Having watched the first three episodes of the long-awaited fifth season of my favorite televised drama ever–namely, AMC’s extraordinary Mad Men–I’m reminded of the timeless wisdom within that French phrase Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more it’s the same thing. The “thing” I’m interested in exploring today–given that I’m more inspired than ever to write about the ongoing War On Women–is misogyny. Hatred of women, and how it we can see it manifested in attitudes toward, and treatment of, the character of Megan Draper–now as well as then.
With a big thank-you to Deborah for inviting me to publish my thoughts here at Basket of Kisses, I’d like to look at misogyny’s ugly underpinnings. Which, once you peel back the bright and shiny (albeit terribly lovely) surface of 1960’s culture, are all right there, waiting to be studied, much the way a design student might examine the parts of a deconstructed couture gown to better understand how the final creation came to be.
This is a television program that engenders fierce debate–surely a reason to love it all the more–but I’ve noticed an unsettling trend in the online discussions about Megan. Now, we’ve all got our favorite heroes and villains in Mad Men; the fact that a single character can inhabit both roles, sometimes in the space of an episode, is one of the reasons it makes for such engrossing theater. Megan is no different, and fans and foes of Megan, The Character are of course entitled to their opinions. What I’m referring to here, though, are some of the nasty, tinged-with-misogyny accusations that even otherwise fair-minded folks are leveling at Megan, in comments as well as in blog posts around the Internet. For example:
She’s a gold-digger.
She’s a “great actress” who got where she is by faking it (“it” being whatever was called-for in the moment) and manipulating men.
She literally slept her way into that copywriting position.
She’s a shameless hussy–a wanton exhibitionist–and that whole Zou Bisou Bisou episode at Don’s party was embarrassing and cringe-worthy.
She stole Don away from other, worthier women he had bedded or with whom he had otherwise been connected.
Let’s do something radical: let’s look at the character Megan as an individual, as a discrete person in her own right, with her own history, traits, motivations, and tendencies.
We know that Megan is from Québec, the French-speaking Canadian province; that she is well-educated and ambitious–no less so than any young woman brave, confident, and talented enough to move to New York City and land a job in a Madison Avenue shop during the 1960s. By any standard–that of the 1960s or the present day–Megan is a physically attractive woman. She is the youngest in what we gather is a large (or largish) family, with many nieces and nephews to whom she gives credit for her Maria Von Trapp-like way with kids.
Like The Sound of Music heroine–though in bolder ways–Megan is not exactly nun material: It is she who makes the first move on Don, right there in his office, in the episode Chinese Wall (4.11): I want you, Megan says. Followed thereafter by the almost-as-shocking in its boldness, considering that she’s the employee, still: I don’t want you drinking any more tonight. Sexual agency! A woman giving an order to a man! Bring out the smelling salts, we’ve got a skirt-wearing woman stating what she wants, and then declaring the obvious: Watch the excessive drinking–it’s not good for you.
Negative reactions to Megan began there and then. She was a minx (definition: A pert, impudent, or flirtatious girl). She was cunning, she was devious, she had “designs” on Don. One has to wonder what reactions to Megan would have been if she had not been assertive about her desire. If, instead, she’d been clingy, needy, subservient, or coy.
Then there was the fateful trip to California, during which Don impulsively asks Megan to marry him. The man whose take-control manner and confidence Mad Men fans have grown accustomed to is now, in the minds of some, the one who’s somehow being “controlled”, and it feels…unfamiliar and flipped-around. That minx!
In Season 5, we first see Megan as Sally sees her: a nude figure, back turned, still asleep. Puritan buttons are duly pushed: She sleeps naked! She sleeps next to Don with nary a scrap of proper, motherly nightdress or even coquettish negligée between that skin (in which she seems so annoyingly comfortable) and the world that whizzes by.
