The “Mad Men” Effect: Bringing Back Sexism with Style

Simple, provocative, to the point: the ad to the left is one Don Draper of Mad Men would’ve adored. This signature ad in American Apparel’s summer campaign could just as easily be from 1962 as 2010.

As Aviva Dove-Viebahn explains in “Feminism in a Mad World” in the latest issue of Ms. magazine, the show Mad Men–which returns to the air for a fourth season this Sunday, July 25–has become “a hot topic on the feminist blogosphere and around water coolers everywhere, alternately lauded for its strong female characters and criticized for its nostalgic rendering of the halcyon days of sanctioned workplace misogyny.” The show’s creator, Matt Weiner, has insisted that by realistically depicting women’s oppression at home and in the workplace, his show ascribes to the feminist agenda.

Mad Men itself might ascribe to the feminist agenda, but thanks to its pervasive impact on pop culture, the show is crafting a whole new generation of would-be Bettys (Draper’s stylish wife) not Peggys (the show’s ambitious “career girl”).

Mad Men has entered the popular consciousness (and checkbook) to an almost frightening degree: Last summer, companies as diverse as Banana Republic, Clorox, Vanity Fair and Variety signed with the show. This July, Mad Men Barbie hit the market, featuring a set of “key players from the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency.” But we’re left wondering: Hey, where’s the Peggy doll?

Where indeed. Consumers have become obsessed with “the Mad Men look,” but certainly not with Peggy’s sensible shoes. Don knew how to brand at home and in the office, and the show’s sets and costumes are appropriately visually stunning. Yet the aesthetic elements that America adores are signs of a world of masculine privilege predicated on sexism, racism, homophobia–those infinite “isms” that said it was okay for the boys of Sterling Cooper to drink gin-and-tonics in the mid-afternoon while their maids detail the suede upholstery.

Mad Men consumerism replicates the physical trappings of that era with some disturbing cultural implications. Take the American Apparel ad, which doesn’t overtly reference the show but certainly cultivates the look of the early 60s. This is our “Classic Girl,” complete with starched collar, high-waisted pants and blond locks. Cute blonde models are old news in advertising, but this one comes with a special retro twist.

American Apparel ads are infamously over-sexualized. This model’s childish body and innocent look seemingly strike a cleaner note, but her very prepubescence lends the sexuality she does exhibit an illicit air. Oh, those tender red lips, those modest curves, a viewer might croon, unconsciously echoing the words of Humbert Humbert, the pedophiliac hero of Nabokov’s Lolita. Published in 1955 (and made into a hit movie in 1962), the novel shed light on the hypocrisy evident in mid-century culture and advertising. Despite the era’s sexual repressiveness, Hugh Hefner founded Playboy and Little Lolitas appeared in Coca-Cola ads. The appeal of the original “Classic Girl” appeal derives from her girlishness–Humbert delights in dressing Lolita in tennis skirts and polo shirts; pleasures he worries will dissipate once she hits puberty.

The wives who tend to their Mad Men are allowed to grow up–but just barely. Stuck in the suburbs and squeezed into polyester garden party dresses, their emotions denied by their husbands and buried in their beehives, these women have to muffle their sovereignty. So when consumers reclaim the look of this past, they also emulate the “Classic” woman-child it exulted–her signature style of repression and subservience.


  1. American Apparel is *always* sexist if not down right pedophilic…..

  2. You know, I’d like to point out the hypocrisy of criticizing people with small figures. It is just as bad to claim that there is something wrong with small-framed women as it is with large-framed ones. I am a pretty small person, I am not a model, I do not have an eating disorder, I do not have a twisted sense of what is beautiful, but I have been extremely offended many times with the slant of these articles telling me that I have a “prepubescent” body. Should I be ashamed of my body? Apparently, real women couldn’t possibly wear a size smaller than a 6 (I wear a 2,which is still roomy on me). I must not be a feminist, since I can’t conform to your ideal “feminist” standards.

  3. Hey Lauren- just to clarify, it was not my intention to criticize petite women. I’m critiquing how American Apparel chose to present this woman in the image, not her actual figure.

