Get our FREE Newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Mad Men ratings are down. I have a “bad fan” theory as to why. 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. Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you. Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus. Conservatives say the Lone Star state’s recent record of growth validates their economic agenda. That record crumbles upon inspection. A wacky-sounding idea with surprisingly conservative roots may be our best hope for escaping endless, grinding economic stagnation. Leaving it to the states is a recipe for disaster. The tumultuous decade that followed the Civil War failed to enshrine black voting and civil rights, and instead paved the way for more than a century of entrenched racial injustice. 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... As president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe triumphed over a fierce narco-insurgency. Then the U.S. helped to export his strategy to Mexico and throughout Latin America. Here’s why it’s not working. Romney’s status as a trailblazer for LDS folk explains his support for Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho. During the Bush administration, Americorps had bipartisan support. Now, it’s back in the GOP doghouse. People need to know about the political activities of CEO’s to know if they want to do business with their companies. She’s not inevitable, but Democratic party elites have broadly signaled an acceptance of her as the nominee. There are a number of ways Republicans might have responded to this week’s Democratic offensive on pay equity for women, but they went for an own goal. An undereducated workforce is not to blame for soaring economic inequality. In the 2012 election cycle, 78% that hit the aggregate limit of $117,000 were men. The slow count of the DC primary results highlighted the need for higher standards in election administration. College graduates make a lot more than non-graduates, but have never made less in real average earnings. Watch the Washington Monthly/New America Foundation panel on marijuana legalization. Univ. Last summer, white sororities at Alabama rejected two women because they were black. The Student Government is okay with that. Putting Medicare Spending on the U.S. The House Republicans had other alternatives to incurring greater debt. Refuting U.S. Don’t worry about America losing its dominant position in the global economy. Worry instead about whether average Americans will benefit. If calls for impeachment gain momentum, it will become a litmus test on the Right, certainly for anyone running for president. Three new books fill in our picture of Roosevelt. It’s likely that the long-term unemployed will continue to face serious difficulties in finding employment, even if the economy significantly improves. No one is buying would-be Republican presidential nominees’ books anymore. By Ed Kilgore. To end the culture war that divides America, we need to recognize that each side has the same roots: the radical democratic individualism of America’s Protestant heritage. Megan McArdle vs. Teachers Have a Respect Problem. "Like" our Facebook Fan page. Click to see a list of our Twitter feeds. © 1969-2014 Copyright Washington Monthly. Washington Monthly® trademark is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. 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