FoC 021: Mad Men and the Meaning of Love with Kathryn from “Through A Glass Brightly”




We’re going deep into one of our favourite tv shows, Mad Men,  today with the brilliant and lovely Kathryn of the blog Through A Glass Brightly.  We discuss Don’s search for real love and intimacy, how the show exemplifies humanity’s quest for fulfilment, and the ways in which St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is present in the lives of the characters. So pour yourself a martini and join us!

Discussed in this episode:

Kathryn’s post on Brideshead Revisited: Finding Home in a Fierce Little Human Tragedy 

Love Among the Ruins in “Mad Men” by Katie Summa

Christy’s Mad Men episode recaps of season seven.

You can read Kathryn’s writing about other great movies, tv shows, and books at her blog Through A Glass Brightly. She is also the creator behind the blog Love Among The Ruins, a collaborative blog exploring St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in unexpected places in culture, art, and movies.


You can listen to us on iTunes, and we’d love a quick rating or review. If you have an android device we’re also on Stitcher. And as always, you can find all links, show notes, upcoming guests, and listen to all episodes at Fountains of

18 thoughts on “FoC 021: Mad Men and the Meaning of Love with Kathryn from “Through A Glass Brightly””

  1. As much as I admire your writing and appreciate your perspective, I really wish I could have participated in the conversation and engaged in a friendly debate with you ladies, especially when it came to the comments you made regarding the “catholic or religious” critics of Mad Men. There was a dismissiveness and over generalization and I would have loved to challenge you intelligent ladies on those comments.

    Let me first dispense with the suggestion that people who criticize the show for it’s objectionable content lack an understanding of how beautiful art can use sin, imperfect people and suffering in support of an ultimately uplifting, valuable message. Of course it can. The Old Testament itself is a complex and gripping story of fallen people and their redemption or demise. Othello, Anna Karenina and countless other towering works of the western canon tackle infidelity in complex ways. To be critical of what is portrayed on a particular show is not to say that such themes can never be addressed or that morality must only be depicted in clear black and white terms.

    The criticism of Mad Men is that it is bad poetics, both in what it ultimately has to say and what it does in communicating its message. I can’t imagine you, or any other intelligent Catholic critic, would argue that there is no amount of gratuitous sexuality that would render an otherwise interesting work objectionable. A production of Othello or Anna Karenina, for example, that involved explicit scenes acting out the infidelity in person, for the audience would be objectionable. To the extent that any show, no matter how sophisticated the writing, requires its actors to engage in illicit and indecent behavior, it is rightly to be criticized and avoided. Unlike books, where the characters are not actually human beings with immortal souls, television shows and movies must be careful not to require actors to actually commit sins in the execution of the story.

    For decades, film and television managed to convey sexuality as a component of the story without doing so with actual displays of simulated sex acts. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a classic movie, and a successful exploration of sexual politics. Would Audrey Hepburn have agreed to act in some of the scenes female actresses have taken part in over the years on Mad Men? Not in a million years; nor would a producer have dared ask her.

    Our society has coarsened terribly in the last few decades, and we are called to be a witness to living in the world, but not becoming of the world. As St. Paul said: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

    Let’s ask ourselves, honestly, is wanting to participate in the broader social conversation about Mad Men worth justifying watching things that we don’t want our 15 year old daughters to watch? We have to be careful not to desensitize ourselves to sexual acts depicted in film by two living and breathing people that are qualitatively different than sexual allusions found in literature and other art forms.

    We are in this fight together, and many people listen to you and respect you. It’s why I decided to give some feedback instead of just turning on food network and spacing out after a long day… Take care!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kathleen.

      Did you happen to listen to the entire podcast? We were fairly clear that we were responding to people who immediately dismiss the show based on the level of graphic sin, that’s not to say that if your personal conscience is disturbed and troubled by the content that you should feel like you must watch it. I’m also a bit confused by your statement that your main problem is the degree in which the sin is portrayed. Because you’re right that sin has always been portrayed in art in varying degrees. I would say that the degree to which sin is portrayed should be in accordance with the storytelling and that a well done production takes this into account. I would propose that because Mad Men is a very realistic show and in it’s production that the sex that is portrayed is in keeping with the realistic element of it’s storytelling. I also don’t believe that the actors are intending to sin, but are acting. I don’t believe that their portrayal of sin, and sex, necessarily means they’re committing sins.

      Again, this is something that becomes subjective to the individual. If you find your conscience is disturbed by the portrayal of sin, then by all means avoid it. But our main point was that the good qualities of the show, as well as it’s importance as a story, should not be offhandedly dismissed because it portrays sex in varying degrees. It still has value and something to say, even if it is not perfectly clean.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Christy. I did listen to the entire podcast. It’s not about the degree of sinfulness of the fictional behavior (i.e. that a character is committing adultery with another person)… It’s what goes in to creating the portrayal. As you said, it’s realistic. And you believe that is justified for the art. I disagree, and in fact the actors become as JPII would say “objectified” by the pornographic nature of this realistic and graphic acting. My question for you: is there no level of graphic sex that would be impure to watch even if it was in the name of good art? We are catholics here, these things can’t be completely subjective all the time. There has to be some standard. The Catholic Catechism clearly states in #2354 “Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.”

