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.
~~Christina Hendricks, feminism, identity politics, January Jones, Jon Hamm, Mad Men, Matthew Wiener