• Mon, May 13 2013

In Defense Of Kink, Don Draper’s and Otherwise

Don Draper Mad Men Season 6 Episode 7

Alert! This commentary on the latest episode of Mad Men (“Man With a Plan“) will contain information about things that happened on the latest episode of Mad Men. Stop reading if for some reason you did not already presume that, thank you.

I watched it on my computer this morning while getting ready for work, which I realized was a terrible idea the moment Sylvia—the married downstairs neighbor and mistress of Don Draper—told him: “Come over. I need you. Nothing else will do.”

This set our boy Don off on a kinky jag (points to Sylvia for knowing her audience) that soon found him telling her to crawl across the hotel room floor on all fours to bring him his shoes. Swoon. This was definitely not getting-me-in-the-mood-for-the-office material …

Don proceeds to direct Sylvia not to leave the hotel room. He calls her once and tells her not to answer the phone again. He sends her a fancy dress from Saks and when he returns, tells her to take it off; they are not going anywhere. ”You exist in this room for my pleasure,” he says.

Before he leaves again, he takes the book she’s been reading (her one means of keeping herself occupied in that hotel room). When she says “I think,” Don cuts her off with: “Who told you you were allowed to think?”

This is far from the first time Don has displayed dominant or kinky tendencies—there’s the Season 4 premiere, in which we see that he likes getting slapped by a prostitute (“Don’t tell me what you want; I know what you need” is still a great line); and there have been multiple scenes of light dominance and submission between him and Megan.

There are plenty of instances where Don’s sexually dominant streak dovetails with his manipulative and sadistic tendencies, resulting in some truly repulsive and rapey behavior. The scene in Season 2 in which he force-fingers Bobbie Barrett as punishment/payback has nothing to do with sex or sexual desire, and everything to do with cruelty and entitlement. It’s painful to watch, for ardent Draper fans like myself. In fiction as in life, it stings when the people you defend and defend blatantly do something beyond defending.

But this episode, this entanglement with Sylvia, felt nothing like that to me. Don’s desire to dominate at this particular moment may be fueled by his lack of control or assuredly alpha-status in other areas of his life, but it’s not a cruel desire. He and Sylvia are both having fun, throughout, until the end of the episode (when her conscience wins out). This is fun, guys! Dominance and submission can be fun!

Sylvia Mad MenThat doesn’t seem to cross the minds of many people writing about the episode, however. Hollywood Reporter describe Don’s sexual antics as “mean and creepy and unlikeable.” Amy Sullivan at The Atlantic suggests Don’s motive in the whole thing was getting Sylvia to break it off with him (implication: he could have no possible expectation that she may enjoy any of this). Eleanor Barkhorn, Atlantic.com’s Sexes editor, writes this:

(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.

Sullivan responds that “while the domination that we saw in this episode is something Don has engaged in before with Megan, it was over-the-top, beyond what any sane woman would tolerate.” She adds:

(We should acknowledge here 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.)

Um … what? Sex slaves in Cleveland were the last thing on my mind when watching this, just like I don’t think of chain-gangs every time I see people walking. Ahh, that whole consent thing. Makes a difference every time!

And I must admit I was sighing when Don took her book away, but not in frustration. “Who told you you were allowed to think?” is a great line—Don is good at this, y’all. They are playing a game and they are playing it well—what’s so creepy (as, alas, Jill at our sister site Crushable also puts it) about that?

The idea that no sane woman could possibly enjoy this is patently absurd, as evidenced by the tons of women—including, perhaps, the fictional Sylvia—who really like being sexually dominated. I’m with Art Beat’s Logan Hill, who points out that the episode is basic cable television “grappling with sexuality” in an unprecedentedly sincere way.

“It’s groundbreaking television in that it never felt like it was pushing Don’s desire into more extreme places (after Bobbie Barrett and so many others) just for shock value,” Hill writes. “I noticed more prudish fans tweeting their disapproval, but when Jon Hamm bleated, “Please,” it revealed so much about his Don: his compulsive need for control, his desperate insecurity. The pivot worked perfectly for me.”

Indeed—it’s good TV. If people’s response’s to Don and Sylvia’s kink has been predictably tone-deaf, oh well—I’m always up for a good conversation-starter about BDSM.* And few writers even seem to get that Sylvia derives pleasure from their trists just as Don does—however: When the first assumption is that it’s “the emotional abuse” she’s getting off on, and not the sexiness, we’ve got a long way to go, I think.

[Speaking of which: This. This is the smartest thing you will read about porn, kink, monogamy, modernity and love in a long while, from Emily Whitt at n+1.]

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Liz Nolan Brown, Elizabeth Brown, Elizabeth N Brown, sex, BDSM, kink, fetish, submission, dominance, submissive, Mad Men
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  • Candace

    Yes, exactly! I cannot believe people interpreted it otherwise. I thought it was so hot. Plus, he didn’t force her to stay ever. She put on her dress and walked out as soon as she wanted, and other than his desperate plea, he did nothing (i.e. nothing creepy or harmful) to infringe her freedom.

    • http://twitter.com/enbrown Elizabeth

      Exactly! It was entirely consensual the whole time.

  • meteor_echo

    Erm, nope. I’m in a D/s relationship myself, but if he said to me that I wasn’t allowed to think, I’d get up, dump a bucket of really cold water on his head and leave for good. That line is creepy as fuck.

    • http://twitter.com/enbrown Elizabeth

      But see, that’s the thing: You would. That doesn’t mean all subs would do that or have that interpretation.

    • meteor_echo

      I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on that. The line just sounded absolutely dehumanizing to me.

  • andreaquist

    I was sitting there going “THIS! THIS! THIS!” It is so rare for mainstream books/TV/movies to realistically portray the subtleties of this kind of exchange. Yeah, he told her what to do, and SHE ACCEPTED. She loved it, until she didn’t, and then it was over. Most people will simply never understand the power plays going on: Yes, he was displaying power, but really, SHE had control the ENTIRE TIME. Nothing creepy. Nothing shameful. The line about “thinking” was simply the *role playing* and anyone with a brain knows that healthy dominant males aren’t looking for a doormat, but a woman who IS independent and CHOOSES to submit at that point in time. Sheesh. This is why i rarely read these articles. People who make comments like meteor_echo are living their lives and doing their thing, but not seeing the bigger picture at all.

  • Aura

    Thank GOODNESS for someone reading it this way. I am a completely empowered feminist–and also a submissive, and those scenes were like the hottest porn I’ve ever seen. I could barely contain myself.

    Through my eyes, she was completely enjoying herself at every turn (until the end, when she had the power and WAS clearly thinking for herself and he obviously understood that and was quite tender, respectful…and devastated). She started getting off when he told her not to answer the phone!

    And while of course I would never want a man, or anyone, in normal circumstances to DARE tell me not to think, or not leave a room–scary!!–in the context of erotic power exchange, there is NOTHING more delicious than that to me. He is taking care of her–giving her something she wanted and needed in that moment, to feel loved and appreciated and cared for (which she was not feeling from her husband) and spoiled and desired and also allowed to escape her life completely for a bit. And she is taking care of him, by helping him feel powerful and necessary and relevant, which he so badly needed in the face of his merger. To me, this is what power exchange is all about: both sides getting their psychological needs met, as well as their physical ones. That’s true lifestyle D/s.

  • RBR

    Yes! I loved it – very hot. Also a strong educated feminist and I love dominant men. Often subs have the real power anyway. I like powerplay as part of sex – it is there anyway – it is fun to play around with it.