And oh dear, if there was a hint of anti-Meganism last season, we saw an explosion of it the Monday after her Zou Bisou Bisou performance. Megan went from being Don’s Suspicious New Squeeze to Exhibitionist Seductress Without A Clue. (Aside: There’s a fair bit of cultural clash going on, too: though Megan is Canadian, she is French-Canadian. She dresses beautifully, but with an unstudied and terribly European flair: we don’t see Megan with her hair painstakingly rollered or pin-curled; we don’t see her wearing restrictive corsetry beneath her clothes; we don’t, in fact, witness much of her getting-ready routine at all. She’s a far freer spirit–a truly modern model–more so than any woman we’ve seen on Mad Men to date, in fact.)
Then there was that scene the following day–the black-lace-undies scene–wherein Megan takes control of our tough guy Don. She understands his sexuality (he sometimes enjoys being bossed around and even dominated) in ways we have not seen a previous lover “get,” and rather than shy away from it, she embraces it and incorporates it into a wonderfully erotic encounter in the middle of the afternoon, right there on the once-pristine white carpet.
So now we have: A beautiful and stylish woman who, like Betty before her, speaks a foreign language. Who is intelligent, worldly, sophisticated, musically talented, and sexually adventurous.
And I have to ask: what on earth is the problem, O American Viewing Public? What is it about Megan that inspires so much vitriol and harsh criticism? If she was Opposite Megan, do you think she’d be any less despised?
It doesn’t seem to matter what characteristic we isolate and flip around; indeed, it wouldn’t matter if Megan herself were to change everything about her personality, behavior, and looks: Women can’t win.
Megan is beautiful, so people accuse her of using her looks–whether they feel those looks are too contrived and Maria Von Trapp-ish, or too Swinging-Sixties-sexy, as with the outfit she chose to wear to Whisky a Go Go. And if Megan were not so obviously sexy, but were instead more quietly attractive–more “midwestern pretty”, like Teacher Suzanne, say–people’s complaints, as with Suzanne, would be along the lines of Surely Don can do better, that this plain-Jane was not “up to his usual standard” or that he was “marrying down”.
Megan is foreign–she’s not American!--and as such, the other characters, along with Mad Men‘s audience, display no small amount of animosity and suspicion toward her as they continually misinterpret her motives, her style, and her sunny nature. (Disclaimer: being British-born, I’ve experienced firsthand this xenophobia and misinterpretation-of-motive more often than I want to think about.) And yet, her foreign-ness is also charming, refreshing, and of course alluring to men–the guys at the office can’t stop talking about her. Which is it, then? Different-sounding foreign woman whom everyone mocks and disdains? Or delightful, exotic foreign woman whom everyone fears will steal their man?
Megan is sexually confident. She not only knows how to handle Don, she appears rather adept at managing her own emotions: witness her expression when Don’s former lover steps into the elevator in Mystery Date, and the straightforward, no-nonsense way she discusses it with him that very day (as opposed to sitting on the whole thing, fuming silently, and saving it up to throw in his face some other time). It was embarrassing, she says. Now, imagine if Megan had broken down and cried later–or if she’d had a big argument with Don and demanded to know who all these women were and where they lived; if she’d extracted a solemn promise from him that she was The One forever and ever–Mad Men fans would be calling her weepy, clingy, old-fashioned, and over-emotional–just like a woman. Again, she can’t win.
Megan is too optimistic; Megan is too deviant and dark in her sexual tastes. She’s too young; she’s too sophisticated. She’s inexperienced and naïve; she’s cunning and manipulative.
Let’s face it, Megan–like the modern, “liberated” young woman of the 1960’s (and beyond) that her character represents, and sadly, like women in 2012–cannot win.
Because that, in a nutshell, is what misogyny is all about: a bitter, prevalent, and long-established disdain for women that can only be sustained by an ongoing and culture-wide campaign of goalpost-moving.
Women, be they beautiful or plain; rail-thin, voluptuous, or something in-between; brilliant, witty, and worldly or quiet, self-sacrificing, and Sunday-school prim like schoolteacher Suzanne Farrell, simply cannot win.
Until and unless women are simply regarded as the human beings we are, replete with the talents and flaws unique to each of us and capable of feeling–and causing–both pleasure and pain, we will know neither equality nor liberty.
Sunny Megan Draper shows us that, one bout of sturm und drang after another.