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The 7 Worst Men of Mad Men: Do They Have to Be Such Jerks?

Profiling seven of the cruel, insensitive, retrograde jerks from one of TV's hottest shows, and asking the question: Is 'Mad Men' feminist?
 
 
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There is no getting around the fact that the men of the fabulously popular series "Mad Men," who populate the offices of the advertising firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, are a pathetic collection of what the gender has to offer.

Ok, they're not axe murderers. But as a lot, they are cruel, insensitive jerks, fueled by ego, booze and cigarettes.

The men of "Mad Men" have a special reservoir of contempt for the women in their lives, both in the workplace and at home. A rampant and persistent misogyny pervades the show, and provides a good deal of the fuel for the narrative, showcasing just how insensitive men can be.

Now, I'm not suggesting the men of "Mad Men" should be puritans. Heavens, no. And everyone is at least a small product of the environment in which they swim. We all make mistakes, and have our dark sides, as we navigate through life. But the naked cruelty and overwhelming insensitivity manifested by the show's male characters sometimes takes one's breath away.

Why is the show so stacked against women? Why are these men so unworthy and sadistic? Was male behavior so despicable across the board in the upper echelons of the advertising industry in the mid-1960s, that the writers and producers of the show couldn't produce a single mensch, one man of character, one person with something akin to enlightened values?

After all, this year's show takes place in 1965, not the stone age. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

Or more to the point: was the advertising business so sleazy, so lacking moral compass, so hungry for success that almost everyone was a manipulative ogre, and it was truly a bad man's world? Does "Mad Men," the show everyone thinks accurately depicts the advertising industry of the '60s, have to be this way?

George Lois doesn't think so. Sometimes called the original Mad Man, Lois is an eminence grise of the creative forces that transformed advertising in the 1960s, and he thinks the show gets it all wrong.

Lois writes in an essay in Playboy that there was a true revolution in advertising during the period of "Mad Men," started in the 1950s by one of creative advertising's firsts, Bill Bernbach. It was about joining talented copywriters with visionary graphic designers, "giving birth to the first truly creative agency." "Power had been taken away from the account executives and the business men and transferred to the talented people who actually made the ads."

Lois suggests that "Mad Men" misrepresents the advertising industry by ignoring this revolution, which changed the world of communications forever: "The mortal sin of omission makes 'Mad Men' a lie." According to Lois, the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, disagrees, saying that "George Lois is a legend…but Sterling Cooper is not cutting edge; it's mired in the past." To which Lois responds: "Huh?" He wonders why the producers "go whole hog to depict the scum of the industry, rather than the upbeat world of cultural creativity." Lois, ever colorful with his copy, calls the men in "Mad Men" "phony, gray, flannel suited, male chauvinist, no talent, WASP, white shirted, racist, anti-Semitic, Republican SOBS." "'Mad Men' has given the world the perception that the scatology of the Sterling Cooper workplace was industry wide. In their advertising, the show's creators have the balls to proclaim that 'Mad Men' explores the 'Golden Age of Advertising,' but they surely know they are shoveling shit."

And shit they shovel. While watching the show, I, and others I've spoken to, have grown increasingly depressed by its overwhelmingly misanthropic atmosphere. To make the point, I've compiled a list of the top seven worst male characters who are on the show in its fourth season -- in descending order.

7. Joan Harris
. Surprise, surprise. OK, I know Joan is a woman. But she starts off the list because she so identifies with the men in power at the firm. She is often contemptuous of the women she works with and supervises. Beginning with the first episode, when she suggests that Peggy go home, cut eyeholes in a paper bag, put it over her head, and figure out what she needs to change about herself, and "be honest," to a recent episode in which she fires Lane's secretary on the spot, for a rather innocent mistake. Joan terrorizing her underlings, women younger and less powerful than she. Her willingness to do the bidding of the men on the show has, in a sense, earned her a seat at the table: she often takes part in high-level goings on at the firm. She is also extremely smart and competent, and seems a whole level more together not only than the other secretaries but almost every man on the show, which would make her a great candidate for a feminist transformation. Let's hope that's in the cards for Joan and the show.

6. Lane Pryce.The stuffy fellow, a rep for the English company that bought Sterling Cooper last season, and who is now a partner at the new firm, is a bastion of rigidity. He has no sensitivity for his employees, playing, as James Wolcott notes, "the bottom-line-obsessed martinet, forcing everyone to work during the holiday week and denying Joan a post-New Year's vacation." Pryce says to Joan, "I understand that all men are dizzy and powerless to refuse you, but consider me the incorruptible exception," adding, "Don't go and cry about it."