  4. I can’t fault your analysis of the ways in which the “Mad Men” wardrobe has had a startling impact on fashion and standards of beauty. However, I seem to be watching a completely different show — a depiction of how feminism has drastically changed the lives of women and men within living memory.

    Everyone on the show (despite their obvious privilege in many areas) is harmed by the sexist system in which they are entangled. Some characters, male and female alike, are very nearly destroyed. I feel like that message is brutal, clear, and not in the least nostalgic.

    The clothing and trappings of “Mad Men” are beautiful, yes — but they’re all part of a constructed societal illusion that’s about class, sex, race, and gender. The thing I like about “Mad Men” is that you can see the seductive beauty of that illusion, while at the same time seeing the puppet strings and psychological duct tape that hold it together.

    In short, I don’t think I’m meant to watch “Mad Men” and feel nostalgic. I watch it and think “thank goodness.”

  5. Anna: I love your take on contemporary advertising and it’s retro slant, especially as regards the Mad Men-inspired preference for Bettys and Joans rather than Peggys. Of course, part of that is because, on the show, Betty and Joan just have prettier and more fashionable wardrobes than Peggy, which is certainly a deliberate and compelling point on its own.

    Sandy: I completely agree that Mad Men‘s nuances tend towards revealing the hypocrisy and restrictiveness of its characters’ racist/sexist/homophobic tendencies. However, I would argue that there’s still some nostalgia under the surface. Characters don’t always get punished for their wrongdoing(s); there’s a sense of freedom inherent to certain actions (e.g. drinking and smoking in the office) that has a mostly untarnished appeal; and the men on the show handle themselves with a self-righteousness entitlement that rarely meets with resistance and is mostly glamorized. So I wouldn’t say the show is entirely without seductive nostalgia.

  6. Ugh, I just came from an article criticizing movie reviewers ranting about Ellen Page’s *asexual* wardobe in Inception *insert rage here*

    I’ve never seen Mad Men. I’m not sure if I ever will. But I have heard that the TV series is quite intent on reflecting the views and the times of the period. That being said….

    Those who are complaining that the series is looking upon this time period in the 60s with nostalgia are looking at it from a modern mindset. The Mad Men series is reflecting the views of the time; they’re delving into a world that my parents grew up in. So when the men act like a-holes and get away with it, and when the men act like pigs and it seems glamourized, guess what?

    That’s how it really was back them. Men acted like a-holes and got away with it.

    On another note, criticizing American Apparel is like beating a dead horse that’s been dead for months. That company is sexist and mysoginistic to its core. I’ve never bought from there, I’ve never walked into one of their stores, and I never, ever, EVER plan on doing so.

  7. Is no one going to mention the fact that the 60’s look looks good on people. I mean, come on, I’m a very curvaceous woman and 60’s dresses hit me in all the right places. Back then clothes were made to fit waists of many sizes so I don’t think going back fashionably to clothes that were made to fit a woman’s body better and flatter more sizes is a bad thing.

  8. Anna,
    I understand that you didn’t intend to criticize small women, but I still think that you should be a little more concious about the words you choose. It would be just as bad to call a larger woman “fat” as it is to call a smaller woman “Childish” or to suggest that a man that is attracted to her must be a pedophile. I am not only speaking about this particular article, either. Countless articles that I have read on the Ms. Magazine blog have left me feeling alone or ashamed of my body type and I can’t help but feel that there is a double standard in the feminist community: “you are allowed to be proud of your body type, except when you actually happen to be petite, then you are conforming, starving yourself, or a child.”

  9. Rebecca W says:


    Style is quite strictly a matter of opinion. Not everyone likes clothes that were tailor-made to fit the bodies of the old 40s and 50s pin-up girls – which is the body of the women you’re talking about (aka curvaceous). Granted, that kind of style would fit my own body better, but keep in mind the rail thin, boyishly figured women who might prefer something else.

    (Rebecca W, who previously made the comment on July 26th).