        In repeatedly embracing the realism of the acts portrayed, you have in fact conceded the entire point. It is indecent to watch people realistically simulating sex acts, to say nothing of the propriety of the actors actually doing it.

        The story could be just as compelling without the actors engaging in these indecent acts. Would you agree that it would be better if they didn’t? Would you allow your daughter or son (or husband) to act in a film or TV show that has scenes like Mad Men, because you think it’s not a sin if they are merely acting it out?

        I don’t believe it’s Christian to just say “follow whatever your conscience tells you…” We have a Holy Mother Church, a teaching magisterium, and many saints to help us navigate this and inform our conscience.
        As I said before, there is something very different about taking real life human beings and asking them to simulate sex acts on screen for money.. We can certainly wade into these issues of infidelity, marriage, struggle, sin etc in art, but it is how we wade in that we ought to struggle to deliver well.

        1. I think I’d like to state that Mad Men is not pornographic because it is not a show that is made solely for sex or for the sexual pleasure of others. I understand that the Catechism is talking about pornography in that instance when it is made for the purpose of being pornography. If not, then what about kissing in public? What about when actors simply kiss each other on screen? Would that not also be a fantasy world, because that too would be a simulated intimacy?

          would also like to ask you how you feel about other sins being portrayed on film and if watching other sins being committed on screen makes us complicit and part of that sin as well? What about actors portraying Nazis doing unimaginable horrors? Are those actors engaging in inherently indecent, sinful acts or are they depicting a story? What about the film The Passion of the Christ? Those actors were killing Christ. The Catechism and Catholic teaching hold that murder is a more grave sin than fornication. What about lying? Disobeying one’s parents? What makes watching a story portraying sin, be necessity a sin we commit?

          1. First of all, you didn’t answer my questions. Would you let your daughter, son or husband act out some of the sex scenes in Mad Men? My guess is no. But would you let them kiss an actor in a play.. sure. Pretending to shoot someone doesn’t actually kill them. Taking off your clothes and rubbing it against someone other actor is inherently indecent. Because you are actually naked or mostly naked with someone other than your spouse.. You didn’t actually send a person to a concentration camp or kill some one.. The last point I would make is just because a film or TV show doesn’t have the sole purpose of selling sex, it can certainly have pornographic scenes in it. And many movies made would not label themselves pornography, but they are. Eyes Wide Shut, Fifty Shades of Gray, and other less sexually oriented movies do have pornographic scenes based on the CC definition.. “Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties.”

            The other question you didn’t answer: Can we at least agree it would be better that these shows didn’t include the graphic stuff? Many film makers have managed to get the point across without shoving it in your face or subjecting actors to simulating the sex. We need to encourage good people in the industry to do a better job and be more creative in this department. I feel like this is something we as catholics can all agree on.

          2. Kathleen, my previous reply wasn’t complete, I was holding a baby and somehow it got published.

            I don’t think answering your questions changes the argument that Mad Men is/is not pornographic. Would I “let” my husband or children do pornography? Obviously, not. My adult children however, will have to make their own decisions and if any of my children decide that they would like to become artists and actors then these questions will be complex for them, but I will not be in any position to “let” them do anything. There is a vast difference to not wanting my children to do something, and whether or not that thing is actually a sin.

            Again, the issue is not what you, me, and what every other church-goer wants in “sanitized” entertainment, but what art is trying to say and that is what we were discussing on the podcast. We were not condoning the sex scenes, only commenting that the sex scenes do not negate the importance of the story being portrayed in the television show. I would not choose to have each sex scene in Mad Men, but again there is some subjective creative license needed in the creation of art. But if we are going to have objective rules like we can only allow “kissing but no body touching” or “implied sexual relations, but no sharing of beds” then we are going to loose credibility in today’s culture as well as hamper storytelling and artistic pursuits. To be honest most of the “sex scenes” in Mad Men are very much important to the story and are used to say important things about the characters as well as being very clear in the damaging effects of sin itself. I should also clarify, that these actors aren’t actually having sex like a porn film, so that is a distinction I would make when you say that some things you really are committing, like using the Lord’s name in vain. No actors in Mad Men are actually engaging in sex with each other while making this show. Acting is acting is acting. A person who is acting does not have the intention to commit a sin but is intending to portray a character.Let’s not leave out the importance of intention and free will when we want to condemn actions as sins.

            What about other works of art such as classical paintings that show the human form without clothes. Are we engaging in pornography by looking at that naked image of someone who isn’t our spouse? Was that intended by the artist to be pornography? I’m not saying that nudity isn’t something that should be thrown around lightly and I obviously agree with the Church about the importance and sacred nature of the body, but I am attempting to say that there are certain situations in art where nudity can be used to convey something important about story and the human person.

