One of maybe two parallels between Don Draper and The First Evil is that Don Draper never seems to touch anything, and nor do any of his male colleagues. Wealthy white women birth their babies and make their dinner, poorer white women type out their letters and connect their calls, black women look after their children and keep their houses in order, and black men push the buttons in the lift for them. With all those real world impediments taken care of by other people they just glide along, having a much better time than anyone else.
You can tell that Don Draper is not literally incorporeal because he touches drinks, cigarettes and women. And sometimes the phone. I spent five years not watching Mad Men because I thought it was probably really sexist. Watching it I found that as much as it is a show about wealthy white men drinking in meetings and cheating on their wives, it is equally a show about women. Mad Men is immensely preoccupied with certain aspects of women’s struggles- most obviously integration into the world of work but also various forms of transactional sex and, from a limited perspective, sexual violence.
The most interesting and productive moments in Mad Men, for me, come when its desire to give a somewhat truthful account of what it was to be a woman in the 60s clashes badly with what critics seem to admire most about the show, its carefully stylised and seemingly affectionate portrayal of the all-powerful white married male who can have whatever he wants. The show’s dual fascination for the glamorous lifestyle of the male advertising executive and for the constant, gritty struggle of female wives, secretaries and professionals make a strange mix that gives a lot to think about. What I’m going to do here is look at Mad Men through four of its women- Betty, the unhappy housewife and Carla, her maid; Peggy, who gets ahead mostly using her brains and Joan, who mostly uses her sexuality- and Don Draper, the show’s main character and in my opinion one of its greatest weaknesses.
Betty and Carla
The unhappiness of Betty Draper as a housewife and mother works as a fairly facile critique of what was once the pervading model of female happiness, the happy housewife. Mad Men‘s writers had a great time showing Betty Draper crumbling under the pressure of being a perfect wife and mother, going out into her neat suburban garden with a gun and firing at her neighbour’s pet birds.
Best. Cry for help. Ever.
After the first two seasons I was like- I get it. She’s unhappy. You have grasped one of the basic feminist arguments, that being a housewife isn’t fun. The characterisation of Betty draws equally on the fantasy figure of the perfect, happy housewife, who is beautiful, loves her home and buys what Don Draper’s agency advertises, and the corresponding figure of the unhappy housewife. I believe the viewer is supposed to enjoy both.
Sara Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness, which I love and heartily recommend, that certain objects, states and identities come to us already invested with the idea of happiness or the promise that they will make us happy. A clear example, and one on which Ahmed dwells, is marriage. The supposed innate happiness of the state of marriage is endlessly reaffirmed by culture, politics and popular psychology, such that it is hard to imagine a happy, well-lived life without marriage. This conception of what makes people happy orients us through what we see as life’s stages, from childhood to marriage to babies to whatever to death. To reject this scheme of happiness as a feminist, a queer person or just a general sourpuss, is often to be seen by others as a source of unhappiness or a killjoy.
Ahmed discusses the figure of the happy housewife, and the control this cultural trope exercises over who is seen to be close to or entitled to happiness. The happy, or indeed the unhappy housewife in the popular imagination and in Mad Men is a white woman from a privileged background who pursued her own, respectable interests until she got married and dedicated herself to her husband, children and home. This is certainly the case with Betty, who went to a women’s college, did a bit of modelling and then settled down with Don. The happiness afforded to the housewife is obviously illusory, and insistence that this is a happy state hides a multitude of unhappy realities like a narrowing of intellectual and social possibilities, unpaid domestic labour, and spousal rape.
However, if the figure of the happy housewife is a fantasy, some women are closer than others to the fantasy, which at least comes with social respectability and probably some degree of economic security. Feminist critiques of the imperative to marry and settle down wilfully ignored poor women and women of colour, many of whom were not housewives because they were already in the workforce through necessity. It is not necessarily happiness that is unequally distributed between rich and poor women, but proximity to the fantasy of happiness. Ahmed writes that “what is unequally distributed is the feeling that you have what should make you happy, a distribution of the promise of a feeling…rather than the distribution of happiness.”
The way Mad Men uses the fantasy of the happy housewife is interesting. Betty’s role as a housewife is a source of unhappiness for her, but the fantasy, the happy surface, is also highly aestheticised and made appealing to the viewer. Mad Men‘s meticulous styling creates a visually pleasurable fantasy of the beautiful, wealthy, devoted housewife, a good consumer, and the large home in a monocultural suburb, which the viewer can enjoy while smirking about how outdated it is and how much better things are now. Carla, the Drapers’ black maid, fits into the Betty fantasy as a prop, but as a character she is so far from the fantasy of the happy housewife that the viewer of Mad Men is not encouraged to wonder whether or not she is happy. She is in many episodes, with few lines, and we know little about her. When Betty arbitrarily fires her in Season 4 we may feel outrage or sadness for her, but in the grand scheme of things her disappearance from the show barely registers- but it does allow Don to take Megan to California, fall in love and propose to her.
