Monday, April 16, 2012

The Dead Woman on Mad Men: Violence, Women, Media

(image courtesy of NY Daily News)

I know I'm a week late to be writing this post on the April 8, 2012 episode of Mad Men. You know, the one where Don Draper gets the flu (emphysema? cancer?) and goes home from work, only to have sex with an ex-girlfriend, and then, oh, yea, kill her and shove her dead body under the bed?

Yea, that one. I'm still freaked out by it. (Even though, like a classmate's bad story in a writing workshop, you eventually find out it was all 'in a dream.')

In fact, I was so bothered by the 'dead girlfriend under the bed' episode that it took me until this week's much less disturbing show - one where violence occurs where it ought to (between two dorky men who challenge each other to fisticuffs in an office boardroom) to be able to write about it.

But back to the freaky dead woman in the bedroom.

So this sexually aggressive woman, this stereotypical 'other woman,' who tempts the unwilling (not!) Don into a feverish quickie, is then killed by the hands of her lover in some kind of a symbolic cleansing of his multi-amorous past. Don's changed! He's passed through the fire and fever and 'killed' his Lothario self! He may need to murder women to do it, but he can be monogamous now!

Yet, symbolic or not, it's still exquisitely horrible to watch a woman be murdered by her partner. The fact that we have to watch Don have sex with a woman, only to put his hands around her throat and choke the life out of her isn't clever writing, it's distressing and disturbing. The fact that we have to watch a woman struggle and die, and then watch her body carelessly shoved beneath the bed as Don goes back into a feverish sleep, is part and parcel of a broader culture that accepts, nay, glorifies violence against women and girls.

I know, I know, the scene was supposed to in some ways to mimic the horror of the Chicago Nurse Massacre, the historical event that haunts the characters in the whole episode. (Check out this 'horror stories' round up of the episode on  But even the fact that the murder was all in Don's feverish imagination didn't really matter to my outrage. Like Ginsberg, the one character who refuses to oggle photos of the dead Chicago nurses in the episode, I found the killing of Don's ex-flame particularly disturbing. Perhaps even more so because it was in a dream. Because, by making it a dream, the writers are able to avoid any symbolic or actual repercussions for Don.

Violence against women continues to be rife in movies and magazines, on billboards and television. In her "Killing Us Softly" video series, Jean Kilbourne has shown, time and again, how women and girls' bodies are used in advertising in ways that promote a culture of violence against us in real life. In fact, the fetishization of sexualized violence against women is widespread - from images in advertising to music videos to television to books. Just consider this disturbing round up of such images at Sociological Images (NSFW, TRIGGER WARNING) or this one challenging the the use of dead looking girls on YA book covers.

Writers live within sociocultural and historical frameworks, I get that. But whether we write YA stories or hit AMC television shows, those who wield the pen hold a mighty responsibility - to support prevalent oppressive tropes, or to undermine them.

Dead (looking) women are sexually passive, and part of the lure of these images may be that very passivity. Which is why the graphic murder of Don Draper's sexually aggressive girlfriend, however it symbolically fits into Mad Men's story arc, is part and parcel is a culture that punishes women for transgressing their passive sexual roles, a culture that sexualizes and fetishizes violence against, and even murder of, women and girls.

The thing that bothered me the most about this episode is that it is written in such a way that we, the audience, were meant to cheer for Don. Cheer for him turning a new sexual page, cheer for him choosing to remain faithful to his new bride, cheer for him symbolically murdering his past lovers, cheer for him being able to do so with total impunity.

The dead and discarded woman written into (and just as quickly, out of) last week's Mad Men was part and parcel of a media culture that celebrates violence against women and girls. And that's something that I can't cheer about.


  1. I felt sickened by this episode too. It was very upsetting to watch. You bring such clarity of thought, Sayantani. Thank you!

  2. Thank YOU Jimin - for the comment, read, teaching and all! Writing it out, as we say in narrative medicine, helps me formulate and understand my own internal workings sometimes (in this case especially - it took me a few days to understand why I was so upset) - glad it's of use to others too! :)