power to independently realize her ambitions unavailable to perfect, normatively realized women.
As I see it, Mad Men is centered on Peggy, not Don. The very possibility of Peggy's success is the engine of dramatic conflict. It threatens to devalue the relative status both of the professional men with whom she directly competes and of their wives with whom she doesn't compete so much as humiliate by rejecting the grounds of their social and self-esteem. She is not yet in a position to really much threaten anyone, but the broader movement of liberation she represents will seem to many as little more than a violent, unfair, ad hoc emendation to the rules of the game they shaped their lives around.
Don is comfortable with Peggy, for now, because he sees these rules as little more than a fixed creative constraint, like the form of a sonnet. Don knows everyone is a manufactured thing, a product, advertising him- or herself in some market niche or other. (Don cannot believe Sterling is happy rather than performing happiness, which he finds unbecomingly “foolish.”) The fact that Don is a self-conscious and thus superlative performer explains both his outward success and his sense that it is empty. But what if self-construction does not necessarily mean living a lie? What if something like authenticity is compatible with success? In the end, Peggy may threaten Don more than she threatens the hierarchies of the trads by proving the possibility of successful integrity–by creating a persona, however awkward, that is both outwardly successful and inwardly satisfying.
Anyway, I'm totally overinterpreting. But that's how I'm guessing things might shape up. Also, menswear!

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center