"Mad Men," and How Kink Gets Used as a Marker of Evil — or Damage

Mad Men Don
I want to talk about “Mad Men.” I want to talk about how kinky sex and sadomasochism get used in pop culture as narrative markers to show, either how evil a character is, or how damaged a character is. And I want to beseech the producers of pop culture to please, please, knock it the fuck off.

I’ll get this out of the way first: I love “Mad Men.” I think it’s one of the best programs currently on TV; actually, I think it’s one of the best programs that’s ever been on TV. This isn’t a “Mad Men did this thing, therefore they suck” piece. This is a “”Mad Men did this thing, and I still love the show, but I really wish they wouldn’t do this, especially since it’s such a depressingly common pattern” piece.

So. In last Sunday’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” Don Draper and Sylvia Rosen take their torrid affair into a hotel room… where things get seriously kinky between them. Don orders Sylvia to crawl on her hands and knees and fetch his shoes — and although she declines to crawl, she does fetch his shoes…s and gets on her knees in front of him, to put his shoes on his feet. And thus begins a very intense interlude of sexual dominance play between them, in which Don orders Sylvia to undress, get back into bed, and stay there in the hotel room waiting for him, while he comes and goes at his leisure. In which he phones her, instructs her that she’s going to wait for him without knowing when he’s coming back, and then orders her not to pick up the phone again — an order that she obeys. In which he sends her a beautiful and sexy evening dress from Saks Fifth Avenue, and then, instead of taking her out to dinner, orders her to take it off for him, right there in the room. In which he takes her book away from her, controlling even what she thinks about when he’s not there. In which she asks him for instructions, asking, “What do I do now?” — and he tells her, “You fall asleep the minute I close that door. I’m flying upstate — and when I come back, I want you ready for me.” In which he tells her, “You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure.” In which both Don and Sylvia both seem to be getting off, hard, and at great length.

We’ve seen Don’s kinky side come out before. When he and Betty broke up and he was living alone, he hired a prostitute to slap him in the face while having sex with him. And he and Megan have some sort of kink going on in their sex life… kink they only talk about obliquely (when Don suggests that Megan is picking a fight so they can have rough sex, she uncomfortably says, “This isn’t about that.”) But this episode spells it out much more clearly, and at much greater length, than the show ever has before. And I won’t deny it — as a kinky person, I found last Sunday’s sequence incredibly sexy. The fantasy of having a willing human sex toy holed up in a secret room, for you to enjoy at your whim — or the fantasy of being that sex toy — is, for many kinky people, super-duper-hot. Myself included. And it’s a fantasy that could easily be acted out consensually, by any number of sane, ethical, happy sadomasochists.

mad men sylvia and don
But here’s the thing. In this scene — in all of these scenes — Don’s kinkiness is used as a narrative marker for how broken he is. The fact that he wants to dominate and control Sylvia in the bedroom, and keep her secluded and away from the world for his use only… it’s used as a marker for how he wants to isolate and control the women in his life generally. The fact that he and Megan play dominant/ submissive sex games… it’s used as a marker of how screwed-up the power dynamics are between them. The fact that Don hired a woman to slap him in the face… it’s used as a marker of how guilt-ridden Don is, especially when it comes to women and sex, and of what a dark place he is at this moment in his life. It’s not just that Don is kinky, and is also emotionally broken. It’s that Don’s kinkiness is being used specifically as an indicator of how broken he is.

And I am sick, sick, sick of this shit. I am sick to freaking death of kinky sex — or even just a display of the outfits and equipment of kinky sex — routinely getting used as a cheap, easy, quick-and-dirty way to indicate that a character is either evil, or damaged, or both.

Pulp Fiction poster
Pulp Fiction. 8mm. American Horror Story. Body of Evidence. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Blue Velvet. The General’s Daughter. The Night Porter. The Crow: City of Angels. Little Shop of Horrors. Bitter Moon. Cruising. Bones. Practically every third episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Hell — just about every police/ detective/ crime show where kink or SM is part of the plot. Hellraiser. Star Trek. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer: as much as I love that show, the way it uses kink as a marker for evil seriously pisses me off. Evil characters are kinky; good characters aren’t; when characters go back and forth between evil and good (Faith, Angel, good Willow and bad Willow), they become kinky when they’re evil, and drop it when they’re good, and flirt with it when they’re on the fence. Or, like Buffy herself in Season 6, they become kinky when they become emotionally damaged. The only exception is Xander and Anya… and for them, kink is just one small part of a varied and imaginative sex life. Any character for whom kink is a central part of their sexuality and their identity… evil.