But now, Lane may have loosened up. Wolcott is pleased to "see character and actor cut loose during Lane's debauched New Year's ramble with Don, making a spectacle of himself like a first-time drunk--but charmingly so! Nice touch at the restaurant, getting up and covering his crotch with a huge slab of porterhouse and crowing something about having 'a belt buckle the size of Texas.'"

Don Draper takes Lane back to his apartment with two prostitutes, one very familiar with Draper, and when Pryce emerges in the morning, he seems to now belong to the inner club. "How much do I owe you?" he asks Draper. "Twenty-five dollars," says the dashing Don. Wolcott: Lane has "passed his 'Mad Men' initiation last night, hookers and all, and can finally begin pulling his weight around Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in terms of both bad behavior and hushed angst."

5. Joan's husband, Dr. Greg Harris. While a minor character in the scheme of things, the good doctor raped Joan on the floor of Don's office in Season One. She could have dumped him, but instead went ahead and married him. Joan's husband is a narcissist through and through, who arranges his life to be completely unavailable to Joan. He unilaterally makes the decision to go off to Vietnam, with no concern as to how this will effect Joan emotionally, professionally, economically. Joan, who's extremely good at and clearly loves her job, is expected to stop working when they get married so he can "take care of her." Yet, when he fails professionally, making them financially vulnerable, Joan is expected to pick up the slack, and come crawling back to the agency.

4. Lee Garner Jr., of Lucky Strike. This guy is pure venality. The scion of a tobacco empire, on whose business the agency depends, he knows he can get his way at Sterling Cooper no matter what. He hits on the closeted Sal, and when Sal rebuffs him, gets him canned. He is imperious, insensitive and power-mad. He shows his cruelty in a recent episode, at a holiday party planned entirely to please him. Garner insists that Roger Sterling, one of the partners, put on a Santa Claus suit and give out presents. Roger clearly doesn't want to do it. Garner insists, in front of everyone. The move is designed to emasculate Roger and demonstrate Lee's dominance. The glee with which Garner pressures Roger shows pure sadism. Sterling finally gives in, all to keep a client happy.

3. Roger Sterling. Sterling is the son of the other original partner (with Cooper) and is probably in his early to mid 50s. Nelle Engoron sums it up nicely on Salon: Roger Sterling is a raging alcoholic who abandons the loyal wife who stands up to him in order to marry a pretty young thing who lies down for him. Personifying the rich boy who is "born on third base and thinks he hit a triple," Roger's sole talent, for converting Stoli into lewd comments, is portrayed as catnip not just for clients but even put-upon secretaries. While Don's darkness is used to seduce the viewer, Roger provides comic relief, his open sexism and racism played strictly for laughs. So far Roger's only punishment has been a couple of heart attacks that not only didn't slow him down but actually rejuvenated him and drove him into the arms of a sultry young trophy wife.

In a recent episode, Roger shows his racism, and his clinging to the past when he insults some Japanese ad executives from Honda with references to atomic bombs and "Jap crap."

2. Pete Campbell. Let's call Pete, played by Vincent Kartheiser, the slimy one, utterly lacking a moral spine. He is perhaps the most unctuous, transparently manipulative character on the show. But I'll let Emily Nussbaum of the New York Times have her own noun fest: "Pete Campbell is a creep. Pete Campbell is a dork. Pete Campbell is a schemer, a sadist, a weasel, a blackmailer. Worse, he's got no game. Pete Campbell -- an account executive at Mad Men's white-shoe advertising firm but ambitious for so much more -- is pompous to underlings, obsequious to bosses, grabby with women. The man manages to combine the worst qualities of frat boy and nerd."

Pete is the rich kid, taken into the new firm because of his family connections. A quick summary of Pete Campbell by Engoron, "… he publicly demeans Peggy on her first day of work, a tactic that mysteriously causes her to sleep with him not long afterward, thus consigning her to a secret pregnancy and hidden torment. Pete thoughtlessly cheats on the wife who obviously loves him, apparently rapes a neighbor's au pair, breezes through his days in expense-account-fueled meetings with clients -- while constantly whining about how life isn't fair to him."

Yes, it was Pete was came knocking on Peggy's door, the night before he was to be married, and impregnated her, and then continued to mistreat her, even after she told him about the child. Most recently he pulled in some key accounts by "leveraging" his father-in-law, after the father-in-law learned he was to be a grandfather. Realizing he is stuck, the father-in-law calls Pete "a son of a bitch."

1. Don Draper
. The most complex, but emotionally handicapped character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the centerpiece of the ensemble of male jerks. He gets the number one nod, because despite the sympathy created for his character over time, because we know so much of his painful back story, he has hit the jackpot of jerkdom, especially when he became single. Over the four-year course of the show we have watched the slow and now more rapid deterioration of the master creative force at the agency. Ladies' man, man about town, the tall dark stranger archetype, who can be counted on for nothing, except to disappoint and disappear.

