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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."

 
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