Hell, you even see this in Secretary. Even in the Holy Grail of kinky pop culture, both the main characters are pretty damn broken — and their brokenness is intimately tied in with their kink. Mr. Grey’s emotional disconnection and control issues get transferred over to his sexual dominance; Lee’s passivity and unhealthy self-cutting get transferred over to her sexual masochism. As much as I loved that movie, there were things about it that seriously troubled me: the idea that broken people just need to find each other so they can fix each other… and the idea that consensual sadomasochism is the provenance of broken people.

Start watching for this pattern. You will see that it crops up freaking everywhere. TV Tropes has an entire page about it… with multiple examples from TV, movies, comics, anime, videogames, literature, and more.

mad men sylvia in red dress
Are you in any doubt about how these markers commonly get read by mainstream audiences? Karmen Fox at the Baltimore Sun said of these scenes, “Then the horror show begins. Nothing gory or graphic, but it’s by far the most loathsome we’ve seen Don. Ever.” Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter called Don’s behavior in these scenes “mean and creepy and unlikable.” Eleanor Barkhorn at The Atlantic commented, “She (Sylvia) said she was leaving because she was ashamed, but I hope she was also motivated by good, old-fashioned indignation. What kind of a guy talks a woman into waiting around in a hotel room for him, all day, without reading material? I’m sighing in frustration just thinking about it.” Michael R. Hall at Awful Advertisements noted, “He (Don) then orders Sylvia to crawl on her hands and knees to find his shoes, because he’s a monster,” and added, “Surely, Sylvia is self-respecting enough to leave this power trip charade. Oh, wait. This is Mad Men, so Sylvia actually derives pleasure from the emotional abuse.” Jen Chaney at Esquire described the scene as one in which Don was “demanding that his mistress act like the abused star of whatever dominant/submissive novel E.L. James is currently working on,” and continued, “Really, the guy was all charm. And yet for some reason, Sylvia totally played along with this garbage. As a woman who is opposed to sex slavery even when it does involve complimentary hot little red dresses from Saks, it was disappointing — and, honestly, a little unrealistic given what we know about her character — to watch her acquiesce to the Demands of Master Draper. Is every woman in this man’s orbit always willing to strip down and clean his house or become a temporary shut-in?” Andi Zeisler at Bitch Magazine said, “This was everything terrible about Don distilled into an hour. I don’t really care if erotic mind games are his coping strategy for stress; his treatment of Sylvia — demanding that she crawl on her hands and knees, telling her she exists only for him, asking her “Who told you you were allowed to think?” — is just a slightly more extreme version of how he treats all the women in his life.” Amy Sullivan at The Atlantic called these scenes “over-the-top, beyond what any sane woman would tolerate,” and even said that “those scenes were particularly hard to watch a week after three women were rescued from a decade of being trapped as sex slaves in Cleveland. Don’s line, ‘You exist in this room for my pleasure,’ sounded even creepier in this context than it otherwise would have.” (As if consensual, easily-walked-away from dominance games and brutal, non-consensual kidnapping and rape and years-long imprisonment had anything to do with each other.)

Mean. Creepy. Unlikable. Loathsome. A horror show. Everything terrible. Monster. Abuse. What kind of guy does that. No self-respecting woman would do that. Beyond what any sane woman would tolerate. Comparable to genuine sex slavery. Garbage.

This is a huge part of how the world sees consensual sadomasochists.

And inextricably tying consensual sadomasochism with either moral bankruptcy or emotional damage doesn’t help.

I don’t expect every single depiction of consensual sadomasochists to be dreamy and perfect. I don’t even want that. But when you see a pattern crop up in popular culture over and over and over again — black people are criminals, gay people are sad and crazy, women are incompetent and over-emotional — that’s when it starts to be a problem. And it’s been a problem for kinky people for decades. Producers of pop culture: Please, please, knock it the fuck off.

