Is Mad Men Feminist? Ask the Paratexts

Jonathan Gray's picture



In this post, I want to continue to examine the role that paratexts can play in setting the politics of a text. I’ll do so by asking the seemingly simple question of whether Mad Men is feminist.


Is the show Feminist?

Many writers have suggested it is. Too many for me to cite them or link to them all (here’s one from Jezebel, and another from Stephanie Coontz). The show regularly examines gender politics in the 1960s, yet with an eye towards discussing issues that are still salient today. In Peggy Olson, we have a rare (proto?) feminist character on television, and we’re not only invited into the world of Sterling Cooper through Peggy’s eyes in the pilot; she’s regularly offered as the primary point of identification. Betty Draper serves as one of the better televisual smackdowns of the image of the happy, doting, dutiful 50s housewife. Joan is similarly used to focus all sorts of critiques of how women were and are treated in the workplace, and of domestic abuse. And the jocularity of the guys in the office is regularly held up to ridicule and/or critique, whether through strategies of infantilization whereby they seem like 13 year-olds to Peggy or Joan’s adult behavior (in a way that often avoids romanticizing that childishness, as compared to the men of Judd Apatow films, for instance), through depictions of their haplessness and ineffectiveness, or through scenes of male cruelty, violence, and pettiness (think of almost any scene with Pete, for example). There’s a lot going on that’s feminist, in other words.


Within the show, though, there’s also a fair amount that isn’t feminist. It’s still ostensibly Don’s show, after all, and the show teeters on romanticizing his bad behavior or forgiving it through Jon Hamm’s handsomeness. If Betty decimates one half of the myth of the 1950s couple, not enough is done to ensure that Don decimates his half: despite all his roguishness, he’s still The Best At What He Does and the show still allows him many of its best scenes of triumph. Seasons 2 and 3 also risked undoing the earlier work with Betty, as she was increasingly portrayed as a spoiled princess (who, we can infer, deserved her unhappiness) rather than as the “June Cleaver is a Lie” neon sign that she began the series as. And though on one level it pains me to critique John Slattery’s Roger Sterling, it pains me because he’s often so affable, despite being a sexist (and racist) jerk at heart, and so perhaps they shouldn’t be writing this guy so lovingly?


At the level of the show itself, then, I’d propose that we have something that is way more feminist than much of what’s on television, but that has its many rifts, failures, and contradictions. It is not unequivocally feminist, in other words. This leaves the text open, to audiences on one hand, and to whether they want it to be feminist and read it as such or whether they don’t and don’t. On the other hand, it leaves the door wide open for paratexts to weigh in and make it more or less feminist.


So what are the paratexts doing and saying? Some are feminist, many are not.


Feminist Paratexts

First, let’s discuss those that are feminist. I’d highly recommend that at this point you follow this link to an excellent blog post by Mary Celeste Kearney about the Birth of an Independent Woman documentary included on the Season Two DVDs, then come back. Or, for those wanting a quicker version, this documentary is not just about the women of Mad Men, but about gender politics and the “place” of women in the era more generally, consulting numerous scholars of gender and women’s studies along the way. If Kearney will forgive my liberal quoting of her, she notes with excitement that, “Although this history is well known to anyone who participated in or has studied the women’s liberation movement, the material presented in Birth of an Independent Woman is not part of popular knowledge about the postwar era. It’s fascinating, therefore, to consider this documentary’s possible effects on public understanding of both gender oppression and feminist activism.” Kearney further underlines why this matters, namely because feminist documentary has suffered significantly from distribution problems, and thus: “Birth of an Independent Woman is an extreme rarity in today’s medialand, and its inclusion in a popular television show’s DVD release upends conventional notions of not only commercial TV entertainment, but also feminist documentary,” and “also intriguing is the prospect that feminist content will reach more viewers as a result of DVD special features. Indeed, the distribution of Birth of an Independent Woman may very well signal a new moment in feminist filmmaking, particularly distribution.” Putting a finer point on this hope, she writes that:


it is possible that many viewers who would never step foot in a women’s studies class or a feminist film festival will sit down to watch this documentary about the rise of the women’s liberation movement. And when they do, hopefully they will respond to Birth of an Independent Woman in the same way that [the] primarily male crew members did while they were making it, with surprise that they know so little about the gender politics of that period and with concern that sexism continues to limit the opportunities of most girls and women today.


