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The Men and Women of Sterling Cooper: Symbolic Violence and Hegemony as it applies to Gender

The Men and Women of Sterling Cooper: Symbolic Violence and Hegemony as it applies to Gender

by Christopher Dingle


Whether the story takes place in 1960’s Madison Avenue, New York, a village in Northern Africa, or crime-ridden East Harlem anywhere that men and woman have interactions there will be symbolic or gender violence. The television series Madmen chronicles the trials and tribulations of Donald F. Draper and those around him as they clamor to climb the corporate ladder and come to terms with who they are. This series is an excellent period piece that pays special attention to the conditions and terms by which woman lived, loved, and survived in the male dominated world of 1960’s America. Specifically episode twelve, “The Mountain King”, the series second season deals prevalently with gender, power, and symbolic violence. It is clear throughout the episode that through the symbolic violence of language/action and the complicity of the female characters all of the characters including men live under and contribute to a powerful and pervasive male hegemony.


In “The Mountain King” the main character Don has gone AWOL after disappearing on a business trip to California. As he confronts his past, present, and future with the wife of the man whose identity he stole. The office of Sterling Cooper advertising agency, which he works for, carries on with business as usual. The episode takes great care to document the stories of Sterling Cooper’s female employees, Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway. Peggy strives for advancement in a male dominated industry and is forced to deal with the shock and appall of her male coworkers at her success. Joan begins the episode with exuberant joy over her recent engagement only to end the episode in a shocking scene of marital rape on the office floor. Other characters such as Pete Campbell and his wife Trudy quarrel over adoption and throughout the episode other characters lend small comments contributing to the aforementioned male hegemony and symbolic violence.

Critical Discussion

One of the very first lines spoken in the episode is “I don’t want you to hurt me.” spoken by a woman to a man. This one line can sum up much of the argument for male hegemony through a language of symbolic violence. The statement implies that the man has control and that his words or actions are presumed to harbor violence.

Statements just like this appear throughout the series and the episode. In most cases the men of Sterling Cooper take a very aggressive almost caustic approach to their female counterparts as they attempt to maintain their hegemony. Pete Campbell blatantly says that he is no longer in love with his wife since she has gotten “ideas in her head”.  Other male characters approach characters like Peggy Olson with a borage of questions and appalled faces when they learn she has acquired a new office. Questions such as “How the hell did you swing this?” and statements that include “Why don’t you put on Draper’s pants while you’re at it!” Worst of all, the quote by Dr. Harris, Joan’s fiancée, as he rapes her. “This is what you want…”

Other statements made throughout the episode may appear harmless but in truth they contribute considerably to the hegemony. “I’m going to take care of you forever”, “Aggressive women are cute”, And the occasional pet name Honey said to female coworkers, or a congratulations given to a woman for accomplishing something ‘old hat’ for men. All of these seemingly harmless quotes are symbolic violence. They place the men who say them in a patriarchal, dominant position giving them the power to establish the norms and rules of the society that they share with women.

This male-female shared society is exactly that, shared. Just like the responsibility for the creation and maintenance of the male dominated hegemony must be shared by the women living under its shadow. Pierre Bourdieu in his work states that symbolic violence is possible only by the complicity of those dominated. To put it bluntly the women of Sterling Cooper have helped to shape themselves and the terrible environment they live and work in by allowing the “order of things” to include the legitimization of a male dominated world as a biological truth. Several examples of this exist in the dialogue of “The Mountain King”. When conversing with Don, Anna, talks about a man she had dated for a time but left due to his maltreatment. She says that she kicked him out even though old women shouldn’t be picky. This implies that woman should be grateful for the company of men and essentially take what they can get, a notion that the more liberated woman of today would whole heartedly not agree with. Another instance of complicity occurs when Joan is forced to the office floor and raped by her fiancée, she says no but he persists; Exactly the opposite action that she took when denied earlier in the episode by the same man. As the scene continues she eventually stops resisting and resigns herself to an unblinking stare. When finished the couple pretends as if the incident never happened. The level of Joan’s complicity increases dramatically in this scene as she resists, gives in, and finally forgets.

As terrible as Joan’s ordeal was and as complete as her complicity seems it is not the best example. That honor goes to Peggy Olson whom says in a joking manner when questioned about her success “I’m sleeping with Don, its really working out.” To validate, even in a joking manner, the thoughts of the men so shocked at her success helps to undermine everything that she has worked for. She loses credibility and respect as she complies with the male hegemony.

Women are not the only ones caught in the web of male hegemony that encircles Sterling Cooper. Men too are subject to a dominator-dominated relationship except it is not any specific group that they must suffer under; instead it is the tremendous weight of masculinity. To be a man in the world of Madmen implies a great many things most importantly among them virility, stoicism, and achievement.

These three concepts are the foundation for the trap of masculinity. They do not allow men to ever truly feel at ease because everyday life is an attack on their manhood. Pete Campbell cannot accept his possible sterility and therefore lashes out with rage at his wife. Don Draper who misses his wife terribly is disallowed from picking up the phone and calling her because he could possibly expose his emotions, a feminine characteristic. Dr. Harris is embarrassed at his lack of sexual knowledge so he sexually violates his fiancée. Finally Peggy Olson’s male colleagues ridicule her with disdain upon the realization that she has accomplished more than them. All characters including men are affected by and hegemony as it creates feelings of inadequacy and a sense of “the desperate and somewhat pathetic effort that any man must make, in his triumphant unconsciousness, to try to live up to the dominant idea of man.”


It is evident that the male hegemony that afflicts Sterling Cooper is widespread and powerful. The women are forced to survive in a hostile environment full of symbolic violence yet they too help to complete the cycle of domination with their complicity. Men must also suffer under the yoke of oppression as they strive to maintain an impossible image of what a man is. “The Mountain King is a mirror”. What can Madmen tell us about our own society? As far as it has come it is still bogged down by symbolic violence and a hegemony that seems to benefit very few if any. There must be a shift in how gender and other roles are thought about and discussed in order for humanity to take another step forward. Otherwise we are no better than the man who rapes his fiancée on the office floor and the woman who is lets herself accept it.


Bourdieu, Pierre. “Symbolic Violence.” Violence in War and Peace. Ed. Nancy Scheper – Hughes. Blackwell, 2004. 272 – 273.

Bourgois, Philippe. “The Everyday Violence of Gang Rape.” Violence in War and Peace. Ed. Nancy Scheper – Hughes. Blackwell, 2004. 343 -346

Roseberry, William. “Hegemony, Power, and Languages of Contention.” The Politics of Difference: Ethnic Premises in a World of Power. Ed. P.A. Mcallister. University of Chicago press. 71 – 85.