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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Mad Men, Megan Draper, and the Skyler White Effect

Mad Men is back in a week, and I am extremely excited. (Big surprise - I think I write more about this show than anything else.) The promotional pictures are just opulently sexy - Megan's hair! Pete's...hair! Joan's dress! But I'm also apprehensive, particularly about what's going to happen to the latest woman in Don's life. 


Things don't look good for her.
The Skyler White effect takes its name from Breaking Bad's lead female character. It goes like this: a female character judges the male protagonist's bad behavior in a completely rational way, and the audience hates her for it. Walter White is a murderous meth dealer whose ultimate goal is meth underworld domination. There's nothing actually appealing or noble about that. But when Skyler does anything in response to his behavior, she's labeled as the worst. If she tells Walter to stop dealing drugs, she's a nagging harpy; if she decides to support Walter's drug kingpin aspirations, she's a hypocritical gold digger. The same thing happened to Carmela in The Sopranos and Alison in Knocked Up, and it's still happening to the past and future Mrs. Drapers. 

Let's quickly lay out Don's horribleness. He's an army deserter and fraud. He is a constant and flagrant adulterer. He's an alcoholic with a history of sexual and domestic abuse threats. Finally, he's an occasional plagiarist. But, because he's great at his job and thinks his kids are ok, he's still fine as a flawed hero. 

Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis, on the other hand, is a bitch. Betty, who tried to seek psychiatric help only to discover that her shrink was giving Don reports on what she had said. Who suffered through and then was blamed for sexual harassment from Don's boss. Who told Don she was unhappy, and got yelled at on a bad day and dismissed on a good day. 

Honestly, I don't think the writing teams are immune to the Skyler White effect. The female characters who aren't married to Don get rich, easy character development, but Betty's is much more subtle. You have to pay close attention to throwaway lines like "Mommy doesn't like to eat" to get that she had an eating disorder for the first few seasons, or to pick up on the fact that she's a textbook child abuse survivor. Almost every story she tells about her mother speaks to severe emotional abuse, which informs her increasingly horrible relationship with Sally. She was raised by one bully and married another, a man who flaunted his infidelity and made her feel inadequate, then turned around and called her a whore for buying a bikini. 


The woman is trying so hard, Don. Jesus. 
When she finally freed herself from that terrible marriage, she spent an entire year letting her anger boil over at everyone. Finally in a position of (relative) power, she began abusing everyone she could. Unfortunately for Betty, the writers made her the one thing audiences will never forgive - a bad mother. So she's stuck in Skyler White hell. 

Now former receptionist and copywriter/future actress Megan Calvet has assumed the dreaded "Mrs. Draper" role. She's already done such detestable things as ask Don to be emotionally available, tell him to take her job seriously, and use his connections to land a national commercial. (The fact that he balked at that last one, when he had no qualms about creating a copywriter job despite her lack of qualifications, speaks volumes about how stingy Don gets when women reject his image of them.) Meanwhile, at one point Don abandons Megan at some pokey rest stop motel because she doesn't like orange sherbet. He then kicks their front door in, chases her around their apartment, and tackles her to the ground. 


She is tiny. He is a monster. 
If Megan reacts to his bullying in a relatively independent and well-adjusted way - in other words, not like a meek doormat - she's a bitch. 

The Skyler White effect is a pretty warped set-up. It speaks to the overwhelming preference for a male perspective over a female one, and for a male hero free from any woman's "interference." I hope the Mad Men writers don't yield to whatever negative feedback they do get about Megan, the way they clearly did with Betty. Don needs someone to stand up to his array of bullshit, and Megan is his strongest partner yet. 

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