November
7th 2009
Sex and the Single (or Married) “Mad” Man

Posted under: American history, art, Gender, unhappy endings

washingmachineWell, friends, I’m more than halfway through Season 2 of Mad Men.  It is a very absorbing show, probably the most interesting TV show I’ve seen in years (since Sex and the City ended, perhaps?), and the ideal diversion while I’m letting my brand-new high efficiency front-loading washer do most of my laundry chores for me!  (Too bad it doesn’t dry and fold my clothes, too, eh?  Except, with the retro-look of these front loaders, it makes me feel a bit too much like Betty Draper and her “desperate housewife” friends.)

In response to your clamorous queries for yet more, more, MORE of my opinions about this particular expression of the zeitgeist, I have some more thoughts to share today.  Specifically, I’d like to talk about the representation and function of sex in Mad Men.  For the most part, we’ll be talking about heterosexuality because that’s what’s on the Mad Men menu, with few exceptions.  (For the record, I’m exactly half-way through Season 2.)  Spoiler alert–if you haven’t yet watched the show mid-way through Season 2 and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further!

It’s striking that in this supposedly pre-AIDS, proto-sexual revolution era of 1960-62 (from what I’ve seen so far, anyway), sex is never represented as an affirming, positive, or even a very enjoyable activity.  This is the era of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962)but where’s the fun?  Where’s the adventure?  We get the sexual frustration of Betty Draper, and the dangers of pregnancy outside of marriage with Peggy Olson, but even the beneficiaries of sexual access to these women (and many more) don’t look like they’re having all that much fun.  In Mad Men, sex is portrayed as a compulsion or a chore for the affluent white male characters–it’s so hard being so privleged that they have to screw so many women, you know?

Sex and sexual desire are usually used to signal to the audience that we should dislike a male character (Don Draper, Roger Sterling, and Pete Campbell, all married men who are shown almost exclusively having sex with women not their wives), or to pity a female character:  Betty Draper with her desperate desire for Don, and when he’s not available, the spin cycle of her washing machine, or Olson and her sad affair with the odious Campbell, and when he’s not available, with the vibrating underwear for which she was asked to write copy.  Even good-time gal Joan Holloway is shown mostly in a sexual relationship (with Sterling) that’s portrayed as little more than an extention of her work day.  (She spends most of her days looking after the childish needs of the “Mad Men,” and then after 5 tends to the sexual needs of one in particular.)  From what I’ve heard happens to Joan in the current season after her wedding, sex doesn’t get any more fun for her.

In this respect, then, the portrayal of heterosexuality in Mad Men bears a strong resemblance to its portrayal of smoking, drinking, and parenting standards:  it appears to be an opportunity for people in the present to judge people in the past as underdeveloped and unenlightened, a theme I have addressed here in my other Mad Men discussions.  It may also be historically accurate, but it’s damn depressing to see what should be some hot sex with good-looking actors as a desulatory, sad undertaking.  (Or in the case of Sterling’s disturbing fling with a very childlike young woman, downright creepy.  Was anyone surprised that this utter depravity was immediately followed by his heart attack?  It’s like this show was written by Cotton Mather.)

Don’s affair with Rachel Mencken in Season 1 isn’t entirely depressing, perhaps because it’s one of the few sexual scenes in which the principals appear to have a real connection to one another, but the show overplays the “Don Draper is such a mysterious guy!” hand, and he ends up coming across as desperate, needy, and borderline unhinged at some points.  Sex appears to give no one joy or pleasure in this show–and the more sex we see a character having, the more fragmented is his personality and the more magnified his troubles; unsurprisingly, it’s Don and Sterling who are constantly chasing women or (in Don’s case) being chased.  (I did like Sterling’s line when he has his heart attack towards the end of Season 1:  “I’ve been living the last twenty years of my life like I’m on shore leave!”  Ha!  True enough.)

