Is ‘Mad Men’ Making Sexism More Acceptable?

I think Kay Steiger is absolutely right that if you’re going to have sexist characters, language, and storylines in pop culture, it’s probably best if they is some purpose, be it characterization, plot, or political commentary:

The critically acclaimed Mad Men series certainly includes moments of sexism. But what’s different about how the AMC series portrays this perspective is that the very point of inserting such comments is intended to make a point about how far we’ve come (or haven’t come) with women in the workplace. Mad Men, like earlier films 9 to 5 and Working Girl included sexist joke to make a point about sexism, mainly how awful it is for women to be on the receiving end of it.

That said, I think she’s wrong about X-Men: First Class specifically. In First Class, Sebastian Shaw’s treatment of Emma Frost is meant to signal that he’s a creepy jerk, even beyond the whole Nazi affiliation, just as Xavier’s preference for very normatively attractive women shows his shallowness, and the limits of his focus on mutant integration. And more broadly, Moira MacTaggert’s different perspective makes her brave enough to sneak into the Hellfire Club, open-minded enough to accept the possibility that mutants exist, and smart enough to see their strategic value. Her CIA colleagues’ dismissal of not just those insights but her as a woman are clearly presented as a disadvantage they’re bringing on themselves through their narrow sexism.

And I think there’s a larger challenge here. I think it’s important to criticize purposeless and blatant sexism in media, but I also think it’s important not to jump the gun. I’d bet money that most of the folks who got really upset over sexism in Game of Thrones never returned to the show, even though without the grinding, painful moments of horrible treatment of women, far worse than anything Mad Men ever dishes out, the show wouldn’t have the emotional power and the arcs that make George R. R. Martin’s books powerful, and that could make the series a real landmark for women on HBO. Obviously, viewers have their tolerance levels, and I’d never tell anyone to watch something that makes them viscerally uncomfortable even if I think it pays off. But for the most part, as a critic, I try to be sure of what I’m seeing before I pull the trigger.