Mad at Mad Men

Mad Men Barbies
Season 3 Spoiler Alert

I’ve had a hard time with Mad Men from the very beginning. After watching the first episode I was so overwhelmed by the “boys club” dynamics and the way the men treated the women that I had virtually no interest in the show.

But after having a few more episodes on in the background as I was at my desk I became curious.

Overall, it is incredibly well done.  It’s a show about over-indulgence, boredom, and the failure of the American Dream, but the writers don’t feel the need to hit us over the head with it.

Everything looks great: It’s authentic (as far as I can tell) and none of the details are overlooked.  The writing is generally strong, and most of the actors are phenomenal.

There are some intriguing characters. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is feisty and thrives in an environment she shouldn’t. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is smart, tough, and in control. They’re both complicated, but that’s what makes them interesting.

But I’ve never been able to appreciate the men.

Though they may be well written, they’re simply vile personalities.  They’re disrespectful and rude, they cheat on their wives and back-stab each other.

While Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the only one who gets much of a back story (and a convoluted and mysterious one at that), his present story is  full of philandering and lying to his wife – just like the other guys’.  Draper, with his classic good looks, gives most people an orgasm just for walking on screen, but I can’t stand him.  His damaged past doesn’t make him any more appealing to watch.

While it bothers me that the men of Sterling-Cooper seem to be incapable of monogamy, that along doesn’t make me hate the show.  It does, however, make it incredibly hard to feel engaged because I dislike the majority of the characters.

But what I can’t understand is the rape.

The first instance was a particularly disturbing scene in season two when Joan’s boyfriend, Greg, gets jealous and rapes her in Don’s office.  It was extremely hard to watch, but I was convinced that it would be resolved before the end of the season.  It wasn’t.

Even if spousal rape wasn’t illegal (it became illegal in US States between 1975 and 1993) women knew it was wrong. In season three Joan and Greg’s relationship is deteriorating. By making their problems about Greg’s general bad attitude instead about the abuse, it suggests that women in the sixties were willing to put up with anything if it meant marrying a doctor.

I haven’t finished watching season three yet, so maybe there’s a consequence for Greg still to come.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s already 10 episodes later and would be too little too late.

If this wasn’t bad enough, Pete Campbell has become a rapist too.

Campbell wasn’t a particularly good guy for much of the first two seasons.  He cheated on his wife, toyed with Peggy’s emotions, and attempted to blackmail Don.

But by season three he seemed to be getting his act together.

That is, until a neighbour’s au pair needed help after she ruined her boss’ dress.  The girl feared she would deported so Pete offered to help her out.

He got the dress replaced, returned it to the girl, and asked her on a date (his wife was out of town).  The girl refused.  Later, Pete got drunk, went to the girl’s apartment and told her that she owed him for his help (and as such for helping her keep her job and her US residency).

He insisted she let him and model the dress. She reluctantly did.  When they got to the bedroom, he closed the door and forcefully kissed her.  The sex is implied, but not shown.

The scene played out more like one of Pete’s seduction scenes instead of what it really was: Rape. He might not have held her down, but he might as well have.  After all, for consent to mean anything there needs to be a balance of power.

This is very different than Joan’s rape, and is clearly not meant to illicit the same sort of reaction.

The next day the girl’s male boss confronts Pete.  The girl had spent the day crying.  I was expecting the man to, at the very least, punch Pete.  I wanted a reaction. I wanted a consequence.  But he only threatened Pete and told him  to stay away.

When Pete’s wife, Trudy, returned home, she figured out that Pete had “cheated.”  She was temporarily upset.  Luckily, any pain the perceived cheating caused her was fixed when Pete insisted Trudy not go on vacation anymore without him.  Clearly Pete’s actions were Trudy’s fault.  We all know that men can’t help themselves, right?

I always feel really upset by rape in a story line.  It seems to happen so frequently now that I have come to expect it.

In many cases it is just lazy writing.  It is a plot device that can only be used against women and as such is usually used to demonstrate their weakness.  There are few times when it adds much to the story because the motivations for rape in movies and books often don’t fit true motivations: Violence, power and control.

As much as I was disturbed by Joan’s rape and am upset that it doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on her relationship, at least the motivation made sense.  Greg was jealous and wanted to assert his masculinity and power.  I don’t like it, but at least viewers won’t forgive him.

But in Pete’s case, it appears to have been about loneliness.  We know that rape isn’t about sex, and yet this scene was.  Not only does this undermine the victim’s experience, it tells audiences that this kind of rape isn’t real rape.

By creating any sort of hierarchy in understanding what rape is, we’ll never be free of it.

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