“Mad Men” and the Male Gaze

The “Jaguar Pitch”, scene that appears in a season 5 episode of Mad Men, is a perfect example of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze”, a masculine point of view across movies and literature in which women are presented as the objects of male pleasure. Mulvey states that the female characters have no direct influence on the plot, and merely serve as a support or a sexual object for the male.[1] The scene demonstrates Mulvey’s ideas in two ways: Joan’s interactions with Herb Rennet in which Herb is the looker and the surrogate for the male audience, and Don Draper’s calculated speech containing undercurrents of female submission to male dominance.

In the scene, Don addresses the executives of the Jaguar account, which mirrors Joan’s night with Herb, a man who can back up Don’s bid for the account in exchange for sex with Joan. Don is unaware of the arrangement, and arrives too late to save Joan from sleeping with Herb.

The scene opens with Don delivering his pitch. The camera keeps him in a medium shot, allowing the audience to see his calm yet calculated posture and hand movements, establishing that he is in control and has his male audience listening to his every word. Occasionally, the camera zooms in for a close-up of Don’s face to convey his earnest yet wistful statements about the Jaguar’s perfect and almost unobtainable status. However, there is more to Don’s pitch than the Jaguar’s perfection and desirability.

His speech is full of insinuations regarding a male’s desire to possess a beautiful woman, with the Jaguar serving as an analogy of that possession for pleased executives. Don states that they must tire over hearing how beautiful the Jaguar car is, but explains that he has met several beautiful women who, despite their protestations, never tire of hearing how beautiful they are. He only refers to women once during his pitch, but the connotative meaning of Don’s speech is clear; women are possessions, and they are not entirely out of the reach of the male grasp.

The Joan and Herb segment of the scene finds Joan as the object of both Herb’s gaze and the gaze of the male audience. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey states that “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on the female figure which is styled accordingly,” (Mulvey, 62).  Mulvey argues that cinema has positioned female characters as tools for visual and erotic pleasure, and that they are in a passive role to be looked at. Mulvey’s essays states that the gender imbalance can be traced back to the patriarchal structure of Western civilization. The attractive Joan is the passive and erotic spectacle for the male gaze; her low cut dress and her reluctant submission to Herb’s control feeds into the male fantasy of sexual dominance over female characters . The camera provides several extreme close-ups of Joan’s face and cleavage, conveying her discomfort with situation yet delivering her as a sexualized display for the male gaze to enjoy. The scene clearly establishes that Herb is the instigator, the active participant with all the power.

In her lecture on the male gaze, Dr. Erin Hanna touches on the idea that man (Herb) is the bearer of the look who advances the narrative and controls the fantasy, while the woman (Joan) is objectified; she freezes and slows the narrative.[2] In the scene, Herb says he doesn’t know if he can control himself much longer around Joan, implying that he is ready for the sexual act to begin. Joan slowly takes a drink, then begins to unzip her gown, when Herb quickly and eagerly reaches for her back and finishes the job.

In several occasions throughout the scene, the male audience experiences narcissistic scopophilia; the pleasure in identifying with the male characters on screen. Don Draper is cool and confident, and assures his male viewers that women are beautiful creatures to be owned,  while Herb is controlling over a beautiful woman.

The director and producers of Mad Men have positioned their male characters throughout the clip as controlling and dominant over women. Even when a woman is not in the room, as seen during Don’s speech, the idea of male dominance still remains. Women are powerless and erotic playthings available for the male characters and male audience alike. “What price would we pay? What behavior would we forgive, if they weren’t pretty if they weren’t temperamental. Don asks. “ If they weren’t beyond our reach, would we love them like we do?”

The “Jaguar Pitch” ensures that the male audience will be able to identify with Herb and Don, while enjoy the sexualized character of Joan.

Mulvey’s theories on the male gaze ring true in the ways that Don speaks of women; Herb interacts with women; and the male audience engages with the scene and views the male characters versus the female. Mulvey states that a female actor is never meant to represent a character who directly influences the plot, but serves as a support to the male role and bear the burden of sexual objectification that he cannot.

[1] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 57-68.

[2] “Hanna, Erin. “Week 1: Introduction.” J320 Gender, Media, and Diversity,

University of Oregon. 9 Jan 2017.

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