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April 20, 2014 3:05 PM Mad Men ratings are down. I have a “bad fan” theory as to why.

By Kathleen Geier

Last Sunday, Man Men began its seventh and penultimate season. As always, the season premiere revealed a few surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise of all this year turned out to be the show’s low ratings. The Huffington Post reports that only 2.3 million viewers tuned in last week, a number that is down almost one third from last year’s season premiere.

Many explanations have been offered for the ratings plunge. Some of the excuses were weak: maybe people were watching something else? or they didn’t realize the new season had begun? And some sounded more plausible: perhaps more people DVR’d it? The latter theory even turned out to be true, but not enough to make up for the fall-off in viewers. There was also some speculation that last season was weak, which might have driven away potential viewers. Again, there’s a grain of truth to that. Though last season ended on a strong note, it was uneven overall (the flashbacks to Don Draper’s traumatic childhood in a whorehouse were tiresome and excessive. Many of us got the point the first time — it didn’t need to be hammered home repeatedly).

However, my theory is that there’s a deeper reason why fewer people are watching. It’s simply this: as the show’s historical setting moves forward in time and nears closer to our own, watching Mad Men may become a less pleasurable viewing experience. There are two reasons for this. One is that the novelty effect is no longer in play. The lure of the early scenes lay in how dramatically different the world depicted was from our own. That was a time when men wore hats, women wore bullet-point bras, and Americans drove cars as big as boats. There’s an undeniable charm in the radical difference in style — the beauty and formality of that world. And of course, for many viewers, it’s endlessly fascinating to contemplate how different the social mores were, concerning everything from smoking and drinking to gender roles and sex. The time the show depicts wasn’t that long ago. Some viewers are even old enough to remember it. Others were raised by parents who grew up in that era, and so in a sense are products of it, albeit once removed.

At some point, though, the world the show depicted began to radically change. Soon, that old world had vanished forever. Since that time was not so distant chronologically, yet seemingly very far from us in social attitudes, it’s little wonder that a show like Mad Men, that is set in that world, can wield enormous dramatic power (and be a lot of fun, besides).

But now that Mad Men’s world is catching up, both chronologically and in terms of social mores, to our own world, there’s no longer quite that frisson of difference. So the situations it deals with seem less exotic and more banal. In short, Mad Men world seems more familiar, and therefore more dramatically boring, and so that may be one reason why viewership has dropped off. That’s the more sympathetic reading, at least.

The less sympathetic reading is not so flattering to viewers, and here’s where the “bad fan” part of my theory comes in. I think some Mad Men fans — scratch that, just about all Man Men fans — enjoy the show, especially the early seasons, because of the opportunities it affords us to feel superior — historically superior, if you will. We can watch those early seasons and think, we have overcome! In American society, it’s no longer socially acceptable to discriminate against women and people of color in the workplace, to uphold a sexual double standard, to neglect or abuse your kids, to litter, to smoke yourself into an early grave, etc. Many viewers will look back and say, good job, America! Real progress has been made. Others no doubt feel a sneaking nostalgia at all the guilt-free patriarchy, office grab-assery, adultery, and heavy drinking and smoking the show depicts.

But in the later seasons of the show, it becomes increasingly difficult to experience those kinds of responses. Now we come to season seven, set in 1969. We’re a world away from season one, set in 1960. Joan and Peggy have each fought their way tooth and nail out of the secretarial pool. Joan is a partner and account executive, and Peggy is one of the firm’s top creative people. Both of them, however, are dealing with the same old sexist obstacles, albeit reconstituted in kinder, gentler forms.

The male execs are no longer making crude passes at them or openly mocking them because of their gender, as occurred in seasons past. Yet both women are being thwarted and disrespected in more subtle ways. We last saw Peggy sitting at Don’s desk, and the expectation was that she would take over his job, since he had been dismissed. Instead, she’s been passed over in favor of a man. Worse, the new occupant in Don’s chair doesn’t seem to be very good at his job (he turns down a brilliant pitch) and doesn’t seem to get Peggy, or her ideas, at all. “I guess I’m just immune to your charms,” he tells her.

Joan is faring no better. Ken yells at her and is still treating her like she’s an office manager, and the guy from the shoe company refuses to even take a meeting with her, because he doesn’t take her seriously as an executive. Much of her professional life still centers around strategizing ways she can overcome other dudes’ sexist attitudes about her so she can get things done.

In the time frame covered by the show, nine years have past since season one. Workplace sex discrimination is now illegal, and these two female characters each have a track record of success and accomplishment on the job that rival anyone else’s on the show. Yet they’re still not treated like they belong in the executive suite. They still have to keep proving themselves. They still haven’t gotten the respect and rewards, tangible and otherwise, that they deserve.

The situations Joan and Peggy struggle with undoubtedly resonate with many women today. The legal obstacles to gender equality no longer exist, and the most blatant forms of sex discrimination are far less common than they used to be. But gender equality in the workplace remains a distant dream, and women run up against the more subtle forms of sexism every day. This is the territory that Mad Men is dealing with now.

Watching Joan’s and Peggy’s struggles this season, we can no longer pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves about how far we’ve come. Because actually, we haven’t. Maybe that’s why fewer viewers are tuning in to the show this season. The show, to its enormous credit, is giving us fewer reasons to feel good about how far we’ve come, and more reasons to ask troubling questions about why we still have so far to go.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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