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Mad Men, and the new crop of retro sexist TV shows

This weekend, I found myself having a night out with my boyfriend. (I know, I know. It’s an exciting way to start a story. Just wait a second.) There was food, there was music, there was flattering lighting. And, most romantic of all, we were discussing menswear detailing on Mad Men.

“Now, my guy Roger Sterling,” my boyfriend said, “he wears a wider lapel, which I like.”
“Your guy, Roger Sterling?” I said. “He’s your guy now?”

I was a bit startled. Roger Sterling, you see, is one of the few TV characters I have ever known to make him scream aloud out of sheer anger.

Roger Sterling is one of the founding partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the fictional advertising agency around which Mad Men revolves. The show is set in the 1960s, and Roger is a wealthy white man. He drinks; he smokes; he nails beautiful women; he spews an infinite number of sassy one-liners. But, since this is Mad Men, a show devoted to the badness of the good old days, Roger is also an appalling bigot. He treats women terribly. (Don: “What do women want?” Roger: “Who cares?”) He’s cruelly dumped two of the most admirable women on the show to marry a dim, leggy teenage secretary. He has worn blackface; he has found this blackface hilarious. The episode that pushed my partner over the edge was “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” in which Roger is revealed to have a seething hatred of the Japanese, and shares this hatred loudly with prospective Japanese clients. He makes Hiroshima jokes. He refers to them as “new yellow buddies.” He objects to their presence in the office while they’re two feet away. Finally, after about an hour of this, my partner let loose, yelling at the screen — yelling through the screen, at Roger — “STOP IT. STOP IT. JUST STOP IT.”

Here’s the fun part: As far as many people are concerned, Roger Sterling is the best character on the show. His sassiest one-liners have been packaged as a book; his “greatest, most wonderfully reprehensible” sexist moments have been ranked online; at some point, an article was published about how Roger Sterling is “secretly” what every woman wants. This article, unsurprisingly, was written by a man, Matt Labash.

What my partner and I were doing, basically, was demonstrating one of the key criticisms leveled at Mad Men. Many people — myself included — find Mad Men to be a subtle, meticulous, powerful takedown of patriarchy, racism, and consumer culture. My partner and I are both progressive types who enjoy the show, and can tell you our many progressive reasons for doing so. But when we talked about the show over dinner, we weren’t sharing our op-ed worthy opinions on how Don represents the crumbling facade of performative masculinity, or how Roger represents the conflict between capitalism and institutional racism. We talked about all the beautiful suits. (Now available at Banana Republic!) We talked about Roger, our guy Roger, and his sassy one-liners.

We should get used to having conversations like these. Because the entertainment industry has decided that, thanks to Mad Men, society’s past is entertainment’s future, and have constructed several shows attempting to cash in on its success. In the upcoming season alone, we have The Hour: Mad Men, but about British journalists, and with McNulty from The Wire. We also have Pan Am: Mad Men, but about stewardesses, and with Christina Ricci. And we have The Playboy Club: Mad Men, but about Hugh Hefner’s ardent love for himself, and with a boycott led by Gloria Steinem. You could even expand our love affair with old-timey, misogynist societies to two shows that premiered a bit earlier: Boardwalk Empire, with old-timey, misogynist gangsters, and Game of Thrones, with old-timey, misogynist knights and kings.

There is a seduction at work in shows like these; one which plays on the viewer’s need to feel enlightened, even as it satisfies her baser desires. Characters in these societies can do and say things that we simply wouldn’t accept in contemporary characters. (The other fictional character to make my boyfriend yell was Pierce Hawthorne on Community; he’s also racist and sexist, but the episode that induced yelling was one in which Pierce taunted a suicidal boy until he cried. Dan Harmon, Community’s showrunner, had to spend the rest of that season resolving the problem of Pierce: How to convince viewers to care for a character who had gone from stupid to actively life-threatening. Compare to Roger, who is beloved without ever having to reform.) Plenty of viewers will explain to you that this is “critique,” that we’re watching the shows to get a sense of how bad these eras were. But we can get that from studying actual history. To keep us watching, the shows have to give us something about these worlds that we enjoy. Beautiful costumes, maybe. Or sassy one-liners. Or sexy characters.

Or maybe, just maybe, a chance to see people do misogynist, racist things without facing consequences. Me, I’ve never been turned on by the sexism of Mad Men. But as a smoker, I’ll be damned if I can watch the show without swooning over all those guilt-free indoor cigarettes. Or without lighting up myself. Or even yearning — guiltily, irrationally, momentarily — for a world where marriage was taken for granted, and “success” and economic security were as simple as working as a receptionist for a few years, then marrying a wealthy guy who looked like Jon Hamm. (Seeing the fates of the wives on the show tends to cure that, quickly.) Not everyone who watches these retro-oppression stories is a bigot; in fact, very few of them would admit to racism, or sexism, or even homophobia, all of which are considered immoral, or at least socially clueless, in contemporary society. (Sexist, racist Roger Sterling is a distinguished, silver-haired playboy; sexist, racist Pierce Hawthorne is a fumbling, white-haired buffoon.) But as the articles in praise of Sterling show — what men really miss, apparently, is “the freedom to be men. To not be civilized and sensitized and effeminized to within an inch of their lives;” the idea that being a “man” in a culture that had such a narrow, aggressive, anti-“effeminate” definition of the term might not feel like “freedom” is apparently not something Matt Labash has considered — there is a sick thrill in watching fictional characters act out, celebrate and enjoy the darkest undercurrents of our culture.

