‘Mad Men’ masochism

The most interesting scene by far of Mad Men’s season five premiere was not the party, when Don Draper’s new wife Megan sang a silly little ditty in a sexy little dress, thrusting her legs apart for extra effect (who was possibly in the mood for cutesy French fanfare the week after the Toulouse murders?). Still, the suggestive sketch was an apt lead-in for a later scene when the couple’s sordid psychosexual dynamics soaked an already soiled white carpet.

Disappointed that she failed to please her hubby with a surprise party (“Don’t waste money on things like that,” Don reprimands), Megan retaliates by withholding the one thing Don can’t do without – and it isn’t her housekeeping.

When one afternoon Don is told by a colleague that his wife is unwell and has left work early, he briskly packs his things as if led by her scent. He is a hungry dog, looking for food or a fight. When he finds her at home, cleaning the living room in colorful dishabille, he gets both.

Dropping his briefcase, then pouring a drink, he asks his wife why she is home.

“I was upset,” she declares. Then drops her robe, revealing lacy black undergarments. Don is cautious, amused, incredulous.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“I’m cleaning up,” she snaps.

“Like that?”

Ah, so he noticed. “Don’t you look at me,” she snarls. “Stop looking at me. You aren’t allowed to look at me.”

“Put some clothes on,” he replies with condescension.

Instead, Mrs. Draper haughtily drops on all fours, projecting her French derrier in his direction while lifting crumbs from the carpet. Her husband cannot avert his eyes.

“I said, stop it! You don’t deserve it,” she says, watching him watch her. It seems like dumb insistence since she’s so obviously taunting him, but really she knows her punishment is another gift; she wants him to be happy after all—that’s why she threw him a party.

The threat of her withholding is a powerful elixir. Don is stoked by her anger and her aim. He moves closer. She draws a sword.

“Besides,” she says, “you’re too old. I don’t need an old person who probably couldn’t do it anyway.”

If there is anything that ignites a man more than a naked woman on her knees, it is an insult to his sexual virility.

“Get up,” Don says, raising his voice and grabbing her arm to lift her from the floor.

“No,” she snipes. “I don’t want people to think you’re getting this.”

“You want it so badly,” he returns.

“I don’t want it! I don’t want you! You don’t get to have this,” she taunts. “Go sit over there. All you get to do is watch.”

Another pleasurable punishment. I don’t have to tell you that what happens next does not involve watching. Though, each party decidedly gets what they want. 

For a show that has demonstrated a tendency to repeat its favorite tropes, of which sexism is one, this scene illustrates one of the more astute observations about sexual power. Namely, that it is a primary and practiced domain of women.

It is an unfortunate consequence of history that sexual power has been politicized as derogatory, unworthy and inadequate, when in fact, it remains of paramount importance. Yes, women have brains (try seducing a worthy man without one); yes, women have talent; and yes, women should be valued according to their preferred contributions, without sex determining their place in society. But when it comes to the private, interpersonal dynamics between men and women, sex is the most sustaining.

What occurs between Mr. and Mrs. Draper is not representative of backward mores. It does not subjugate a woman into a position of sexual vulnerability (which is what we so often see at the “Mad Men” workplace) but quite the opposite: Megan knows exactly what she wants (Don) and how to get him. She knows the particular blend of seduction and cunning that most turns him on and she is unabashed in her manipulation to draw closer to him. For them, a little pain leads to lots of pleasure.

Maybe the thing we ought to learn from the “backwards” sexism of mid-century America is that core power dynamics between the sexes remain the same. Sex is still the ultimate pleasure, a highly effective weapon and a precious commodity. Though these notions are regularly and systematically perverted in the world, they have their proper place between people. Maybe if more married couples engaged in sexual power play the way Don and Megan do, more married couples would stay married.