Power & Privilege! A Mad Men Post

Is Mad Men the main reason I wanted to start blogging?


I finally saw the season premiere, which left me typically dazed. The moments that took my breath away were also, in retrospect, moments that could perhaps have been a little heavy-handed. But Matt Weiner could come to my house with a hammer, thump me with it a few times while shouting “Race! Gender! Power!” and I’d probably feel good afterwards. Which is one of the show’s longest-standing (and least-discussed) themes: the ways Don uses (violent) sexuality to assert power over women. And men.


So my two favorite moments were connected to the same plot device: the Y&R flunkies dropping water bombs on the black protesters below. This scene opened the episode. This childish brutality portended 2 hours of comparable brutalities as privileged people tried to maintain their privilege in the only ways they knew how. Silver-crowned drunk Roger Sterling buys an ad making fun of Y&R by calling Sterling Cooper an “equal opportunity employer.” Turns out that this joke among rival white executives was misinterpreted by many, many “Others”–most powerfully by stay-at-home mom Joan, and by the roomful of black job applicants in the firm’s lobby. My two favorite scenes.

Formidable Joan crying in Lane’s office: a startling image to those of us who have grown to love the character’s strength and intelligence. Her struggle to reconcile work and parenting is obviously very, very contemporary. But when the joke on the Y&R yutzes turned into a joke on her, her sorrow highlighted the ways that for some to have privilege, like Roger Sterling & crew, many others can never, ever have it. Privilege wouldn’t exist without this zero-sum equation.

And the jolly Sterling Cooper boys returning to the office and stopping short when they see their lobby accidentally integrated. They thought that the ad would simply assert their superiority–in morals, and in humor–over their rival firm. They thought public space still belonged to them and to those that would get the joke. Other members of public space–anyone else reading the newspaper, especially those that are looking for work–were invisible and irrelevant to them. Until those people showed up at the office. Oops. Delightful. Will they hire one of these women to save face? Or will they brush them off and maintain the status quo? I’m predicting the latter. We’ll see.

One way to think of our history since the 60s has been a fierce battle over public space–who gets to occupy it, and who gets to say what they want in it. The founding image of this battle is the 60s protest: occupations of buses, lunch counters, the Washington Mall. Since then, the same battle has spread to education, digital bandwidth, even–this may be a stretch, unless you’re an academic–the space inside a woman’s body. All these are battles over who gets to occupy the public space. Battles over what constitutes public space to begin with.

This joke by one group of privileged men on another revealed the cracks in public space that civil rights protesters and proto-feminists were widening. Knowledge reaches everyone, not just those who buy the ads or own the newspapers. And everyone can use it.

I’ll save my speculations about Megan’s use of her new-found privilege for another post–maybe after the next episode. It looks like we get to see some Betty next episode! As an aside, I am one of those who thinks that Betty gets unfairly trashed by fans of the show. And while my greatest let-down was Don’s surprise proposal to Megan, which looked like a massive leap backward into his past, this episode showed that Megan has a very different agenda than Betty. I am excited to see where she will take the show.

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4 thoughts on “Power & Privilege! A Mad Men Post

  1. alexbetty says:

    Ah, love Mad Men. It seems to so casually illustrate the thinking of a different time. The scene that beautifully illustrates this, to me, is when one of Betty’s kids is playing with the dry cleaning bag, in the first season. She is all upset when she sees the kid running around with a plastic bag over his (her? can’t remember which kid it was) head. Because she is concerned that the dress from the bag is now lying on the floor.

    I predict that they hire one of the surprise applicants. Because it’s time they integrated. However, one of the best things about this show is that it is never predictable.

    I look forward to a discussion about Betty. I used to like her, but she totally bitched out. Such an Ice Queen. Love to hear your defense of her. I’m sure I am just reacting to the Don relationship.

    It’s so disturbing how Don is the hero, yet such a total dog. I suppose if one knew him in real life, he wouldn’t seem so attractive. But he isn’t about reality, is he?

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hey! I’ll totally write a defense of Betty post, but I think it should wait till we see her on the show (which I watch the day after, ahem.)

      My favorite Betty moment ever was also in the first season, the episode that closes with her shooting her neighbor’s pigeons, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. That’s one of my favorite moments of the whole series, actually.

      And I would love if they hire one of those applicants.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I did! And I wrote a whole post dedicated to her. Looking forward to seeing what you think!

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