Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mad Men and the trivialization and erasure of domestic violence [Television Tuesday]

Trigger warning.

I cheered, when I saw this. It was almost an involuntary reaction, and I doubt I was alone - her husband sucks, and he's hurting one of the best characters on Mad Men, the hypercompetent, beautiful, confident, Joan.

But I shouldn't have. As awesome as Joan is, and as crappy as Greg (her husband) is, this is not okay.

This is domestic violence.

What else is it? How is it anything else? In the scene, Greg is complaining about his professional woes. It's not okay to respond to that by breaking ceramics over his head. That's abuse. This is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and that's domestic violence.

Furthermore, this is the show's only depiction of domestic violence, after almost three full seasons. Mad Men specializes in pointing out that which was silenced in that era (and today) - sexism, rape, racism, ableism, ageism. But Weiner & Co. have, with the exception of a couple of references to Don's refusal to use corporal punishment, completely ignored that silent epidemic until this unsatisfying scene.

This scene is not an acceptable context for introducing domestic violence. It's likely a one-off incident, unlike most abusive situations. The abused is one of the most irredeemable characters on a show of irredeemable characters - he explicitly raped fan favorite Joan (I'm using explicit to distinguish that incident from Pete's rape, which, while rape, was more ambiguously framed) and has since been the cause of her absence from the show. No one likes Dr. Rapist. Everyone loves Joan. She deserves this revenge. Her history as the victim of abuse at his hands means that this is not easy to read as valid domestic violence:
When Joan hits Greg on the head, not only is she pissed: She is trying to knock some sense into him, and rejecting his notion that she doesn't know what it's like to work towards something all your life. from Jezebel
Double X has a similar "you go girl" take:
Sure, her swing had about all the staying power of Jai Alai (she was back to being the dutiful wife by the next scene), but at least it came out, if only for a moment.
The Feministing crew also gave it an okay, even calling it "awesome" and Joan "badass". Seriously, domestic violence is not cool, or awesome, or badass - and particularly not in the feminist contexts of these shows. "Knock[ing] some sense" into another human is not doing them a favor. Nor is it an effective way to assert yourself in a relationship. It's enacting violence against them, and it's domestic abuse.

Joan has been a victim of this man's violence, and that complicates this act. What Joan did to Greg was nowhere near the same; Greg's act of violence and entitlement was one of the most horrific scenes of the entire series, barely approached by any other acts of violence or cruelty on the show. I can understand that urge to applaud her for kicking his ass - it's delayed justice. But she actually hasn't gotten justice from one awesome scene, and Joan being kickass doesn't mean that it's okay for her to be physically violent to Greg (outside of of self-defense, of course). And this is particularly striking and unsettling because of Mad Men's habit of ignoring this serious, contemporary (in the sense of 1960s and today) issue.

Women are disproportionately the victims of domestic violence, and the situation was much worse in 1963. Why is the only portrayal of the silenced population of domestic abuse victims in this era a man? Why is he unsympathetic? Why is the scene almost comic? Why is the viewer meant to root for the abuser in the context of the situation and this show?

Domestic violence is not a physical comedy gag, or a vehicle for vicarious acting out against an unpopular character. Mad Men has a good history of exposing violence against women within this very relationship. But thus far in the series, they have erased the history of domestic violence and abuse against women and children, and trivialized male victims. A series that seeks to penetrate and puncture the glossy nostalgia surrounding the sixties has a responsibility to carefully consider its treatment of domestic violence. Mad Men needs to cease marginalizing and directly confront the still-present demons of DV with the same critical point of view it applies to so many other social ills.


  1. I haven't watched "Mad Men," as I no longer watch television. So I can't comment on the scene directly.

    However, I will say this: Every time I see a man "striking back" at a man, it always seems cartoonish and even a bit lurid. I'm thinking about scenes as disparate as the ones in "Thelma and Louise" and "The Burning Bed." There's no sense of women chipping away at a man's sense of entitlement. Rather, they just make women seem hormonally hostile and therefore not quite in control of themselves or their situations.

  2. I'm almost ashamed to consider myself a feminist, after last Sunday's episode. I didn't cheer. I was horrified. I felt even worse after reading the reactions of other fans. This is just as bad as Joan's racist remarks to Sheila White, last season.

  3. In my precious comment, I meant to write, "Every time I see a woman striking back at a man..." Typo!

  4. Um, he raped her... has everybody forgotten that?

    I saw this as her revenge and I loved it.

