Friday, April 9, 2010

Feminist Mad Men?

Mad Men is one of the shows that I follow and, most of the time, enjoy. This past season was also covered regularly and extensively by one of my favourite blogs, Feministing. For those who have never seen this show, it follows the lives of employees, and their families and friends, of an advertising company in the early 1960s. Much focus is given to how the women, predominantly secretaries, are treated and harassed in the workplace as well as how the men treat their wives and other women outside of the workplace. Don Draper, the male lead, regularly cheats on his wife, talks down to her, and when she confides in her psychiatrist, Draper calls him to hear how she is doing, as if she were a child that needed his supervision. The show deals primarily with gender roles and expectations, but is also careful never to show its characters as only two-dimensional based on their genders. Specifically, the female characters are revealed to have many layers and are actually quite strong. While many of them do not fight against how they are treated, and at times seem to accept it with little or no thought, their displeasure and unhappiness are revealed in several ways throughout the series.
Mad Men Women
Jezebel has an interesting piece on 15 Feminist Moments from Mad Men, including a variety of sexual issues such as self-enjoyment and birth control.

Initially I thought that understanding this show as a feminist tool had only two sides: positive and negative. The first, positive, side was that people would watch this and recognize that much of what happened to women in this series was abuse and harassment. Some of these scenes are intended to shock the viewers so even the least critical audience member would react with disgust to such moments of abuse. This recognition that something has occurred that should not happen to anyone could serve as a feminist awakening. At the same time, however, it must also be considered that there are those who regard this show with no criticism. Some may watch it with a sense of nostalgia for a time when men were allowed to smoke and drink in the office - when "men were men" as some have worded it. An example of this in my own life is when one friend suggested a group of us should have a Mad Men themed party and a guy friend responded with, "Great, we get to drink and treat the girls like shit." Even more problematic is when the values of this particular period are commercially endorsed. Last summer when I was in the US, the Banana Republic was participating in a marketing campaign using the Don Draper character to sell business suits. The outfits resembled those on the show, and men were essentially told that they could be Draper if they wore Banana Republic suits. While Draper may dress fashionably, his personality is not something any man should aspire to.

Upon closer consideration, however, I realized that this show could not be divided only into these two possible interpretations. While there are many of those who will watch this show and acknowledge that no woman or man should be treated how these women are, there is also the problem of seeing this only as a history. The series strives for historical accuracy both in gender expectations and costumes, and this is well known to those who watch the show. Therefore the audience might interpret this treatment only to be something in the past, something that called for feminist interventions then, but have since been solved. They fail to recognize that sexual harassment and assault still occur in many workplaces, even though there are now laws against this. This abuse is just less explicit. Similar to how in the 1960s, slapping a woman's butt was not considered abuse at the time, much of what occurs today is accepted as common practice or hidden from coworkers' eyes. Not wishing to minimize the violence in the past, workplace violence, in a society that declares sexual harassment unconstitutional, has culminated in death at times, such as in the case of Lori Dupont.

My hope, although potentially naive, is that viewers will not only watch this show and recognize what occurs as abuse, but that they also look to their own lives and the lives of their friends in the workplace to recognize that while there have been significant improvements in harassment laws and expectations, there is still much work to be done to eradicate it entirely.

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