"Mad Men," and How Kink Gets Used as a Marker of Evil — or Damage

22 thoughts on “"Mad Men," and How Kink Gets Used as a Marker of Evil — or Damage

  1. 1

    I compulsively read Tweets during “Mad Men”–and there were a whole parcel of “Don is so sick, he’s gone over the edge” from people who don’t really understand kink. Also a whole bunch of angry women who think he was simply abusive to her and found it sexist that she obviously liked it. There were ALSO a whole parcel of “Wow, this is the BEST THING I EVER SAW ON TV”–from both men and women… it was like two different universes or something. I was utterly fascinated by it.

    Great piece, as always, Greta.

  2. 2

    I haven’t watched Mad Men yet, but I hear you about this general trend. That last sentence is perfect!

    I can only think of one episode of any police thriller that portrayed kin as ok, and that was an episode of NCIS in which a suspected killer was found tied to the murder victim’s bed with a ball gag in his mouth. It was interesting, because they had the two of them playing rough games on tape, and they initially thought he was a rapist. In the end, though, they realize it was, as he said, just a game, and he turns out to be a good guy.

    You’ve probably already seen it, but one of my favorite commentaries on this topic is this brilliant piece by Adele Haze’s http://heresycorner.blogspot.com/2012/07/fifty-shades-of-grr.html

    I particularly love this comparison:

    Whenever I prepare to see a production of The Merchant of Venice, I brace for Shylock. While these days a production that isn’t culturally sensitive is unlikely to make it onto the stage, the play is what it is, the characters are who they are. Shakespeare’s genius notwithstanding, Shylock is a stereotype of a Jew, and, as far as much of Western culture was concerned, he was the only type of Jew that had ever existed.

    While race isn’t the same as sexuality, kinky people brace for every mainstream portrayal of our subculture in a very similar way. We know what to expect, from heroes and villains alike: if a character is into BDSM, there’s usually either a flashback to childhood beatings (Exit to Eden), or allusions to a present-day mental illness (Secretary). And these are just the romantic comedies. As we travel across genres through drama (The Piano Teacher?) and romance to thriller , there are precious few examples of kinky characters who haven’t been served up from the same cauldron of lukewarm stereotypes. What a miserable, guilt-ridden, destructive lot we are.

  3. 3

    I’d like to say something in defence of Secretary, because I think it’s wildly kink-positive, and that “their brokenness is intimately tied in with their kink” is a mis-reading. The characters are (start off) broken and damaged, but I don’t think the film suggests that’s because of kink. They’re damaged-and-kinky, not damaged-because-kinky, or kinky-because-damaged. And it’s a drama. If you’re going to portray kinky people in a drama, they’re going to have to be flawed and have issues. What you hope is that the drama doesn’t link flawed and kinky causally, and I honestly think that Secretary doesn’t do that. In fact — and maybe uniquely — it does much better than that: it shows the characters becoming stronger as they become more aware of and comfortable with their kinks.

    The film makes pretty clear that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is being slowly fucked up by her family. The cutting is about her taking control of her life when her family situation allows her no control. That’s entirely separate from kink — to the extent that the cutting disappears as she takes control of her life in other ways, and discovers herself through kink. It’s entirely right to argue that most portrayals of kink in popular culture are awful, but it’s a mistake always to read causality in the characters, or intentionality in the writing, because we’re so used to seeing it.

    The connection between James Spader’s character’s fucked-up-ness and kink is a bit more complicated, but I don’t think it reflects badly. To the extent that he’s fucked up by kink, it’s not his kinkiness that does that job, but his insecurity about it. That’s actually very real, and makes his character sympathetic (to me, at least). Again, this brokenness disappears as he becomes more aware of and comfortable with his kink. It’s very hard to read that as anything other than kink-positive. It does portray someone for whom kink is — at least at first — massively conflicted and challenging, but I like that. It’s interesting, and certainly reflects my experience of being a man coming to terms with reconciling M/F dominant feelings with feminism. I’d probably have some qualms about a man in that situation who didn’t find that there were some emotional rocks on the road. Too much kink writing portrays two-dimensional dominant partners as monolithically in control and sure of themselves. Spader’s character finds a nice balance between that and a Fifty Shades wanker.