In the first years of the show, Draper's affairs at least made sense, with women who were interesting. He started with Midge Daniels (Rosemary DeWitt), a bohemian who lived in the Village -- they smoked pot and listened to Miles Davis. A smart, ambitious art illustrator, Midge was an independent career woman. Then he had an affair with Rachel, a Jewish department store owner, also an intelligent, successful women -- a peer.

After Rachel, his affairs start to become desperate. First was Bobbie Barrett, the wife of a comedian who is talent for a commercial. The two of them are nearly killed in a car wreck where they're basically suicidally drinking while fooling around. But the Barret character was smart, frustrated, complex. In Season Three, he entered new territory when he had an affair with his daughter's sexy young elementary school teacher.

Then came a truly disgusting Draper moment involving the closeted Sal, perhaps the only main character on the show. The Lucky Strike ad buyer, Lee Garner (see # 4) hits on Sal, and Sal rebuffs him. So Garner makes it clear that he wants Sal out. Don fires Sal because he wouldn't have sex with the obnoxious Garner. Essentially, Draper was saying: "Hey you didn't fuck our client, so now you are a liability for that account and you are a goner." The fact that Draper knew Sal was secretly gay, meant whoring for the firm was the only right thing for him to do.

This season, right off the bat, Don has sex with his secretary Allison (Alexa Allemani) on a drunken night when he left his keys in the office. What made these scenes so painful and troubling was Draper's pose of pretending it never happened, undermining the secretary's reality. James Wolcott in Vanity Fair described him mentally "filing the incident in the convenient amnesia folder he keeps in his denial drawer," and the incident itself as the "unexploded hand grenade in the deck." It did explode. Allison realized that not only was he a drunk, but not worth her time, so she quit. As she said shaking with rage and frustration: "I don't say this lightly Mr. Draper, but you are not a good person." 

One of Draper's defining characteristics is the authority and control (and self-control) he exudes. But as Wolcott points out, his persona -- that of the cold-hearted, but controlled and creative genius -- is slipping:  Even more portentous than Peggy's discovery of Don and Allison's one-night stand is Allison's outburst, "He's a drunk and they get away with murder because they forget everything." Here lies Don's peril. It's one thing if he's considered a creative genius and a cold-hearted bastard--at least then he's thought to be in control, in ruthless charge of himself. But to be labeled a drunk with a memory dumpster--that makes him look sloppy, pitiful, reminding young professionals not of Gregory Peck but maybe their own sorry fathers. He's eroding his authority with each slip of the mask, and what's behind the mask has no home in Manhattan.

So why has Jon Hamm become a television sex symbol? Hamm's face has been on dozens of magazine covers, and he's been the subject of scores of feature articles, his tortured soul dissected and discussed by millions. Why should this man be seen as the be-all and end-all, fantasized about by women of all ages and stripes, when the character he plays is such a jerk? It probably means that Weiner knows his audience. Writing on AlterNet, Vanessa Richmond offers this explanation of Draper's popularity, just as Season Three was beginning:

It's partly about timing. Few would argue that Americans love a hero, or anti-hero, to project our cultural fantasies on, and that for a while, we've been left a little dry in that department. One of the favorite archetypes of late, the bad boy's immaturity and lack of intelligence just got a bit old (see Bush, George W.; Lee, Tommy). It's fair to say there's a cultural hunger for some sophistication and intelligence. For someone who can seduce a grown woman and help battle the recession to boot..I have no interest in those cheeky bad boys in my personal life anymore -- they seem so high school -- nor do I have any time for them in public life. And I don't think I'm alone. Barack Obama might be the country's new husband, but there's still an appetite for a lover on the side. But though his reign will certainly be fleeting, as all are, and though he's highly problematic, he's more than the August cabana boy. Even though he's highly problematic as a hero, dozens of stories have run over the past weeks and months, calling him "spellbinding and elusive," with an "effortless masculinity and swagger that sets him apart from our other TV crush options." It's not just anachronistic types, or women who grew up in the '60s and wish for the return of those values. And though all women, even feminists, have been known to fall for assholes, it's not just that either. Draperphiles know that although he is immoral, and even amoral, he's more woman-friendly than any hero in recent memory.

In my consternation about the show I examined some of my own biases -- I came of age in the '60s and early '70s, with the excitement of the counterculture, and political change that characterized the period, and produced the large-scale changes of women's rights, on the heels of civil rights. I, and many of my peers aspired to escape the lies and deadening monotone that was the legacy of the 1950s. For us, anything was possible.