Sex, whether inside or outside of marriage, is almost never portrayed as a means by which men and women might achieve emotional intimacy or express love–it’s just another lever in the power struggle that enfolds all of the characters:  men versus women, or men using sexual access to women to express dominance over other men.  Sex for Betty and Don Draper–the only married couple shown in bed with each other–is an opportunity for Don to humiliate or snub Betty.  The one maybe-sexual relationship that promises to show a real, human connection is a gay one in Season 1, with Sal Romano and the traveling salesman who dine and flirt, but then Sal leaves him in the restaurant because he can’t follow through.

Once again, I’m left contemplating the dilemma of writing and directing dramas set in history.  On the one hand, using history as just a set for a costume drama that doesn’t grapple with difficult issues seems like the easy way out.  On the other hand, it’s enormously difficult to engage the difficult themes and problems of an era without patronizing them.  RMJ at Deeply Problematic has some interesting thoughts on Mad Men‘s unwillingness to engage racial issues, for example, and some good links to follow on this topic.  (She’s also got interesting things to say about Joan’s body, too.)  For those interested in learning more about the sexual politics of this era, you could do worse than Jennifer Scanlon’s Bad Girls Go Everywhere : the Life of Helen Gurley Brown (Oxford University Press, 2009), an academic title that’s been the recipient of some pretty impressive publicity and attention in the mainstream literary media.

A bonus discovery:  one of the pretty secretaries in Mad Men looks just like Notorious Girl, Ph.D.!  Seriously!  She’s the auburn-haired one who, in one of the later episodes in the first season is told by Pete Campbell to watch for Don to emerge from another man’s office, and she says to him sarcastically, “Right–I’ll just sit here and stare at that door.”  Pretty cheeky!  (Lamentably, she’s also the one who has a brief fling with the disturbingly unattractive and yet married Harold “Harry” Crane, for no apparent reason.  Ick.  Mad Men is clearly captive to the striking and in no ways feminist differential in attractiveness required of male versus female actors.)

What do you all think about sex in Mad Men?

32 Comments »

32 Responses to “Sex and the Single (or Married) “Mad” Man”

  1. GayProf on 07 Nov 2009 at 11:38 am #

    I have to confess that I don’t really bother with thinking about whether _Mad Men_ is historically accurate (because, IMHO, it is not). Rather, I think of it as using the supposedly far away 1960s to present issues of today. So, while we are supposed to imagine the characters as unenlightened prehistoric cavemen, aren’t they really living up to ideals of today more than 1962? One doesn’t have to be Ariel Levy to see Betty, Joan, and Peggy as presenting women’s sexuality as only valuable when it excites men’s desires (rather than being about their own interests).

    The show fails in terms of racial diversity (Apparently people of color didn’t do much of anything in the 1960s except work menial jobs according to the producers) and its take on same-sex sex is shaky at best.

    But I do love the pretty, pretty dresses on the show.

  2. GayProf on 07 Nov 2009 at 11:40 am #

    Oh, and I am so jealous of your front-loader. I had one in the “before time” and it kept me more entertained than television.

  3. Historiann on 07 Nov 2009 at 11:42 am #

    Yes–the costume and set designers deserve Emmy after Emmy after Emmy. (They must have an impressive budget to work with, but still: it’s all great!)

    I’m not complaining that Mad Men isn’t historically accurate–I don’t think productions like these can be. I’m just wondering about the slices of life the show chooses to show us, and what that says about the writers and producers.

  4. Historiann on 07 Nov 2009 at 11:43 am #

    And, about that washing machine: come on over, anytime, and we can fold laundry together while watching Mad Men (reruns for you, I guess, but new ones for me.)

    The machine I bought has lots of blinky lights, sing-songy chimes and bells, and a fake-analog “dial,” which really serves as just another means of placing a digital command. It is pretty fun! But maybe not for the whole cycle. (I think my scaredy boy-cat is a little freaked out by its churnings and blasts of water and blinking and chiming.)