Don’t worry about it guys she only raised your kids for years and years
I recently watched Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, a film about a white single mother, Laura, who dreams of making it as an actress, and a black woman, Annie, whom Laura takes in and exploits as a domestic labourer and companion for many years until Annie dies. This film from 1959 succeeds as a critique of the exploitative relationship between a white woman and her black maid in a way that Mad Men absolutely does not. Ahmed writes that some women, women like Carla, are seen to be “lacking the very qualities and attributes that would make a life good”. Because of her race and economic status, Carla is so far from the cultural ideas about happiness with which the show is so preoccupied that she is seen as being unentitled to happiness and unentitled to our caring about her happiness. Her lack of weight in the show suggests an unwillingness on the part of the show’s writers to explore the life of someone whose existence cannot easily be made glamorous. She is uncritically backgrounded, and eventually uncritically ditched. Meanwhile Betty is shipped from one stifling marriage to another so that the viewer can continue to enjoy the cautionary spectacle of the unhappy housewife.
Peggy and Joan
There are two rapes in Mad Men that are depicted as rapes in a straightforward way. In Season 2 Joan is punished for her sexual activity with men at the office with rape by her fiancé, at the office; and in Season 3 Pete Campbell the spineless, greedy dweeb, rapes his neighbours’ au pair, figuring that she owes him sex because he got her a dress. The show also allows for a surprising amount of grey area between rape and sex, rarely shying away from the coercive or transactional nature of ‘consensual’ sex in a setting in which men always hold power over women as their providers or employers. Joan Holloway, who is presented as having a great understanding of workplace sexual politics, intimates to Peggy on her first day at work that sleeping with her superiors is part of her job, and when Peggy does subsequently sleep with Pete Campbell the slimy, entitled toad, there is no doubt that she is doing so out of obligation, not desire. The pregnancy which devastates her and has many long-term consequences for her was, to me, a really moving element of the plot, approached with compassion- it shows us that hard, horrible things happen to women in a patriarchy.
The world of Mad Men is one in which the idea of a woman freely choosing to have sex doesn’t make a lot of sense, because having sex with men is so highly incentivised, and not having sex with men is punished by disdain and disfavour at work. It is pleasing to see Peggy able to claw back some sexual agency after the trials she goes through in Season 1, and she does this by asserting herself as someone smart and respectable who will not be persuaded, from a more authoritative position as the firm’s first female copywriter. There is a sense that by climbing the ladder at work, by being able to move from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and so on, Peggy escapes from the duty-sex that is a fact of life for the lower-class women on the show.
Best fringe on Madison Avenue
Joan, by contrast, never successfully disentangles herself from the sexual economy of the workplace, and her body never ceases to function as a source of visual pleasure both for the males at the office and for the viewer. People talk about Christina Hendricks’s body so much that I am very reluctant to do it myself, but I believe that her diegetic function as a body that people enjoy looking at in the office, someone whose beauty is used to attract clients, and who in Season 5 is strong-armed into having sex with a potential client to secure their business, is not separable from the way Hendricks is dressed and filmed for the visual pleasure of the viewer. It is not pure objectification, because Joan is such a wonderful character whose steeliness and short temper suggest years of struggle and hard work and paying dearly for her mistakes. She is an amazing creation. But it is also true that Christina Hendricks’s body is deliberately used as part of the appealing surface on which Mad Men sells itself.
Who is being sexualised in this publicity shot? Clue: It’s not Lane Price.
I love Joan and Peggy so much that I would watch Mad Men spin-offs called Joan and Peggy every week until they got cancelled. They are not just two flat models of female success, as they could have been if Mad Men was the show I thought it was before I watched it. The ways in which they have worked their ways into positions of relative power and authority are complex, and I personally feel a far greater degree of identification and sympathy with Peggy and Joan than I ever could with Don.
This will sound strange, but one of the persistent flaws that I see in Mad Men is that it is too enthralled to Don Draper. It’s like the writers have really been taken in by the aura of mystery and authority they they have written around Don Draper, like clients in meetings are taken in by him. They really love him. Things got uncomfortably reverential in Season 4, and frequent, tedious scenes of Don writing in his journal and telling us his incredible thoughts in voiceover were included to show us that Don Draper is now wise and introspective, as well as handsome, smart, fantastic at his job and irresistible to the ladies.
Don Draper is supposed to be simultaneously a serial womaniser and a devoted husband and father, an alcoholic yet far more in control than any other alcoholic, thrillingly reckless yet always right. His being one thing and its opposite is not complexity or depth of character, it’s him being written as some kind of incredible 1960s advertising hero-god. And Mad Men‘s thoughtful exploration of sexual politics goes totally out the window when it comes to Don Draper. This SNL skit about Don Draper has a lot to say about the horrible ease with which he accesses women, which I don’t find very funny. The fact that he is someone’s husband or boss or paying for their drinks no longer signifies power disparity when Don Draper has sex- women just want him, always, unconditionally. When he does hurt a woman, as he hurts his secretary Allison in Season 4, the show’s focus remains on him, and the incident is incorporated into the development of his character as a mystery, someone who is wounded and struggling but well-intentioned. His unethical behaviour is intended to increase our admiration for him.
And this is one of many respects in which political and social complexities can be totally glossed over when they trouble the glamorous surface that is supposed to be one of Mad Men‘s main draws, and to which Don Draper’s infallible genius and great face are integral. I love watching Mad Men, but I hope that the second thing that Don Draper and The First Evil have in common is that they will both be vanquished by women.