Posts Tagged ‘Sexism’

The Body as Emotionless Agent in Mad Men

November 3, 2009

Mad Men is, as Abi pointed out, pretty damn sexist. Even the characters who don’t actively objectify women to their faces aren’t affirmative of women otherwise. There is a sense of disconnect between women and their bodies; Peggy is encouraged at many times throughout the episode to show off her legs as a means to job security. Their bodies are seen by men in their time as objects to be used, by men, as means to their carnal pleasure, as opposed to vessels of a human mind and soul. Men’s bodies are seen as extensions of their minds, and are as valuable as the brains inside of them. Women’s bodies are as valuable as the amount of effort it takes to get between her legs. The worth of a woman in the 1960s is the worth of her body, not the worth of her mind or the worth of her work.

With their bodies already disconnected from their minds and personalities, women are left to utilize their bodies, as tools for survival in this male-driven world. As agents, going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, they are passive agents, not good or bad depending on their actions, but good or bad depending on the emotional projection of the viewer/man. Joan Holloway understands this disconnect, and acts accordingly. She is a savvy, intelligent, compassionate woman while speaking to Peggy, seeming to want to help her succeed. She gives a sense of not taking any necessary crap from people. When Don Draper is around, however, she is the perfect secretary: part mother, part maid. She understands the role she must play to keep her job, and her body is just another tool she will use to play it. In this episode, Peggy is getting a crash course in the worth of her body. She is put on birth control pills, and tries to use her sex to appeal to the men in the office, specifically Draper. She is starting to understand the expectations of her in this job, and is trying to fulfill them to the best of her naïve abilities. But does she embrace this disconnect? Her plaintive gaze at the calendar in the doctor’s office suggests that she hasn’t, but she will try. I haven’t watched any of the rest of the show, so my question now is: will she succeed?

However, Mad Men is a very clever show. It does a very good job of showing not only the blatant sexism towards women of the early 1960s, but of the sexism directed towards and the expectations placed upon men in this time period. The men seem to fulfill the stereotypes of the time, but the show allows them to show their disconnect from their actions, as though they are not always acting as they would like to act, playacting the part of Man that society has written for them. They use their bodies to fulfill this role. However, having only seen this episode of the show, it is difficult for me to say when they are being sincere. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that at least Pete Campbell and Draper seem to be the most sincere when they are around women (the woman as both Madonna and whore, blah blah blah, etc.)

While during their daily, working lives they drink big, smoke, and seek out attractive and “loose” (another problematic term) women, it is when they are alone that their true desires are revealed. Draper’s mistress is an independent woman, who works for herself and refuses to commit to him. He is also drawn to Rachel Menken, the straightforward and smart department store head who calls him out on his bullshit and isn’t afraid to demand what she wants. Similarly, on the night of his bachelor party, Campbell abandons his friends and seeks out Peggy Olson, the shy and wholesome girl from Brooklyn. While it could be simply because he was turned down at the club, I am a supreme optimist when it comes to fiction, and like to imagine that he sought out Peggy because he was looking for something that “loose” women couldn’t give him.

For both the men and women of Mad Men, private actions seem to negate their public behavior, and suggest a yearning for something other than that which society has deemed acceptable for and from them. Someone mentioned earlier in the blog Draper’s gazing at the insects trapped in the lighting panel above him, and cited that as a metaphor for Draper’s own entrapment. Might the trap in which he finds himself, and which all of the characters find themselves, be society’s restrictive expectations of their respective genders? DUN DUN DUN!