  5. Another Damned Medievalist on 07 Nov 2009 at 11:46 am #

    I haven’t watched it, but just spent a half-hour watching clips. It’s sort of like watching “The Apartment” over and over, isn’t it? Or the seamy underside of Doris Day movies.

    hmmm.

    OTOH, I think I need to embrace the big that is my bum, buy a sewing machine, and make myself some clothes that accentuate my curves, no matter what size I am.

  6. Historiann on 07 Nov 2009 at 12:21 pm #

    ADM–your bum isn’t big, and I’ve seen it myself. That said, it seems like most of the women’s clothes from the early 1960s required mummifying their bodies in neck-to-knee tight and restrictive undergarments, so I don’t think you really want to go that way now, do you?

    An aside: women’s underwear fashions are really linked to their outerwear fashions, aren’t they? The fashions of the 1950s and early 60s would have been unthinkable without girdles, bullet bras, full-body slips, and the various straps and snaps that linked all of these things together. I doubt most women today would really want to wear what Joan Holloway wears all day long. Episode 6 (“Maidenform”) in Season 2 features a scene of the women getting into their required undergarments that wore me out just watching.

    No wonder the looser, straight lines of minidresses later in the decade were so welcome. Freedom! (Until you need to bend over, that is.)

  7. Notorious Ph.D. on 07 Nov 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    Wait — Let’s talk about me. Is this that same actress (I forget her name) who was on two episodes of Firefly? Or do you mean another one?

  8. Another Damned Medievalist on 07 Nov 2009 at 3:16 pm #

    That’s the one — I have to say, the 60′s clothes are more attractive on her, imo, because the clothes she wore in Firefly made her look unbalanced.

    Historiann — thanks! But I do have trouble finding clothes that fit, because my hips are a full size bigger than my waist, and sometimes a bit more. You’re right about the undergarments, though. I tend to wear slips, because I like that they smooth lines out. Stockings with garters are actually way more comfortable in some ways (I used to wear them when I was in college and bicycling all the time) — no nasty control-top issues, lots of air flow … and cheaper, because if you put a ladder in one, you still have the other! OTOH, girdles? I own one, and cannot imagine wearing it daily, or even yearly!

    As for regularly wearing anything with boning? Nope. Have worn such things and they aren’t all that comfy!

    I think I like the look with minimal alteration through foundation garments — which means sewing for myself, so that things fit me, rather than me fitting them.

  9. Historiann on 07 Nov 2009 at 3:32 pm #

    I don’t know what Firefly is, so I can’t say if it’s the same person or not.

  10. Dame Eleanor Hull on 07 Nov 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    Wasn’t Helen Gurley Brown trying to convince people that sex was fun? As in, not everybody was on board with that idea.

  11. widgeon on 07 Nov 2009 at 4:58 pm #

    I read an interview with some of the Mad Men actresses who said their undergarments have become a large part of their characters. They were stunned at how confining the bras and girdles were, and how it restricted their movement. Historiann, I do like your point about the sex in the movie–we are clearly supposed to frown on all that male desire. As to race–the only African Americans working at the agency would have been the elevator operator. It’s disturbing, but historically accurate. I do like the scenes (some past Season 2) with the Draper domestic worker–reacting to the Birmingham bombings and JFK’s assassination. She is often clearly saying in her head, “These white people are completely insane.” And then there was the minstrelsy scene, another interesting moment handled relatively well although only through the perspective of white characters. I don’t think “historically accurate” is achievable as all is through the prism of now. But at least the set dressing is enormous fun to look at.

  12. Historiann on 07 Nov 2009 at 5:13 pm #

    Widgeon–interesting that the actors see the connection between their wardrobes and their characters. When I was in Quebec doing research at the Ursuline convent in 2007, one of the women who works in the museum there told me that she had been dressed up once in the eighteenth century habit, and was struck at how absolutely confining the garments were–not around the body like the women of Mad Men, but constraining of her vision and hearing. The clothing effectively encouraged a turn to an inward life and contemplation, not interactions with other people.

