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On Mad Men, When Is It Rape?

Illustration for article titled On iMad Men/i, When Is It Rape?

Last night marked the second rape scene in Mad Men (and the third time a man on the show has forced himself on a woman in a sexual manner). But still, the question lingers - is this really rape?

Interestingly, every time a rape or sexual assault is portrayed on the show, questions swirl around whether or not it was really, truly an assault. When Joan was raped by her fiancé in the second season the buzz on message boards was that it wasn't really rape. In an interview with New York Magazine, Christina Hendricks expressed her shock at the fact the rape scene was being debated:

[I]n the penultimate episode of the season, her doctor-fiancé rapes her. "Every time I got the script, I was like, ‘Poor Joan!' " says Hendricks. [...]

The rape was a shocker-but the audience reactions were perhaps more disturbing. "What's astounding is when people say things like, ‘Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?' Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers," says Hendricks. "I'm like, ‘What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!' It illustrates how similar people are today, because we're still questioning whether it's a rape. It's almost like, ‘Why didn't you just say bad date?' "

The scene was polarizing, sparking heated online debates in which some questioned Joan's reaction (she and her fiancé head off for dinner afterward) while others wondered whether Joan would understand that it was rape, a taboo subject in 1962. Labels aside, Hendricks says Joan knew what was going on. "She's smart. She'd think it was awful and ‘Holy shit!' But she also thinks, ‘Pick yourself up, comb your hair. You've got a dinner reservation; don't be a baby. You know many girls this has happened to.' "


Our culture teaches us to excuse rape, to rationalize it away, to pinpoint all the reasons why a woman was partially or fully culpable for a man choosing to ignore consent and force a sexual encounter.

Also in the second season, Don Draper decides to regulate and sexually assaults Bobbi Barrett. But hey, does it really matter if Barrett likes it? (Let me be clear - that scenario is extremely complicated and needs a post of its own to parse out.) How many of us were turned on by (or, alternately, repulsed by) this scene, when the consent was not given beforehand, but complicated by their relationship afterward?


But let's put those two aside for the moment. What happened with Pete and the flustered au pair? Let's say Bobbie Barrett truly enjoyed Don Draper molesting her and found it sexy. Plausible. Bobbie enjoyed Don in a sexual way. But that was not the dynamic between Pete and Gertrude.


She is distraught, he offers to find a solution to her problem. She accepts the dress he has exchanged with thanks. When Pete moves in initially for a kiss, she shakes her head and demurs, mentioning a boyfriend. Pete is rebuffed. He leaves. A little later, after a drink, he comes back, not taking no for an answer. Gertrude doesn't even want to let him in the house, but acquiesces before he makes a scene. She is a subordinate in the building, while Pete is an apartment owner and a peer to her employers. She consents only to trying on the dress - as she goes to try the dress on, Pete restrains her, closes the door, and forcibly kisses her. At this moment, Gertrude stands stiffly for a few moments before submitting.

But submission is not equivalent to consent, especially not with those kind of power dynamics going on.


We didn't have to see the end of the scene between Don and Betty to know that they slept together. Likewise, we don't have to see the end of the late night scene between Pete and Gertrude (or hear about the four boxes of tissues she went through) to know what happened was rape.

Dangerous Curves [New York Magazine]
Mad Men, I Love You, But Your Fans Are Freaking Me Out [Bitch Blogs]


Earlier: Don Draper Dominates Dames
Mad Men: Sex, Lies, & The Recline Of The Roman Empire

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I'm sure I'll get blasted for this (though I'm late to the post), but I SO disagree.

I think it's problematic to call it rape every time there are unequal power dynamics or people have sex for the wrong reasons (like because they feel obligated).

If she was motionless and just submitted, without indicating to him in any way that what he was doing was ok, that's rape.

If she pushed him away and he forced himself on her, that's rape.

If she said "no" and he persisted, that's rape.

Here, we saw her let him in and, when he kissed her, kiss him back. That's all we saw.

She had a look on her face like it wasn't really what she wanted, but those acts indicate consent. There was nothing afterwards to indicate she took back that consent.

Her motivations for letting him in and kissing him are really unknown to us. We could speculate that she felt obligated, but, hell, maybe she really wanted him! Maybe she was hesitant because she felt it would be wrong to cheat on her boyfriend. We really don't know.

In this case, Pete's an asshole, he knows the power dynamics that are at play, he's a jerk to take advantage of them, but he's not a rapist.

I think there needs to be some kind of objective boundary crossed before we start calling it rape, it's a dangerous slippery slope if we start trying to divine what is going on inside a woman's head. How is a man supposed to know that? It's unfair to would-be-rapists.