The XX Factor

Don’t You Just Want a Mad Men Pony Ride?

Wow, Emily . And I thought we were friends. Here I am, minding my own business, trying to have a high-toned conversation about cannibalism, and you lunge for the sexual jugular by essentially suggesting that the reason Mad Men appeals to American males is that collectively, they are repressed Roger Sterlings (I paraphrase). Well, I can’t let that stand. The last time I checked-in the shower, this morning-I was an American male. So I will take up their burden and speak on their behalf.

First, I should say strictly on my own behalf, in the interest of staying married, that I have never wanted to have sex with my secretary. Partly this is because, while I love women, I regard all of them-even the ones I’d secretly like to have sex with-as nightlights that flicker dimly next to the blinding luminosity of the aurora borealis that is my wife. (I love you, baby!) Partly it’s because I don’t have a secretary. But if I ever get one, and we have inappropriate relations, you can be sure I won’t take Mad Men -like liberties. In fact, she will likely be the aggressor when I slather myself in Axe Body Spray and she loses all control. (I’ve seen the commercials, and know how that story ends).

But now that I’ve acquitted myself at home, let’s honestly address your Sterling/Wolfman fantasy theory. Does Roger’s licentiousness appeal to men? Sure, to some of them. Because all men, even the ones who are spoken for, love to look at beautiful women, and a lot of men like to touch after they look, even if they shouldn’t. But I don’t think that’s the true power of Roger’s appeal, or Draper’s, or the appeal of the entire ethos they exude. Vivid characters like them and their male minions provide funhouse-mirror catharsis. But modern civilized man doesn’t truly pine for a time when he could make bets on the color of his secretary’s panties, then chase her down and flip up her skirt to see if he should collect. ( I can’t speak for Plotz here, Hanna .)

Not to go all Robert Bly on you (I can’t stand him, as the last thing most men want is to sit around in a circle-jerk playing drums with each other), but what men really miss from the Mad Men era is the freedom to be men. To not be civilized and sensitized and effeminized to within an inch of their lives. To not be written up by some meter-maid-like HR poindexter putting a protractor up to their eyebrows to make sure they didn’t flex five more degrees than the employee handbook deems platonically allowable in a workplace filled with women. And the dirty secret is, most women I know pretty much feel the same way. Even good neoliberal, feminist women such as yourselves. Women might have (badly) wanted men to change how they operated during that time. And rightly so. But they didn’t want them to stop being men. And the reason modern women find Draper and Sterling so dangerous, which often translates to finding them appealing, is because those characters don’t really give a toss what women want. They are a true relic: men undefined by women. That’s why the Drapers and Sterlings of this world ended up getting the crap kicked out of them from the ‘60s onward. But compared to the poor humpbacked, henpecked, khaki-panted 2009 version of civilized man, I’m sure many women think that Roger Sterling almost looks like an attractive alternative.

Many of the correctives that make Mad Men a period piece were completely necessary, don’t get me wrong. But Madison Avenue circa 1961 wasn’t the most libertine time in our modern sexual history by a long shot. Just wait a few years (or a season, at the rate Mad Men is lurching forward), and you’ll be reminded that people were no longer playing grab-ass around the water cooler, they were rutting full-on in Max Yasgur’s mud-caked cow pastures. So the real danger of Mad Men isn’t that Draper screws everything that isn’t nailed down (okay, that’s some of the danger). It’s that he doesn’t apologize for being what he is. Which is imperfect and amoral and badly in need of a woman who runs a tighter ship than Betty does, a woman who can actually civilize him. And I fully concede that he would benefit from such civilizing.

But to take the simple, eternal, and inevitable music of man/woman relations and to codify it and make it nearly transgressive-aside from the equal-pay suits and sexual harrassment law that you mention-I think this is why even liberal women are willing and even eager to plug into Mad Men , a show that is half written by women, need I remind you? Remember the episode from Season 1, in which Roger rides one of those redheaded twins around his office like a pony? Horrifying, right? You almost had to avert your gaze. But maybe good, God-fearing, liberal feminist third-wavers are making Sunday nights on AMC appointment television for a reason that is much more elementary than can be provided by all the over-analysis of the show. Maybe they’re sick of gender wars. Maybe they’re sick of having their emotions governed by the courts and turgid, abstract theory. Maybe they just want something simple and primal and gratifying. Maybe they want a pony ride.

Photo from Mad Men of character Roger Sterling by Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC. All rights reserved.