“Your Show Is Full of Feminist Philosophy That You Take for Granted”: Matthew Weiner and Alexandra Clert Talk Women, Work, and Television

The first line of Mad Men Matthew Weiner ever wrote, the showrunner told his audience on Friday night, was “I’m not gonna let a woman talk to me like that.” Delivered by man’s man, advertising genius, and fraud Don Draper to a female potential client (and his future mistress), the line fit the event’s theme perfectly — “Women at Work” on television, both American (Mad Men) and French (Engrenages, known as Spiral in English). 

Moderated by Greil Marcus, the discussion between Weiner and Spiral creator Alexandra Clert was part of last week’s Festival Albertine, celebrating the opening of the French Embassy’s new reading room and bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The event was packed, forcing about a third of the audience, this writer included, to watch the event via livestream from a seating-less overflow space. Unsurprisingly, attendees appeared to be much more familiar with Mad Men than Spiral, or at least the clips from each show that started off the discussion.

Marcus began by asking Weiner and Clert about the role of female characters in their respective shows, noting the realistic quality of the sexism (and racism, and anti-Semitism) of Mad Men‘s suburban 1960s. Though Weiner noted that sexism hasn’t so much disappeared as “gone underground,” he pointed out how much the conventional wisdom surrounding gender dynamics has changed over the past few decades. What Marcus described as a “lingua franca, almost a bonding ritual” of prejudice was socially acceptable through the mid-1980s; referring to grown women as “girls” didn’t fall out of fashion until Weiner was in college.

That said, Weiner never saw his female characters as symbols, whether for the suburban housewife (Betty Draper) or the working girl (Peggy Olson). “We don’t write that way,” Weiner said. “It’d be nice to have a message. It’d be nice to have a political standpoint. But when you start writing, you start thinking about everybody.” Mad Men being a show about the American workplace, however, its female characters — including housewives — are defined by their relationship to work. Weiner cited the final chapters of The Feminine Mystique, which recommend not that upper-class white women join the workforce, but that housewives start treating housework like a job. “You go back to Freud: happiness is the ability to work and the ability to love,” and “what these women [housewives and secretaries] do is somehow no longer defined as work.” In a place like the United States, where work is “our religion,” that’s a recipe for discontent.

For Clert, Spiral, a case-per-season look at the French justice system, was also dedicated to realism. A lawyer for nearly a decade before she broke into screenwriting, Clert recounted working as a consultant on a show and telling the director the basics, like how a defendant wouldn’t show up to court in an immaculately pressed suit. Because “you have to live [the justice system] to understand it,” Clert decided to strike out on her own: “I wanted the French public to know, what is French justice?” The premise isn’t unlike that of The Wire: a law and order show that’s nothing like Law & Order.

That vision includes the role of women in the system, portrayed through the series’ female leads: Captain Laure Berthaud, a policewoman fixated on her work at the expense of her personal life, and Josephine Karlsson, a glamorous lawyer Clert described as Berthaud’s “opposite.” Josephine is proud of her status as a single woman as a sign of her autonomy and control; Laure avoids having a family because she buys into the idea that motherhood and excelling at work are mutually exclusive.

Despite the panel’s theme, most of Marcus’s questions had little to do with gender, asking about the effect of success on Weiner and Clert’s writing process or the inspiration behind their shows. When Marcus asked if either would ever “rescue [their] characters from the isolation that defines them,” though, Clert took the conversation in an unexpected direction. (Since Marcus asked most of the questions without his microphone, it’s unclear whether Clert was responding to that specific prompt or a different one posed out of the audience’s earshot.)

“I’m not a feminist at all,” she said. “I don’t share the ideology of parity.” Clert expressed her displeasure with France’s gender parity laws, which have mandated equal numbers of male and female candidates since 2000 — Clert argued that candidates should simply be nominated based on their qualifications, whatever their gender distribution — as well as the “Swedish” attitude towards absolute gender equality, which Clert believes erases the differences between men and women. In Sweden, where Clert’s mother is from, it’s not even customary for men to hold open the door for women: “You don’t feel that you are a woman,” Clert lamented, saying she prefers “Latin culture.”

“This is part of why I did the show,” a visibly exasperated Weiner replied. “The idea that you would ever have a shot at being a lawyer without that philosophy is really naive.” As audience members started applauding, he continued, “People took that position at great personal risk. That door was held open for you by women.” Weiner described himself as “shocked” by opinions like Clert’s, which he “wouldn’t say is ungratefulness, you only know what you know” but speculated might be due to age difference. He concluded by pointing to Clert’s own work: “Your show is full of feminist philosophy that you take for granted, which is that these women have jobs.” 

Beyond jotting down a few notes, Clert didn’t respond to Weiner; instead, Marcus moved on, asking Weiner whether Don Draper was in part inspired by Jack Kerouac (short answer: “No.”) Still, the exchange clearly left an impression, both for the strong response it provoked from the audience and its reversal of expected gender dynamics — typically, it’s women in the entertainment industry explaining sexism’s seriousness to men, not the other way around. It’s also impossible to imagine Clert’s counterparts in American prestige television taking her position, though Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway certainly have their differences.

Whatever Weiner and Clert’s offscreen opinions may be, the panel nonetheless made the case for Mad Men and Spiral as thematically similar shows, each addressing women’s struggles to adapt themselves to male-dominated workplaces. And as Weiner himself announced, Mad Men fans interested in catching up on Spiral can watch the series in its entirety on Hulu Plus.