This is the kind of paratextually-created cred that reinforces Mad Man’s claim to being feminist. Nor does creator Matthew Weiner shy from using the “f-word” and calling it feminist in interviews. Tom Matlack, in a post on The Huffington Post, writes:


As it turns out the creator of Mad Men views his show as a feminist show exactly because of its painfully accurate portrayal of the treatment of women in the workplace in the early 1960s. Weiner told me the highest praise he ever gets is when a woman approaches him after a public appearance to say she was a secretary during that era that era and the show got the sexual harassment exactly right. They always thank him for putting a spotlight on what really happened.


Not-Feminist or Anti-Feminist Paratexts

His cast is less sure, though. Elisabeth Moss says of Peggy: “She’s not a revolutionary, and she’s not going to be like burning her bra anytime soon. I think she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care about politics unless it relates to her job. She’s not going to be a hippie.  She’s a professional woman.” Ugh. I’d expect more from Zoey Bartlet. Christina Hendricks is a little more measured (in the same article) in her appraisal of Joan, effectively saying that Joan wouldn’t think she was a feminist, nor would those of the era, but she leaves the door open for us to consider her a feminist.


Hendricks’ appraisal seems fair … but one has to travel to Bitch to find it. Elsewhere, in the media at large, we get a very different take on Mad Men’s women, as Joan and Betty are reduced to the basic metal of being hot commodities to be ogled at and enjoyed in the most pre-feminist ways. Here’s Hendricks in Esquire:


and in GQ:


and in Flare and in a London Fog ad:

Or here, in a much-used publicity image from AMC itself, by Frank Ockenfels, we’re encouraged by the network, no less not just to see Hendricks, but specifically Joan as something to be looked at. The image is an object lesson in the male gaze:


The words used to describe her in profiles are hardly much better. Dubbing her in their title “The Queen of Curves,” for instance, while using just one of the really bad Mad Men puns that are stock and trade in reporting about the show and its characters, The Daily Mail opens by stating that “Christina Hendricks is about to drive men everywhere mad again. The buxom beauty explodes on the cover of the May 2013 issue of Canada’s Flare Magazine in a fabulous curve-hugging yellow dress from Stella McCartney, juxtaposed against her tousled, fiery red locks.”


Equally (or more?) depressingly, Chiderah Monde of The New York Daily News opens an article writing: “Sultry actress Christina Hendricks loves playing ‘Mad Men’ character Joan Holloway, but says she’s only like her in one way: pleasing her husband.”


January Jones similarly appears in magazines and ads many miles away from her character. To GQ, she is not an unhappy housewife, just a “hot” one, while to W, she’s “mad sexy”:

Or here are two other images, another GQ cover and a Versace ad:

We could only rescue these images, and the overwhelming portrayal of Hendricks and Jones as sex objects, as feminist if we discount feminism to the most bastardized post-feminist mantra of “a woman is free to be as hot and sexy as she wants.” Gone is the interest in the plight of women of the day, or in the aggressively masculine corporate culture that the show regularly criticizes, as instead viewers are positioned as wanting to roll around in that culture like a dog on a dead fish. In a rare public acknowledgment of this by someone in the press, The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman notes:


Since Mad Men began in 2007, some critics have been so busy noting how we live in an era so different from the sexist workplace of Sterling Cooper – in which women’s bodies are lustily discussed in front of them – that they have apparently not noticed they often do the same thing with actors, especially Hendricks. It’s hard to think of another female star whose body has come under so much scrutiny of late. While most of the attention has been positive, there is a thin line between celebrating someone’s appearance and reducing that person to nothing more than her physique.