    Dame Eleanor–I’m sure you’re right, and that there is a great diversity of how people in every historical period felt about sexuality. I guess my larger point is that this is clearly a show written by people who came of age sexually ca. 1980-1994, in the era of AIDS before protease inhibitors. I think their–our–ideas about sexuality were very much shaped by that. Mad Men is just relentless in its portrayal of sexuality as a pathology or as a joyless thing–it’s really striking.

  13. Oroboros on 07 Nov 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    You’ve intrigued me and I think I need to check Mad Men out.

    If you are willing to venture into the fantasy genre, take a look at my write-up on True Blood. I know it is long, I feel some things just can’t be expressed very compactly (or maybe I’m not good at it). Your review here partially inspired me to put that together because the show definitely has people enjoying their sex.

  14. Comrade PhysioProf on 07 Nov 2009 at 7:11 pm #

    I have never seen the show, but based on your description, it sounds like yet another vehicle for contemporary self-absorbed narcissistic asshole couch-sitters to feel superior to some supposedly more-deficient historical standard.

  15. Fratguy on 07 Nov 2009 at 8:21 pm #

    With the single cyclops eye and blinky lights, the front load washer looks disturbingly like HAL from 2001. I fear that the one residing in the frat basement has become self aware. “I can’t let you wear that madras shirt, Dave.”

  16. Susan on 07 Nov 2009 at 8:31 pm #

    One of the things recently is the return of the full skirted dress. Like ADM, I am at least one size smaller on top than the bottom — sometimes two — and those lovely “new look” dresses are incredibly flattering on me.
    Historiann, you’re getting me interested in Mad Men, though I tend to run my fancy front loader energy efficient washer on Sunday mornings, then hang the laundry outside to dry on the line. Though I can put it in my equally fancy frontloading energy efficient dryer:)

  17. Ruth on 07 Nov 2009 at 10:56 pm #

    This show brings back all kinds of memories for me. The most recent episode–I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but let’s just say it takes place in November 1963–was very emotional for me. I was born about the same time as Bobby Draper in Mad Men–not old enough to be able to identify historical inaccuracies in the show, but old enough that the clothes and interiors are sort of like madeleines for me. My mother’s girdles, and the scent of perfume/cigarette smoke/liquor when she would come in to kiss me good night after a cocktail party. (My father was an academic, and they sure had a lot more cocktail parties then than we do now).

    My mother is a Bryn Mawr alum, approximately Betty Draper’s vintage. She and her friends did more with their lives than Betty Draper though. She never held a paying job, but she did a lot of community activism–not the Junior League NIMBY stuff that Betty does, but more serious organizing. But then again, my mother and most of her friends were married to academics and lived in a college town rather than a suburb. And most of them were Jewish–my mother and Betty Draper would probably not have been friends even if they were in the same Bryn Mawr class. (Jewish assimilation and anti-Semitism is another topic that has been neglected in Mad Men, except for Rachel Mencken.)

    The depiction of sex in Mad Men seems to me very presentist: because it’s post-AIDS, perhaps, as Historiann says, but also because it’s post-Pill. The lack of concern with contraception and with getting pregnant is not plausible to me. Again, I was a kid at the time, and I became sexually active post-Roe and post-Pill, so I’m not speaking from experience, but I think the women appear far too blithe about it. Not only emotional attachment, but also worry, is lacking.

  18. Indyanna on 07 Nov 2009 at 11:44 pm #

    Just for a temporal benchmark, here’s a depiction of the ad game set only thirteen years before Mad Men: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvW3JRBeDR0. From “The Hucksters,” with Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr (1947), and based on an immediately post-WWII novel of the same title by Frederick Wakeman, Jr. Don’t know if this will be a live link, but what a world away from Mad Men (or so they say, haven’t seen anything of it yet…). I’ll have to look into a front loader like that one. I’ve got a free washer that doesn’t work at one end of the commonwealth, and an expensive one that does, sort of, at the other end. And it also works as a cat-chaser?