    Being kink-positive is great, and, yes, there could be a lot more of that in popular culture, but in a drama it’s just not especially interesting. I’d much rather have drama that explores the challenges of kink — especially in the context of a society where kink is so stigmatised. So long as it doesn’t link kink and character flaw causally, recognising that kinky people are just as fucked up as the rest of society is great. Damaged-and-kinky is how most of us are, isn’t it?

  4. 4

    I kinda disagree with you about “Secretary”…

    Mr. Grey’s emotional disconnection and control issues get transferred over to his sexual dominance; Lee’s passivity and unhealthy self-cutting get transferred over to her sexual masochism.

    Yes and no. First, I didn’t see that much in the way of “control issues” on his end — he seemed like an ordinary guy, kinda old-school in his style of work (no computers? Are you fucking kidding me?!!), but otherwise just another guy who had yet to find a compatible partner. And second, I’m not sure if there’s really a connection between her cutting and her sexual masochism. Also, the guy who was dominating her used his power (or, more specifically, her trust in him) to get her to quit cutting herself forever, which kinda makes their kinky relationship look like something healthy.

    And though it looked like they both became more “normal” after they got married, she did leave that dead bug on their bed, for him to find and punish her for, which blows the idea that they were “cured” of their “abnormality.”

    (Of course, how the majority of viewers would see this movie is another matter.)

    “Secretary” was certainly fairer toward kink than “Exit to Eden,” which ended with that disgracefully sappy line about “true love” being the “best kink of all.”

  5. 5

    …a flashback to childhood beatings (Exit to Eden)…

    It’s been awhile since I saw that movie, but I thought the flashback showed the guy as a boy enjoying the spanking he got from the maid, after deliberately provoking it. (The camera focused on his face, and he seemed to be enjoying it.)

  6. 6

    This culture is so secretive and false about sexuality.

    I saw some critic’s line: ‘Jane Austen menstruated, but none of her characters ever did.’

    Almost no representations of human beings which include sexuality carry more than a trace of reality. We may not be cutting away to curtains-in-the-wind or fireworks, but the actual detail that give real-life meaning (and heat) are only present in cheesy, coded forms. Porn is, in its way, even worse. The ‘forbidden parts’ are there but everything is warped around by the particular traditions of B-movie film-making. Sort of the way 99% of Westerns string together the same clichés and ignore the same history.

  7. 7

    There’s an interesting cultural counterexample you might be interested in. Not mentioned on the TV tropes page, so I thought I’d mention it.

    Now, disclaimer first: I saw this episode years ago. There may be subtle issues of prejudice or negative portrayal or what-have-you that I’m forgetting. Or ones I didn’t recognize because that’s not my subculture. So if I’m wrong, I apologize.

    But in my memory, at least, the final episode of Homicide: Life on the Street’s second season — “A Many Splendored Thing” — is a neat counterexample. Two of the main detectives, Bayliss and Pembleton, investigate the murder of someone into S&M. Bayliss is flipped out by it. But his flipping out is clearly presented as negative, and the people from the kink subculture we see are portrayed positively.

    Anyway, I thought you might be interested. (H:LotS is a great show in general, and the early seasons were generally the best. So it’s worth watching anyway.)


  8. 8

    Whoa. Wait a minute. Since when did Star Trek have any hint of kink ever? Let alone negative or positive portrayals of it? I’m a huge fan, and I seriously cannot think of a single example of it even really hinted at on screen.

  9. 9

    What kind of a guy talks a woman into waiting around in a hotel room for him, all day, without reading material?

    OK … that’s TOO kinky. I’ll drop the book when he enters the room, but no guy can tell me to NOT READ when he’s not there.

  10. 10

    Thanks for writing Greta. A disclaimer: I’ve never seen “Mad Men” so my comments will be general, rather than about that show in particular.

    Reading your blog has made me more aware about how kink is unfairly stigmatized and how people fail to differentiate between consensual activities and abusive relationships. One thing I’ve noticed is that this is part of a larger problem with the way relationships are portrayed in media. As you wrote, kink is used to show that a character is bad (not showing good examples of people who are doing so ethically). Meanwhile, relationships that actually are abusive or questionable are portrayed as normal and romantic.

    @Nathaniel Winer:

    Whoa. Wait a minute. Since when did Star Trek have any hint of kink ever? Let alone negative or positive portrayals of it? I’m a huge fan, and I seriously cannot think of a single example of it even really hinted at on screen.

