Last night, on Friday the 9th of January 2021, I found myself at a ‘virtual drinks night’, which, try as it might, doesn’t quite hold up to the real deal, but doesn’t quite fall that short of the mark either. A friend of mine suggested that I watch the widely lauded Mad Men. A show I have stayed away from, partly out of ignorance, and partly due to my incorrect preconceived notion that it might be like Suits: Vapid, pushing erroneous mistruths about the profession it focuses on and full of cringy references made by egotistical baby-like characters.
So far, and I am only on episode 5 (so this may be premature), I have been proved wrong. Sure, the men in blue and grey suits are egotistical and obnoxious, but in a way that makes their characters stand out and gives them depth. Each of them is subtly at war with everyone else, and their own perceived inadequacies. While I doubt the ‘navy atmosphere’ in the office would make it a fun place to work, the laddish banter at play creates an air, for the viewer, that is more of captivated disgust than the comparatively cringy one of Suits. But, this ambience has a nastier spectacle than simply jumped-up slick salesman: their treatment of the women at the workplace. The pains the show takes to approach this topic surprised me; usually shows, with this much of a focus on successful men, have the women as mere eye-candy, with just enough lines to espouse concerns over their husband’s philandering or provide a comedic backdrop as a “ballbuster”. And, sadly to say, for a show from 2007 (at least the first season anyway) this is pretty out of the norm.
What’s more, I find it refreshing that the show doesn’t present its main character as a man whose defining trait is that he behaves respectfully towards women, when all other men don’t. This tired trope uses what should be common courtesy and normal aspect of human decency to set a character morally above the norm. Don Draper is better than the rest, but still cruel and spiteful, abandoning his wife to host their daughter’s birthday party alone, then returning with a dog, purchased ad hoc, a gift inspired by his on-the-side lover who stated ‘every little girl should have a dog’. While his wife is unaware of this incorporation, it stands to reveal his misogynistic and rancorous side, which paradoxically frees the topic of male and female relations to be explored with more depth and nuance. Compare this to Suits, (released fours years later and set in contemporary times!) where Louis’s consistent sexual harassment of Donna is converted into a comical tension reliever. It isn’t to say that this dynamic isn’t sometimes funny, given the amount of energy the show puts into making it playful and showing Donna being unphased, but I find it a distasteful premise on which to predicate a joke, to say the least.
Of course, there are places where Mad Men falls down. One of the most touched upon of these is the lack of intersectional feminism, a necessity to avoid the label of ‘white feminism’. This is an important distinction, as there are black people in Mad Men, so the opportunity is there, unlike a period drama that is attempting to remain accurate (in opposition to authentic) in 15th Century Britain, where the opportunities for a more varied viewpoint are limited. However, this accurate-authentic dichotomy is arguably what holds Mad Men back from exploring non-white female narratives, given America’s contextual segregationist policies at the time the show is set. This is unfortunate and a letdown, as these journeys and character struggles would be interesting and enlightening to explore. But, in contrast to some of the articles I have read about feminism in Mad Men, I don’t think this omission warrants striking off the show as a failure of feminism.
While a veracious argument can be made that the struggles of white women are well documented, I don’t think this should mean that we should disengage from them, or shows that attempt to depict them, even if they regrettably fail to depict other group’s female obstacles. After all, these struggles are still, regrettably, ubiquitous – even places as progressive as University Campuses are not immune to troubling misogyny. It stands to reason then that we should not settle the challenges white women face, as done and over, nor should we anachronistically regard older works with disdain because they fail to live up to today’s standards. That being said, I hope the TV series we produce today continue to engage with feminism in a manner that explores these issues from a multifaceted perspective. But this welcome advancement will not lead me to disregard Mad Men as failed.