  19. rootlesscosmo on 08 Nov 2009 at 1:15 am #

    The depiction of sex in Mad Men seems to me very presentist: because it’s post-AIDS, perhaps, as Historiann says, but also because it’s post-Pill.

    The Pill arrived in 1960, so the show’s early 60′s setting would be post-Pill, and from what I remember the effect on attitudes toward hetero sex was dramatic and immediate. Abortion was still illegal everywhere in the US–California legalized it in 1967, 6 years before Roe–so effective contraception controlled by women, and disconnected from sexual activity, was a huge relief. Of course it also made women exclusively responsible for contraception and gave men another way to exert pressure–”What are you worried about? You’re on the Pill, aren’t you?” And the dangers of the high early dosages emerged only gradually over subsequent years.

  20. Knitting Clio on 08 Nov 2009 at 7:20 am #

    Since I work on the history of contraception in the twentieth century U.S., I will say that the history of the pill is more complex than one might think. True, the pill was technically available in 1960, but if you were single, finding a doctor who would give it to you was a matter of trial and error. In many states it was illegal to give contraception to unmarried women, and in Connecticut and Massachusetts (among other states), contraception was illegal for married women too until the Griswold v. Connecticut decision in 1965.

    Even then, the kind of moralizing lecture Peggy received when she went to a doctor recommended by Joan was not uncommon.

    The early pill was less effective than ones developed later — my mother became pregnant with me and my sister while on the pill in 1963.

    As to the issue of sexuality — Helen Gurley Brown instructed women not only to enjoy sex, but to use their sex appeal to get ahead.

  21. Historiann on 08 Nov 2009 at 8:16 am #

    Thanks, KC: that clears up why women aren’t on the pill in Mad Men, but since the show is taking care to hit all of the cultural turning points of the 60s, you’d think that would be one of them…maybe in a future episode? (1965-ish sounds about right to me, post-Griswold.)

    Ruth–I think you’re right about the anti-semitism, but it has come up (briefly) in an episode I saw just last night in the middle of season two, when Jimmy Barrett is filling Betty in on Don’s affair with Jimmy’s wife. Betty gets upset and says something like “You people are so ugly and crude!” while Jimmy, who is in fact crude but not stupid, retorts, “Who do you mean? Comedians?”

    One of the problems with Mad Men and racism and anti-semitism is that there are so few non-WASPy characters (for heaven’s sake, Betty Olson and Sal Romano are the “ethnics” at Sterling Cooper) that there are relatively few opportunities to address these issues. Some of the links above explore the question of an all-white cast of principals, and it’s something I raised in my first post on Mad Men last summer.

    I appreciate that the show raises these issues, and the feminist issues we’ve been talking about here, at all. But the fact remains that in the office, the camera follows Don and the boys behind the closed doors of their offices, it doesn’t stay out with the secretaries. So when Don’s secretary Jane, or Joan, or another woman there besides Peggy is subjected to yet another humiliation or degredation, the camera abandons her and joins the boys’ club, once again. This is why I remain skeptical about giving cookies to Mad Men and praising it as a feminist or anti-racist show.

  22. Historiann on 08 Nov 2009 at 8:23 am #

    Oh, and p.s.: There was another totally gratuitous and egregious “we’re so enlightened and superior, aren’t we” self-congratulatory moment in an episode I saw last night, when Don and Betty were packing up to return home after a picnic in a park with the kids. Don wings his beer can into the park, and Betty picks up the picnic blanket and just leaves all of the paper plates and napkins on the ground.

    Littering! Yet another reason to feel superior, confident that our values are the right ones, eh?

    I wasn’t alive in 1962, although I remember the “Crying Indian” ads from the 1970s to try to get people to stop littering on American highways. But–I seriously doubt that people were just throwing trash on the ground in urban spaces. This scene just struck me as totally over-the-top, but if some of you remember 1962-63 and disagree, let me know.