  10. I would have to agree with Sandy that the show, instead of creating a seductive and appealing view of patriarchy, racism, classism, etc, does exactly the opposite. I am an ardent fan of Mad Men, and the reason I am addicted to it is the layers of complexity that underline the "supposed" perfection of a patriarchal white-supremist culture. The only character that seems completely unaffected by the constraints of society is Cooper, who, because of his upbringing, looks at the world as a playground built to meet his needs. (Can we say Paris Hilton?) In order for the show to create a type of nostagia, the charcters would need to appear content and pleased with their roles, which is quite the opposite. Betty is an immature women in constant angst in her limited role as a housewife and mother. Her beautiful clothes only reflect the typical view of that time (and today?) that looking beautiful can bring happiness and fulfillment, which is never apparent in her role. Don Draper's character is complex and troubled.

  11. (2nd part of my commentary.)
    He has power but it never brings him what he desires, peace and a "real" connection to others (which we do see a bit when he is with the woman he had to marry after he got out of the military) but he has to hide his relationship with her and eventually she dies from cancer, something even he has no control over. The smoking and drinking, while glamorized, is also seen as destructive, evident when one of the advertising firm's ad men urinates in the office while working or when a woman drives over a man with a lawnmover at an office party, cutting off his foot which leads to the elimination of his position. (How could he represent the company if he can't play golf.)

  12. (3rd and final commentary)
    I could go on and on (since I think this show is one of the first in a long time that asks us to "think" critically), but, for the sake of time (and length) I'd just like to end with the comment that I think the show pushes us to go back in time to revisit how society was constructed to remind us of how far we've gone and the work that also still needs to be done, since the Peggy's are still being judged based on their looks, and patriarchy is still far too prevalent. (As far as children being seduced by the "glamour," I personally think that they shouldn't even be watching the show, since they cannot even begine to understand the underlying meanings of the plot.)

  13. I think this show has a more “pervasive impact” on the men than it does the women. I think Mad Men’s influence of molding would be bettys stops at her wardrobe. Now as for the men who have been seduced and have fallen for Don Draper, it seems they are more impressionable than the female viewers. Point no further to’s obsession with Don Draper for examples. They have created advice tips and queues on how to be a better man from the fictional character going so far to even place him atop their coveted 49 most influential men list, ahead of the Zuckerbergs and Obamas of this world. I can see where you raise your concern, but as a male viewer and having time spent time on youtube and reading female viewers comments it seems as if you should be more concerned about the men. Yes viewers have become obsessed with the Mad Men look, but the men have become obsessed with Don Draper and by emulating such a character’s behavior it gives rise to a serious problem that can have potential consequences for women.

  14. Another point I would consider is the classic “medium is the message” idea, which is also ironically referenced by Joan. In this case, the medium being Mattel Barbie, American Apparel, and Playboy (recent Lois one of the secretaries graced the cover as recreating the 60’s) have the effect on society, not so much the tv show in itself.

  15. Its not Mad Men’s fault that the 60’s were like that. Its an accurate represention. It seems like some people want Mad Men to be some form of good feel show or something but thats not what its suppose to be. It takes place in the 60’s and in the 60’s this is what happened.

    If that seems stupid to you now then be greatful we have come this far.

  16. Laura dinorenti says:

    I’ve just started watching mad men
    And I’m disgusted
    Who in their right mind would watch this show and think
    Positively about this ERA. I mean this is the reason why sexual discrimination laws rape laws stalking laws exist.
    I feel as though its MEN who watch this show and think they should emulate it
    It’s really hard to watch without wanting to see Peggy pipe bomb the entire
    Office . I don’t know maybe I’m older but I remember
    all of this growing up and that was in the 80’s- it’s horrid
    I don’t get it why do we need to watch a show like this?
    It’s like how many times do u need to see a woman get raped on tv or in films (and with that I m also talking about donton abbeys plot point last season-)
    I mean there are so many better stories out there –
    I mean who gives a shit about Don draper?
    is it really that hard out there for a pimp??????


  1. […] much has been written about the cocktails, the kitchens, the fashion, the smoking in the offices, but I’d really like to read some thoughtful pieces about how […]

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