When I was in college and had a summer job in New York City, I rode the Erie Lackawanna train from Hoboken back to my New Jersey town every day. I saw the guys in the suits, whose lives seemed to be on automatic pilot. (Incidentally, Matthew Weiner, the show's creator, was exactly 1 year old at that point.) I swore to myself that I wouldn't be like them. Which may be why the show, as fascinating as it is, makes me angry, because there was clearly a very different story to tell, one that took a very different road away from all that "Mad Men" represents.

Why is it that creative culture's worst stuff frequently gets all the attention and the awards? And how much is necessary to make a point? As Aviva Dove-Viebahn writes in the summer issue of Ms. magazine, "It is hard to ignore that in the day-to-day battle of the sexes at Sterling Cooper, men still win out time and again. Mad Men's women characters are getting ahead, but its men figuratively get away with murder and rarely experience the consequence of their misdeeds, whether those are adultery, discrimination, back stabbing, or even rape."

 

While Weiner insists that, "The treatment of women on 'Mad Men' is the point… My show is saying that is not right," one has to wonder where to draw the line between believably portraying the sexual harrassment and patronizing attitude women faced daily and a wistful rendering of the glory days of cocky ad men and their eager-to-please secretaries and wives." Still, in the end the optimist, Dove Viebahn thinks "…the women on the shoe represent most strongly the hopeful possibilities of great change."

Is Mad Men a Feminist Show?

Heather Havrilesky, the smart TV writer at Salon, is part of a small cottage industry of instant synopsizers and interpreters of all things "Mad Men." Her brilliant counterpart James Wolcott does the same at Vanity Fair. They revere the show, cheer on the twists and turns, and the ever lurking dark surprises. They see nuance, complexity, psychological patterns-- they see darkness and light, and I tip my hat to them, because I don't see half those things.

But perhaps therein lies an issue. The intellectual obsession with "Mad Men," the beauty, the style, the fanatical attention to detail may miss the big picture -- how morally bankrupt the show is on many levels.

The problem with "Mad Men" is it so relentlessly rubs the bad behavior and sordid motivations in one's face, scene after relentless scene. One just sits there anxiously, waiting for the next cringe-inducing moment, but yes of course watch we must. But where do we find our better selves? Is there anyone we can respect and cheer for?

There is some debate as to whether the show can be called "feminist." Matthew Weiner thinks so, even saying the show demonstrates why we needed a women's movement. He told Tom Matlack that the highest praise he ever gets is when "a woman approaches him after a public appearance to say she was a secretary during that era and the show got the sexual harassment exactly right. They always thank him for putting a spotlight on what really happened. " Well OK, but that is so obvious. When is it less about social commentary, and more about titillation?

There is also a way in which the show helps spread somewhat sexist themes in the larger world, particularly through the figure of Joan. The forces of media "tabloidism" plucked actress Christina Hendricks from relative obscurity by fetishizing her large breasts and stunning body, making her suddenly one of the most frequently photographed and displayed women in the world. And the show plays that up as well, in ads and on screen.

In the most recent episode (August 23), a Japanese ad exec, representing Honda Motorcycle, comments "It is a wonder she doesn't fall over." In the same show, there is a long shot of her in profile, talking with Roger Sterling, leaving little to the imagination. Here the show, and the tabloids become one, fetishizing Joan/Christina's body for the audience's ravenous consumption.

Many still defend the show as feminist. But the perceptions of "Mad Men" vis a vis women is changing. Writing on Salon Nelle Engoron, who was a strong advocate of "Mad Men" as feminist show, and also someone who grew up in the '60s and entered the job market in the '70s, has changed her mind: "I fear that I've been wrong about its treatment of womanhood. The message that many women, especially those under 40, seem to have taken from the show is not relief or gratitude at what's changed, nor an understanding of the past, but something quite different: Those fashions are cool! God, Don's hot! Are you a Joan or a Peggy? Let's dress up like them, have a 'Mad Men' party and drink martinis!"

Engoron points out that "Ironically, a show that has launched a slew of fashion trends has also made womanhood seem singularly unattractive. The men triumph despite who they are and what they do, while the women suffer as a result of both their character and their choices. The men are mad, all right, but the women on this show are increasingly crazy-making. I may need that martini, after all."

Weiner can argue all he wants that he is merely portraying the nasty consequences of an era ruled entirely by powerful white men. But at what point does the depiction of unchecked bad-boy behavior turn into wish-fulfillment for the viewer? Is "Mad Men" normalizing the actions of the men on the show, and glamorizing a dynamic in which women (and minorities and gays) are subservient to the sick whims of men too powerful for their -- and everybody else's -- own good?

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
 
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