In a show where everyone is a bigot, you end up liking some of the bigots. A smart show will use this against you; I’m of the opinion that Mad Men is a very smart show, luring you in with its beautiful surfaces and pretty people, then making you scream when you see the horror they take for granted. But very few shows have that sort of scalpel-like grace; in fact, this new breed looks to use mainly blunt implements, battering us relentlessly with awfulness toward women and other living things. And if people can watch a show as finely calibrated as Mad Men and come away with the message that it is somehow desirable to act like Roger Sterling, it’s foolish to think that these other shows aren’t attracting a viewership that is more turned on by the awfulness than the “critique.”

It’s also dangerous. Even as we’re clucking our tongues over mid-20th century or medieval racism and sexism — it’s how things were, and aren’t we glad things are so much better now — our country is dealing with an upsurge of open, angry racism from the Tea Party. The GOP is pushing for a massive rollback on reproductive rights. One of the current candidates for President reads books that idealize slavery. Violence against women is still very prevalent. Restrictive gender roles are everywhere. Our culture isn’t advanced: Explaining why there are so few female TV writers, Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter summed up the situation as, “we are creating television for white guys.” Entertainment about retro bigotry is often billed as the closest thing to actually being there. But in fact, the closest thing to actually being there is actually being here. And if we take a look around, instead of congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come, what we see is not so pretty.

Sady Doyle

Sady Doyle is the founder of Tiger Beatdown. Her work has appeared at The Atlantic, The American Prospect, Comment Is Free, and all sorts of places, all over the Internet.

5 thoughts on “Mad Men, and the new crop of retro sexist TV shows

  1. the is interesting, but i don’t think it applies to the hour at all, in which only the odious villains say openly sexist things and the main character who most seems to struggle with his internal sexism (hector) very rarely says anything particulaerly sexist – it’s in the way he acts, which is ultimately presented as his failure to act as he wants to act. i don’t think he’s somebody you could feel about in the way that you say people feel about roger sterling.

    the hour has clunky dialogue in a lot of places and isn’t as accomplished as mad men – but that’s almost because it’s too revisionary in places. it certainly doesn’t present any sexist characters whom people really enjoy for their witty sexism. if you’re going to look at BBC shows that do that, then look at life on mars.

    i know that your aticle isn’t about this one show, and only mentions it once as an example of a whole crop – but that’s the problem. the hour has already finished airing in the UK, and has aired a few episodes in america, you could have watched it and written about something that actually happens in it – i think this article has a good premise, but i don’t get the sense that you have actually engaged with the shows other than mad men, especially as many of them haven’t aired yet. you have assumed that they fall into these pitfalls as they are not going to be as good as mad men- and yes, these are pitfalls that they could very well fall into. but i’m uneasy about beliving that without you having even seen anything to base this criticism on other than a few clips and a premise.

  2. The Mad Men I see does make the effort to portray female characters doing their best to succeed/thrive in the male-dominated world they find themselves in. One has made it into the “inner sanctum” of her advertising world while still realistically fighting to be included in their various mens-club activities which in the end dictate a lot of the bigger business decisions.

    The “dim, leggy, teenage secretary” wife is finally calling Sterling on his crap and slowly breaking out of her fragile picture-perfect shell. Sterling finds himself barred from home and spending his nights sleeping in the office.

    I agree that shows like ‘Pam Am’ and especially ‘The Playboy Club’ will have little appeal for me. This retro sexism can even go back to shows like ‘Rome’ where as long as it was the women that were violating each other, it was OK.

    The popularity of a show like ‘Dexter’ I find worrying. The glamorization of serial killers (even if they are being used to catch other sociopaths) just seems to be a new nadir in TV programming.

    I’ve also noticed the increasing ugliness of animated shows like ‘Family Guy’ & ‘South Park’ that don’t even try to be funny anymore. They’re just toxic in their treatment of anyone who isn’t a white slacker dude. It’s this corrosive cynicism that further erodes our more positive American “can-do” ethos into becoming the “Whatever” culture.

  3. “I’m of the opinion that Mad Men is a very smart show, luring you in with its beautiful surfaces and pretty people, then making you scream when you see the horror they take for granted.”

    Yes! Personally, I find that Mad Men depicts bodily functions and infirmities so much more readily than most television programs. It makes such a gripping contrast with Mad Men’s flashy facade; that’s one of the big ways the show leans on the side of criticism instead of celebration of people like Roger Sterling.

    I’ve developed the idea more here: http://thelovemachineblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-fragile-bodies-of-mad-men/
    Not to spam on your parade, of course, Sady, just wanted to link the observations.

  4. Everytime I watch Mad Men I have a natural reaction to everything thats happening. We have come a long way, what was considered the norm, we now have the ability to link to groups. What used to be everyone can now be said to be the tea party movement or whatever.

  5. there is a sick thrill in watching fictional characters act out, celebrate and enjoy the darkest undercurrents of our culture…what men really miss, apparently, is “the freedom to be men. To not be civilized and sensitized and effeminized to within an inch of their lives;” .Right on sister….my sentiments EXACTLY!!!

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