Friday, July 23, 2010

Salon Takes on 'Mad Men's' Women: They Disappoint and Depress

Do the Mad Men women frequently get punished and and constantly let us down while the men behave badly yet skate away with their money, privilege and social standing in tact? That’s what Nelle Engoron asserted in her Salon piece, “Why ‘Mad Men’ is bad for women.” This one-time “champion” of Mad Men says she’s now jaded about its depiction of women:

“I’m increasingly disturbed by the striking difference in how men and women are portrayed . . . Even as it depicts rampant sexism, the show sides with the men. The men get off scot-free (if not scotch-free) while the women are subjected to repeated humiliation and misfortune, which is invariably attributed to their own flaws and poor choices.”

While saying that Don continues to be the “suave hero” of the show in spite his many bad acts, Betty, despite having insisted on divorcing Don, is considered a feminist disappointment:

“Being stuck in a life of mind-numbing domesticity is tragic only when the person is capable of — and desirous of — much more. But Betty seems less limited by her situation than by her intellect and character. We have no sense of what she’d do with her life if she hadn’t married, other than perhaps be a Holly Golightly party girl in Europe. Even when she finally leaves Don, it’s not to become independent but only to go to another man who wants to marry her and take care of her every little need.”

Even Peggy’s shyness – which I think she uses as a shield of self-protection as she tries to make it in a world ruled by men – takes a hit:

“While smart, creative and brave, Peggy isn’t allowed to be a full, rounded person and is instead portrayed as socially inept, humorless and utterly unable to connect with either men or women, remaining friendless and loveless. Her stiffness, introversion and social missteps are painful to watch, and her awkward attempts to be more ‘feminine’ fall flat.”

I don’t see things quite the same way. I believe that Don has indeed been penalized for his bad behavior. He lost something he coveted, though didn’t act as though he valued it because he’d never really had it growing up: His family, his educated and stunning trophy wife, their enviable beautiful home in the ‘burbs. He even sacrificed contact with his brother – for whose suicide Don feels responsible – in order to preserve his life with Betty and the kids. But since Betty said, "No mas," Don has been booted from the all-American suburbs, where Miss Farrell said all the dads looked the same, and back to the city to live the life of a bachelor again, a life which, according to the New York Times review of the season four premiere, isn’t all that fun, glamorous or satisfying.

Roger lost his daughter’s and his colleagues’ respect, plus they had to sell Sterling Cooper in order to pay for Roger’s divorce. A handful of Sterling Cooper's core staff – under the threat of having the firm sold to McCann – had to reconstitute itself in a new firm in a hotel suite, starting all over again largely because of the dominoes Roger and his affair (then marriage) with Jane set in motion.

Then there was writer Rachel Shukert who, in her piece ‘I Was Betty Draper,’ said she, a work-from-home writer who was frustrated with how her work was progressing, “empathized with” Betty on many levels, particularly when her own spouse was off working and earning the lion’s share of the household money:

“I understood the icy rage when she coldly offered her cheek to Don to kiss in the mornings. It wasn’t because of the lipstick on his collar or the empty bottle of rye – or at least, not just because. It was because he got to go off to be busy and brilliant and essential, while she got to stay at home, lining the drawers with stupid contact paper. The Drapers’ spats reminded me of the fights I had with my husband when I asked why he was at work until 2 in the morning, why it seemed he had to leave the country three weeks out of the month. ‘You don’t understand,’ he would answer angrily. ‘You don’t have to be financially responsible for another person.’ And I would shout back, more furious with myself than him: ‘God! Don’t you think I wish I was?’”

These characters certainly got under people’s skin.

Image credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC.

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