I share Mary Kearney’s hope that male viewers of Birth of an Independent Woman will encounter feminism they wouldn’t elsewhere … but then I worry about how much these sorts of images and articles undo all that work, reify the patriarchal bullshit that we’re supposed to be deconstructing, and evacuate all feminism from the show’s public footprint. After all, the number of people who might witness the above images (even if only on newstands) and/or read the articles surely dwarfs the number who’d see the special feature documentary. HuffPo profiles of Weiner might promise feminism, but that horrible rightmost column of HuffPo is undoubtedly pointing viewers to these images, or noting any sheer top the actresses might be wearing in public.


(To talk about celebrity appearances veers somewhat away from paratexts into the realm of intertexts admittedly, though given how often the images frame Hendricks and Jones as from Mad Men, I don’t think it’s unfair to see a hazed line between paratext and intertext. At the same time, if we steer into the turn to intertexts, we might also note that Jon Hamm’s roles are interesting in relation to our understanding of Don Draper. Here, I was really happy to see him play an utter asshole in Bridesmaids, since before that he seemed to specialize in guest appearances on NBC shows (30 Rock, Saturday Night Live) as a lovably goofy, funny guy, in ways that seemed always to soften Don intertextually and point to an inner nice guy, not an inner jerk.)


Mad Men’s other significant public paratextual presence is in its Banana Republic clothing campaign. BR has signed on with Mad Men to produce a clothing line associated with the show. Here, there is no mention of feminism. Some images peddle the gaze, as with this one:


But mostly feminism is just entirely absent. Mad Men ceases to be “about” feminism or gender politics, in other words, and becomes “about” style.


This, I believe, is almost as insidious a technique for political distancing as the active U-Turn from feminism represented in the publicity surrounding Hendricks and Jones. In this following image, for instance …


… being “a Betty” has nothing to do with her place in society, her overwhelming sadness, and her lack of any power. Instead, “a Betty” is a style. The suggestion is almost that we’ve been misreading Betty if we see her as politicized, or as site of critique: perhaps all along she was only just a style of dress, poise, and being, where her coldness is calculated, her empty expression a practiced and deliberate way to gain attention, not a sign of inner turmoil.



Here then, Banana Republic depoliticized Mad Men. And I’d pose that this is a common problem for any text that has a politics and paratexts: one can never count on the paratexts to acknowledge those politics, let alone to honor and echo them. If Weiner wanted a feminist show (and I’m still asking “if,” since I’m not sold), many of the more public paratexts have reined it in. Banana Republic and lad mags may be especially guilty, but much of the show’s own publicity risks hyper-stylizing it to the point of making it a stylized show, not a show with anything particular to say. As a result, to many non-watchers, the show is likely not on their radars as even potentially feminist. To watchers, meanwhile, the show’s feminism can only ever be partial and qualified: like a blue comedian with a guest appearance on a family show, it is only allowed to be a small portion of itself in public, or so it seems.


If the above case study on one hand points to the need to examine how paratexts discount politics for a wider public, on the other hand it illustrates the need to study paratextual politics alongside issues of labor. The public images of Hendricks and Jones, I note, play a key role in deconstructing the show’s claim to feminism. But I do not blame Hendricks and Jones. Instead, we should accept their places within a larger patriarchal industry as strictly contained. Sure, I’d like to see them kick the fences a bit more (just as I’d like to see Elisabeth Moss take a Women’s Studies 101 class and learn what feminism really is!), but through them we see how a machine of lad and postfeminist magazines and how promotional interests set up a perimeter around would-be feminist texts, ready to paratextually and intertextually rebut those politics. If Kearney’s interest in Birth of an Independent Woman is one about the prospects for distribution, I’d like to balance that optimism with a skeptical conclusion about the paratextual/intertextual barriers that seemingly allow texts to travel, but only on the provision that certain politics are first dropped.


Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 22 Jul 2013 20:18:10 +0000