    I was thinking that, too. (I can think of portrayals in fan fiction, though …) I probably just missed it in the show, or maybe it went over my head at the time. (Or maybe it was in TOS. I haven’t seen many episodes of TOS.)

  11. 11

    Nathaniel Winer wrote:

    Whoa. Wait a minute. Since when did Star Trek have any hint of kink ever? Let alone negative or positive portrayals of it? I’m a huge fan, and I seriously cannot think of a single example of it even really hinted at on screen.

    The example I can think of is the emotional abuse and torture done by the telekinetic philosophers in the original series episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”


  12. 12

    I’m glad I’m not the only one! I mentioned this to a group of friends after the last episode, and they looked at me like I was crazy. For a minute last season, I thought the show might be hinting at the fact that part of why Don was unfulfilled was because the rigid 60’s relationship model excluded his kinky needs, and that embracing his love of D/s play might make him happier. I was very disappointed when it devolved into Don just being irredeemably broken. I’m fine with the idea of an asshole protagonist (e.g. Walter White), but I’m bothered by the implication in this case, and the way it reinforces the trend you point out.

  13. 14

    Steve Caldwell: another episode I can think of was “Gamesters of Triskelion,” where Uhura may or may not have been raped by one of the overseers. But that was more about rape (and enslavement in general) than kink.

    There was one TNG episode where Riker has an affair with a female of some species, who then punish her for the “perversion” of having sex with another species.

    And aside from that, no, there’s VERY little mention of ess-ee-ex in any “Star Trek” series, other than Kirk’s old-movie-standard-man womanizing, aside from the obvious chemistry between Riker and Troi (TNG), the more sedate and cerebral chemistry between Picard and Dr. Crusher (TNG), and Kim’s clumsy romance with Seven of Nine (Voyager). And actual mention of kink? Fuggedaboutit.

  14. 16

    I totally agree with you on how annoying it is that kink is so often used to suggest some sort of damaged mental state, or evil-nature etc., and I would not at all be surprised if this was the intention of the show’s writers here. But there’s also a deeper level to the story that I thought better illustrated Don’s character flaws. To me it felt like the whole point of the scenario was to show that it wasn’t Don’s dominant role in the bedroom that makes him an asshole, it’s the fact that he expects his women to submit to him outside of the bedroom as well. It wasn’t that he wanted Sylvia to play this game (which I agree is hot with consenting adults) it’s that he wants their entire relationship to be that game and he wants her to effectively play it all the time by being at his call when he wants her, regardless of the rest of her life, and to leave him be when he has work to do or family issues of his own. It’s the same hypocritical attitude he has towards Megan too. So maybe this episode was meant to highlight his narcissism by showing that he brings it to all aspects of his life, not just to playful sex games. It’s his insistence that he is the one who decides when the game ends (regardless of any of Sylvia’s concerns) that makes him a jerk. He can call a time-out whenever it’s convenient for him, but Sylvia can’t. And then there’s also the fact that he doesn’t feel bad about the affair (while being jealous of his wife for pretending to have an affair as an actress) that made Sylvia finally see his moral vacuity.

  15. 17

    In our culture anything pleasurable must come with guilt and shame. I guarantee you that the people who show anything kinky as being deplorable are either engaging in that kink privately or are at least aroused by it. It’s like the closeted and repressed gay people who lead campaigns against gay rights.

    About the Mad Men scene, it’s amazing how much of what people describe is taken completely out of context. WhenSylvia says “I just don’t want to think about anything” and Don responds, “who said you could think”, they both smile. It’s playful not abusive. He’s not holding her there against her will. It’s a game and she’s enjoying it, or she’d leave. they are roll playing. Dan Savage calls it “cops and robbers for grown-ups” which in my opinion is an apt description. The scenes do not show him as mean. Had she reacted badly he would have pulled back or laughed it off as if it had been a joke. People are so over-sensitive in our time. Real abuse goes on all the time. Abuse that is non-consensual and designed to inflict pain. This wasn’t anything like that. In fact when she decides the game is up and it’s time to go home, not only is he not mean but he pleads with her not to go. That’s not an abusive situation. If people can’t tell the difference between play and real abuse, then we have a problem.

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