  5. My only thought was that too bad she didn't do worse to him. He RAPED her and we should not be sitting around judging how a victim reacts to that kind of violation. The fact that she lives with him means that at anytime he could do this to her again. I call it a pre-emptive strike and hope she kicks the shit out of him in a future episode.

  6. Daisy and Renee: Fair points. As I said, I cheered when I saw this, so I definitely see where you are coming from. She is his victim, in the larger sense, and as I point out in my third to last paragraph, and she is not the one with power in this situation.

    My point of emphasis in this post, though, is not on judging Joan, but on how Mad Men as a show has completely erased any meaningful dialogue about domestic violence. If this were not the only depiction of domestic violence in the show's three year history, then I would read this much differently.

  7. Though I am sympathetic to her frustrations with Greg, I don't think cheering on Joan for whacking him over the head with a vase is really doing us any favours. When it comes to domestic violence against women, we are always saying it doesn't matter what a woman did. She could've cheated on a man with his brother, spat in his face, humiliated him in front of his boss or pretty much anything else and we would still say it is never okay for him to hit her. If we're going to say 'NEVER EVER' then that needs to apply to women as well. Using violence to send the message that violence is not okay has never and will never work, no matter how justified or good it feels to hurt the person who hurt us. So I agree with you completely and was utterly dismayed to see so many feminist sites cheering this event as some kind of karmic justice.

  8. I agree, and I think you've laid out why very astutely: the one time I see domestic violence, I don't want to be made to cheer for it.

    But cheer for it, I did.

    I love Joan and I was happy to see her get revenge BUT two wrongs don't make a right AND this act is unlikely to get Joan what she wants-- more respect at home.

    And if Mad Men wanted to get a pass on this incident, it's had numerous other marriages in which to depict garden variety domestic abuse.

  9. You seem to forget that the guy will after that join the army.
    And I wouldn't be surprised if he dies in Vietnam in the next season.
    So I guess this whole vase thing is not a big deal for him.
    Unless you consider this agression to be the cause of him joining the army.
    Personaly, I think he was an ass even before (those are his words)

    And watch the scene :
    Joan wants to put her hand on his nape and he moves to avoid the caring presence of his wife.
    As an understanding wife, Joan finally gives him what he obviously wants...

    And don't forget violence was everywhere in America in those times. This is no excuse. But it explains things...

  10. There actually was another instance during the show of domestic violence- in the second season Betty pushes Don during a fight, and Don pushes her back. I forgot which episode it was. Some might not consider it true domestic violence, but they were trying to hurt each other just the same to get a point across, which was what Joan was doing here. I absolutely don't think domestic violence is okay, but it's an interesting thing to think about in an era where you had to be PERFECT all the time and absolutely well-mannered, that these people can't effectively communicate frustration with one another without being destructive to each other (this episode & the other with Betty & Don fighting/pushing each other) or themselves (the rampant alcoholism and poor choices that oftentimes lead to characters getting beat up, in car accidents, or hurt in some other way.) It makes you think about these things, at least for me, in a completely different way- that this was their way of communicating with one another when they couldn't articulate the truth due to cultural norms.

  11. Are we forgetting that marital rape is a form of domestic violence? Joan has been raped by her husband.
    I haven't seen this show and may be confusing my facts, but it seems glaringly obvious, from this post, that Joan slamming a vase over her husband's head is not the first act of domestic violence. He committed a violent act against Joan by forcing sex on her.

  12. I think so few people spoke out (seriously) against Joan's actions is fairly typical of how we view violence towards males. Because we still see males as being the symbol of strength and power - at the top of a hierarchy that cannot really be disturbed by female to male violence - these actions are given a pass.
    Which is why its always been 'tolerated' for a woman to slap a man, throw her drink in his face, etc. Because he's a man he can take it. I think the only way for male victims of female physical abuse will receive will outrage is when men able to admit, whole heartedly, there vulnerability. That the slaps, punches, they receive from females is physically, emotionally, and mentally damaging.
    but in spite of my principles, I'm often left emotionally unmoved by arguments of male victimhood.

  13. Um, he raped her... has everybody forgotten that?

    I saw this as her revenge and I loved it.

    When we live in a society when it is okay to use violence to exact revenge, that is when I start to wonder about said society.

    What Greg had done to Joan was WRONG in the worst sense. But whant Joan had done to Greg was not right, either. Joan did not strike him on the head to exact revenge for Greg raping her. She had struck him out of anger and frustration over his inability to properly jumpstart his medical career.

    Frankly, I see no reason to cheer her for her act of violence.


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