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Don Draper may be the sexiest, most gorgeously tortured human being ever to have landed on television. All the male characters on Mad Men tantalize viewers by unbuttoning their over-starched dress shirts to reveal the voluptuous, sometimes vile and always ego-driven hunger of the masculine soul. But what makes the show so delicious is a fact its Y-chromosome-heavy cast list works to conceal.
Mad Men is really about women.
The Mad Men take pleasure in the bourbon-swilling, stripper-ogling revelry of their lives without realizing they’re on the brink of extinction. The sixties are here. Soon the secretaries will demand their bosses stop pinching their asses and the wives will express emotional needs. The black elevator operators will no longer nod complacently at patronizing remarks and the Jewish clients will no longer pretend not to notice the token Jew brought in from the mailroom to impress them.
Most of the Mad Men will clasp tightly to this rapidly fading era when they ruled the world. Meanwhile, the Mad Women are ripe for change.
First, we have the colossal Joan, queen bee to an office full of marriage-starved secretaries. Joan finally gets the professional recognition she deserves after saving a campaign, only to be replaced by an incompetent male colleague. She gets the husband she wants then is raped by him. In a scene where she massages an impression left in her skin by the strap of her corset, we know she’s exhausted by the fight. But we also imagine she’ll slide back into that constricting brassiere every morning until the day she can finally burn it.
Meanwhile, Peggy has morphed from the prim secretary her colleagues want to belittle or bed, into a woman with Don’s mastery of the craft and his steely disregard for ineptitude. In season three, she beds then abandons a college boy, evidence she’s inching closer to the dark side, where ambition reigns, people are disposable and sex is a quickly satisfied diversion. Later, when Don and Peggy work together on a campaign, the future becomes clear: the next Don Draper is Peggy Olson.
Then there’s Betty, the pigeon-shooting, washing machine-humping embodiment of suburban drudgery. Her husband’s cruelty is an aphrodisiac luring the bored housewife into her own depths. If he could only see how lusty and hungry for connection his wife is, Don would reveal himself and become whipped forever.
Lastly, we have the fierce, whip-smart goddesses our good Mr. Draper takes as mistresses. Don’s attraction to dames who have something to contribute to a conversation reaffirms our suspicion that sharp men really do dig sharp women, even if they marry princesses. Don’s lovers will eventually come out from behind the husbands and fathers to whom they currently supply a backbone.
Still, the show is officially about Don. The handsome cad may be ambivalent about his wife having a life outside the home, he rewards her devotion with infidelity and uses stewardesses as recreational sport. However, he’s also the only male character who ever takes women seriously. Moving Peggy up through the ranks and being immune to Joan’s wiles suggests talent really does get a woman the gold ring.
But the greatest indicator of Don’s evolution will be what he does with his wife. Either he leaves the marriage of his middle-class, picket fence fantasies or he commits. Choosing the latter means accessing Betty’s depths so she comes alive and he finds the intimacy he craves.
The most invigorating pleasure of Mad Men is watching the men fossilize as the women come out from their shells. Still, it’s distressing to see their ancient struggles sprout up in our lives today: the frustrated selfhood and thwarted desire to get ahead, sexual competition and male emotional unavailability, the eternal conflict in men’s minds between good girls and bad. Mad Men lets us know how far we’ve come and far we have yet to go.
Mad Men’s chauvinism suggests men think women are idiotic, too fragile for worldly experience and only useful as sex toys. But perhaps the more revealing truth was summed up in a line Roger Sterling delivered to his new wife.
“I have to keep you in line,” he says. “Or I’ll lose you.”
Maybe Roger’s fear foreshadows the emasculation many modern men claim to feel in the face of female progress. But these poor guys have never understood the best way to lose a woman is to keep her in line, a fact our good friends Joan, Peggy, Betty, and all the women who watch them every Sunday night, are itching to let them know.