Jul 282010

In the fourth season premiere of Mad Men, Don Draper should be on top of the world. Instead, he has a ratty Greenwich village apartment, a carefully maintained pretense that his new agency has a second floor, and a standing appointment with a prostitute whom he orders to slap his face while not taking off her bullet bra.

In art, everything means something, particularly in Mad Men, in which much information is conveyed in minor shifts in behavior rather than over speech or actions. That Don hires a prostitute and has her smack his face a few times during sex is indicative of his internal state of chaos, along with almost yelling at Peggy and throwing prospective clients out of the agency when they don’t like his pitch. In previous seasons, Don has masterfully handled jittery clients and a string of mistresses, one of whom had a masochistic streak herself. His masochistic behavior is meant to indicate his decline and his self-loathing, after his divorce and starting a new agency. He’s actually becoming a bit of a cliche, the high-powered executive in a suit who hires a pro domme to dress him as a French maid every Thursday at 7pm.

However, does masochism always indicate a disordered or self-loathing mind? I don’t think it does. BDSM can be integrated into a functional life. If Don owned up to a few things to himself, he might use his masochistic sessions as a way of getting some stress relief. However, Don seems to be using his scenes the way he uses cigarettes and booze: maintaining the impression of control without any moderation. Thus, he’s not an example of healthy BDSM, not that that idea had been developed yet in the show’s current year of 1964.

Phrased another way, will we ever reach a point in which a TV character has some form of non-normative sexuality without it being some exterior sign of some inner mental flaw? A parallel with homosexuality’s depiction in mainstream instruction is instructive. It used to be that homosexuality was a problem to be explained, and it could not be an incidental aspect of his or her character. I think we’ve reached a point where gayness is no longer an overriding element of a character. Sadomasochism is somewhere on that same trajectory.

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