Mad Men: Women for Sale
Mad Men has always been interested in the objectification of women, in how women are treated like ownable property and their bodies like sellable commodities. It’s an important topic and one that is no less relevant today.
A recent study in Psychological Science underlines this point, showing that sexualized men are viewed as people and women as objects. While the sample size of the study was small, it’s certainly not telling us anything we don’t already know. Look at any billboard or advertising campaign and it’s obvious that the Don Drapers of today are still selling their products off the bodies of women.
In the recent Mad Men episode, “The Other Woman,” Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sold Jaguar with a pitch on how much easier it was to own a car than a woman. The connection between women and sellable objects has always been a recurring theme within the ad-centric world of Mad Men. This makes sense, since Don Draper is the ultimate salesman and his way with women has always been both a gift and a downfall.
This season in particular Mad Men has been hitting the symbolism pretty hard and the idea of the objectification of women is now getting its turn in the metaphorical spotlight. Your mileage may vary (car pun!) with the prevalence and obviousness of the symbolism in season five. Matthew Weiner is making a point about the transient nature of power among women in this time period and he’s underlining it with one of those giant magic markers that smell up a room for hours after their use. He wants this smell to linger because he wants to make the audience uncomfortable.
Discomfort gets people talking, after all. It did when Don Draper wrote his letter decrying the tobacco industry. The gross, uncomfortable and soul-crushing incidents in “The Other Woman” made the audience explode on Twitter and sparked debate in endless corners of the Internet. Would the partners at SCDP really pimp out Joan (Christina Hendricks) to nab the coveted car account? Would Joan trade her body for a partnership stake and a brighter future for herself and her newborn? If Don had gotten to Joan in time, would it have changed her mind?
The larger issue was foreshadowed in the previous episode “Christmas Waltz,” and made manifest in “The Other Woman.” In “Christmas Waltz” Don took Joan with him to buy a Jaguar and the conversation quickly turned into an analogy equating Joan with the sleek sports car in question. In the next episode, Joan was traded like an object so the firm could get what they wanted. Meanwhile, Don’s entire pitch was predicated on the connection between women and men’s desire to own them, like shiny trophies or fast cars. You could put your name on a Jaguar and feel content in your ownership, unlike those fickle females.
Just when you get complacent with the status quo, Weiner purposefully pulls the rug out from under you. It might not always be elegantly done, but it’s usually effective. Joan had just grown a backbone where her rapist husband was concerned and threw him out. We’d seen her friendship with both Lane (Jared Harris) and Don deepen over the last few episodes. Now seems like a particularly unkind time to (literally) sell Joan out.
Yet that’s the point Weiner is making. Watching Mad Men, it’s easy to fall in love with the characters and excuse their actions. It’s easy to think that Joan is as loved and respected by the partners at SCDP as she is by the audience. The reality is that no matter how many witty retorts Joan tosses or how many tense situations she defuses, she’ll always be a woman in the 1960s Manhattan ad game.
Even women superheroes are reduced to their bodies. A recent press conference for the new mega-hit The Avengers perfectly encapsulates this dichotomy of men as people and women as bodies. Robert Downey Jr. (who plays Iron Man Tony Stark) was asked an insightful question about the character arc for his hero in the movie. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the equally complex and prominently featured heroine Black Widow was asked about the workout routine she used to fit into her skin-tight suit. To her credit, Johansson’s incredulous response was pitch-perfect, her amazement at the double standards shown to her and her co-star highlighting the ridiculousness of the question.
The reason Mad Men is such a terrific, moving, and conversation-worthy show is because it’s always putting discussions like this front and center. Megan (Jessica Pare) spins in a circle for her audition, showing off her body in 360 similar to how cars are exhibited at car shows. Meanwhile Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is offered a price too, but this time for her skills and knowledge, not just her body. Things are changing in the world for all the Mad Men characters as the show hurtles towards the social shifts of the 1970s.
But here, from the present, we know things haven’t changed that much. I hope Mad Men continues pulling the rug out from under the audience and showing us how far we have yet to go. As Joan learned, the price for commodifying our bodies can be dangerously high.
Continue the conversation about the positive representation of women in the media at LegendaryWomen.org.