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Is Mad Men a Feminist Show?

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Before we go too far with the Don Draper suits sold at Banana Republic in anticipation of season three of Mad Men we might want to ask a question or two about just why the womanizing, heavy-drinking, chain smoker is any kind of role model and what our obsession with the show says about gender roles in 2009.

When I sat down with my Wesleyan classmate Matt Weiner, creator of the show, to write "Seven Deadly Sins" for our alumni magazine, he reminded me that he spent his college years as a poet studying under the watchful eye of Franklin Reeve (father of Christopher) and was particularly taken with feminist canon. He even recounted moderating an all-campus debate between feminists on the topic of pornography (if you want to hear Weiner tell the very funny story listen here and scroll to the bottom of the page).

As it turns out the creator of Mad Men views his show as a feminist show exactly because of its painfully accurate portrayal of the treatment of women in the workplace in the early 1960s. Weiner told me the highest praise he ever gets is when a woman approaches him after a public appearance to say she was a secretary during that era that era and the show got the sexual harassment exactly right. They always thank him for putting a spotlight on what really happened.

But what makes the rest of us watch so intently? As the show has progressed, the female characters have in fact become stronger and stronger despite the abuse. It's relatively easy to root for Peggy as she breaks the glass ceiling, Betty as she slowly gains her footing and even Joan as she beats the men at their own game. Why the obsession with Don? He is lying about even his own name and hasn't seen a woman he doesn't feel obliged to sleep with.

Weiner told me that the way he writes the script he is never thinking about the male characters say, its what they are not saying that drives the plot forward -- a remarkable concession for a man who obviously is fastidious about everything on the show and has been widely praised for his dialogue. Don is certainly cool-looking in his period get-up but my theory is that the attraction is what we see in his eyes while he delivers those lines in his snappy clothes.

We desperately want Don to tell the truth about himself even while we know he never will. As guys in 2009 we are trying to deal with economic depression, foreign war, and the increased expectations as husbands and fathers. We see in Don's eyes the deer in the headlights that is the male experience not just in 1960. From Wall Street to the streets of Detroit we can relate to the contradictory worlds and the attempt to hold together worlds in collision that Weiner shows us through his leading man.

What makes the show tick is our sense that it's realistically portraying something important about the treatment of women at a certain point in the past while portraying something equally important about men today. We are trapped. We just didn't get to wear clothes as cool as Don Draper (until now).