People, 'Mad Men' Is Not Feminist.

[from feministdonut, cross-posted from The Feminist Texican.]

Over the past month or so, I’ve been seeing all kinds of articles on what a feminist show this is.  Much as I lovelovelove the show (”Mad Men” and “Project Runway” are pretty much the only times I turn on the TV each week), every time I read one of these articles, I want to scream, “Stop projecting!

[Possible spoilers after the jump.]

The arguments made for “Mad Men” being a feminist show:

And so forth.

The fact that it’s written by women, that it’s historically accurate, that the women are nuanced characters, and that the writers aren’t afraid to show the men being unabashed jerks still doesn’t justify categorizing the show under “feminist.” None of this means the show is in and of itself feminist.  It just means that the show is fertile ground for feminist/gender analysis.

“Mad Men” is feminist/gender analysis gold, that much is certain. However, when I read shit like Nussbaum’s rape article, I feel like banging my head against the desk a few times:

At once a real person and an iconographic cartoon, she was a retro Samantha Jones, a third-wave feminist before her time, eternally articulating one form of female power: the potent combination of an arched eyebrow and a tight green skirt.


  1. Was it really necessary to Sex-and-the-Citify Joan?
  2. Is it really necessary to keep perpetuating the impression that third-wavers are empowered solely through their sexuality?
  3. The second wave hasn’t even happened yet, much less the third.  Again, totally projecting/jumping the gun with these labels.

The second wave exploded on the scene largely with the publication of The Feminine Mystique, which was first published in early 1963–the year in which this current season is set.  These women are who The Feminine Mystique is about; they experience The Problem That Has No Name on a daily basis.  We may very well start to see some the women setting the framework for a true feminist awakening on the show.  (Even then, I’d be hard pressed to consider the show itself feminist.)

Until then? Stop projecting.

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  • Scipio Africanus

    What are some examples of expressly feminist television shows or feature films?

  • OTOH, the fact that the women characters have actual depth is pretty feminist, considering how fucking rare this is.

  • Lizbeth

    I think you left out the fact that the most interesting characters on the show are all women. Personally, what I’m waiting for is what Peggy, Joan, and Betty do next – that’s the reason I keep watching the show. And all of the issues that go on with these women are because they are women. Betty is a depressed and unfulfilled housewife. Joan is getting married simply because – it seems to me – that it’s unacceptable for her to be single and over thirty. Peggy is constantly being treated differently at work because of her sex. These are issues that apply to women everywhere still today, and men rarely dare to speak of them. The very fact that the show is willing to discuss these issues on an ongoing basis (notice that there are no quick-fixes like in many hollywood shows) makes it feminist.

  • Peter Sattler

    As a deeply-dyed MAD MEN fan — I thought last night’s episode (S03 E02) was extremely strong — I was going to rise to the defense of the show’s feminist pedigree.

    But I think you need to take your turn first.

    You make a big claim in your title: MAD MEN is not feminist. Nowhere in your post, however, do you support that claim with reasons or evidence. You provide no references to aspects of the show that are or or are not feminist. You offer no real rebuttal to the “MAD MEN as feminist” arguments about the show — as opposed to arguments about terminology and the history of feminism. (In fact, all you say is that characteristics A, B, C, D, etc., do not necessarily make something feminist — as if anything does.)

    I would love to hear your argument about how the show isn’t actually feminist, or as feminist as it seems. You just haven’t started making that case yet.

    Lastly, I think you are over-extending Friedan’s vision of the “Problem That Has No Name.” That chapter spoke little of the plight of working women like Joan and Peggy. The “Problem” was not just sexism in general. It was the malaise and alienation of the “suburban housewife” — of women like Betty Draper, who only “work” and “live” through their homes, families, husbands, and images of American domestic bliss, wondering all the time, “Is this all?” And wasn’t that exactly what MAD MEN Season One was about?

    Seems like your own feminist history is a bit askew.

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  • Yeah, um…hi. I wrote this article, and I’m barely responding now because I just recently saw the comments. I started to write out a long ass comment in response, but then I decided an article would probably be more appropriate since it was so long. This is majorly after the fact, so no one will probably see this? But whatev. It’s here:

  • ladyfresh

    thanks for the response


    I just finished season one and I watched without “enjoying” a second of it. To my horror the majority of my friends (feminists) LOVE the show and don’t understand why I have issues with it.

    Mind you I am only just into season 2 so I cannot comment past episode 1, but this is NOT a feminist show. That said, I will probably keep watching.

    What this show DOES do is show how LITTLE America has changed since the 1960’s. I’m fairly certain most women (if not all) have experienced similar things in their own workplaces, families, and general lives. Plus it does at least bring the topic into conversation, which is quite nice as I think most of America has been lulled into thinking that sexism no longer exists.

    Thank you for that excellent post!

  • Emily

    Mad Men is feminist in the show’s portrayal of events, not in the events themselves. Joan is shown in all her sex-in-the-city glory precisely to problematize her views, while never patronizing her. The same can be said of Peggy, who joins the boys club at the expensive of her own child, and Betty, who liberates herself from a dull marriage mostly through adultery. The women on Mad Men are not role models, they are sympathetic characters struggling to gain power in a world that denies it to them, often with mixed results that are never sugar-coated.

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