  23. HistoryMaven on 08 Nov 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    To heck with Mad Men, Historian, is that an LG washer? I just bought one, too. Is it so wrong to feel so virtuous?

  24. Historiann on 08 Nov 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    HistoryMaven–I don’t feel virtuous, I feel a little overwhelmed and intimidated by the washer, which seemed to me in the store to have the simplest dials and options, but which now (as Fratguy put it) disturbs me because it seems “self aware.”

  25. life_of_a_fool on 08 Nov 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    I had never thought about how depressing the sex is, but that’s an interesting observation. I never really thought of it separately from the general miserableness of everyone.

    I don’t take it as a “we’re so superior today,” though I can see how it could be read that way. And I definitely agree that it’s the 1960′s filtered through the 2000′s.

    On the birth control issue, I took Peggy’s trip to the doctor to mean that all the secretaries (and so all the female employees) were on the pill (because the women are meant as a “perk” of the male employees).

    Oh, I think you mean that Notorious PhD looks like Hildy, not Joan (the portrayer of whom was in Firefly).

  26. Historiann on 08 Nov 2009 at 3:03 pm #

    LOAF–thanks for the intel on Hildy/Notorious. (I didn’t know that secretary’s name.) No, not the actress who plays Joan. I just thought the sarcasm of her first major line was a lot like Notorious, so it was a kind of looks & personality meld. (Until she bonked Harold Crane, that is. Our Notorious has much higher standards, I am sure!)

  27. Indyanna on 08 Nov 2009 at 10:02 pm #

    Historiann, re the littering query: I really think there *has* been a sea change on that over the period you mention, perhaps comparable to the way we would view a tobacco smoke filled public enclosed space today if we entered one that mirrored America even ten years ago.
    The “Highway Beautification” movement was largely about persuading people not to be “litterbugs,” although Lady Bird Johnson also added commercial billboards to that category. And it’s amazing to think that the iconic “First Earth Day” in April, 1970 was largely, in the provinces at least, a community turn out event to scour unsightly debris from roadsides and streamsides. Later notions of ecological interaction as defining of “the environment” were scarcely on the ideological radar screen much less anything about “sustainability.” There are certainly noisome city neighborhoods today filled with urban detritus–ironically, seldom moreso than right after the refuse trucks go by to pick up, and scatter, the leavings. But that we even notice their noisomeness is somewhat a measure of how far the threshhold of perception has moved on that question.

  28. Knitting Clio on 10 Nov 2009 at 8:15 am #

    Just posted some longer comments on my blog but for some reason they’re not tracking back.

  29. Historiann on 10 Nov 2009 at 8:53 am #

    Thanks, KC–I’ll come over and take a look.

  30. Must be swell being a steer : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 11 Nov 2009 at 8:33 am #

    [...] on the state of heterosexuality and the pill in the early 1960s, which she wrote in response to my post about what a grim, joyless undertaking is heterosex on Mad Men.  This is just an open thread, for anyone who wants to “share.”  Consider it a [...]

  31. Mad Men: still aggressively anti-sexy : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 01 Dec 2009 at 10:01 am #

    [...] that we’re so cheap, we squeak?  It’s true.)  I stand by my claim of last month that Mad Men goes out of its way to ensure that no one enjoys any sexual pleasure whatsoever.  In this episode, Don and Sal are on a business trip to Baltimore, and both of them hook [...]

  32. Random thoughts on Mad Men, season 4 (so far) : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 12 Aug 2010 at 10:29 am #

    [...] Well, now that I have an i-pod and i-tunes, there’s a way to get Mad Men without subscribing to some expensive, crappy cable TV package I neither want nor need.  i-tunes sells a season pass for $20 ($30 for HD), which seems like a total bargain.  The only downside is that I have to watch the show on my computer, so Fratguy and I snuggle up in bed and balance it on our laps together.  (Too bad it’s such a completely un-sexy show!)  [...]