Well, 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?