            And in regards to many other films that do use gratuitous sex and violence, this is where it is important to discuss the subjective attributes of art. Why we talk about the themes, ideas, and philosophies behind Mad Men is because this show has a lot to say and is telling an important story, where as Fifty Shades of Grey is telling a story about having disturbing sex. There is a crucial difference in intention between these two pieces of entertainment. If we don’t talk about the intention in the creation of a piece of artistic work we are really making things shallow and not giving art the credit it deserves in being capable of communicating great truths. I feel that by saying “Mad Men has some scenes that depict sex therefore it can’t say anything of value about humanity or tell a good story” akin to saying something like “because a person commits sin they must not have value.”

            We need to encourage engaging art that portrays the human experience which happens to universally contain sin. The truth that Man is searching for something outside himself like in Mad Men is something that is important, and Mad Men is doing it in a very well done way even if it has scenes that can be uncomfortable or even disturb your conscience. Again, I’m not saying that you have to watch the show or like it, I’m just saying that you cannot deny it’s worth simply because it has sex scenes which you find offensive. And maybe we won’t agree on objective rules for what art can and cannot use.

        2. Dear Kathleen,

          Thank you for your measured, thoughtful, and careful comments, which contribute to the clarity with which the discussion may proceed. I would like to agree with (almost) everything you have said. You rightfully point out that there is an objective dimension to the morality or immorality of a media production, and that dimension involves the act in which the actors participate (“real or simulated sexual acts [removed] from the intimacy of the partners”), the intent of the production (“to display them deliberately to third parties…[such that] each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others”), and the likely effect on the viewing audience (rousing the passions toward base pleasure detached from intimacy, combined with “immers[ing] all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world”). I agree with you that media productions of this sort, with this combination of act, intent, and effect, may well have (other) positive qualities but that the cost is not worth the benefit.

          I would like to suggest, however (and this is just one man’s perspective) that Mad Men is not such a show. To be clear, I am a married father of two young children and—no—my children will not be permitted to watch Mad Men while they are in my house, and I will advise them against it until they themselves are married. First I’d like to explain why I don’t think Mad Men fits the model of pornography that you have laid out; then I’ll explain why I find spiritual value in it and why I believe that the decision to watch it or not is a subjective one, in the case of this *particular* television show.
          In the first place, words like “graphic” and “realistic” are being thrown around in this show. I agree that it is graphic and realistic in its depiction of the human soul, but it is not graphic in its depiction of sex. In seven seasons of the show, I can recall only two times (my wife says that there have been three, but I can’t recall the third) in which persons were depicted in the *midst* of having sex—i.e. simulating sex acts. On one occasion, there was approximately 2 seconds of bodily movement, featuring a naked leg, seen over the shoulder of a young girl who has discovered her father in the act of committing adultery. On the other occasion, a couple is depicted for about 6 seconds as they have sex (with clothes on) in the emotionally raw aftermath of having been held up by a man with a gun. In both occasions, the viewing audience has been prepared by the story arc to find these moments wrenching, painful, and not even bittersweet—just tragic. Now, throughout the show, perhaps once every two or three episodes in some seasons, one sees persons who are *about* to have sex or who have *just* had sex, but in almost *all* such occasions, the *fact* that sex has taken place in the story is never a neutral fact. That is, the sex doesn’t exist for itself but it has a place in the story because it changes relationships, shows us something about the characters, etc. And that is why Mad Men, much like the dramas of the 50s and early 60s, uses sex but does not (usually) need to *depict* the sex. Usually all we see is passionate kissing. Occasionally we see naked limbs or backs, but never frontal (or even rear) nudity. So if foreplay and intercourse are often suggested but not depicted, what *is* the sex doing in the show?

          This, Kathleen, is where I think you introduce a very important consideration: Sometimes people argue that a show is okay because it doesn’t show private body parts, no more than might be seen on a beach, etc.—but we all know that’s horsesh*t, if you’ll pardon the expression. The fathers of the Church, the medieval saints and doctors, and the magisterium don’t warn us away from lascivious entertainments because they’re worried about us seeing body parts. (Exhibit A: (Exhibit B: ). No, they are worried about what the *manner* of presenting body parts can do (Exhibit C would be any perfume ad in a contemporary women’s magazine). Thus, as you point out, the real problem is the *intent* and the *effect* of what is being depicted. Passionate kissing, with the right lighting, the affect, etc. can be far more arousing than two seconds of thrusting in the scene in which the viewing audience is crying out “No! Stop!” at the screen.

          This is where I feel that Mad Men is “graphic” not in a visual sense but still, yes, in an emotional sense—but not in such a way as to constitute pornography. It’s intent is rather to show *why* people do things, and its effect is most often moving, jarring, and convicting. The role that sex plays in the story line—and I feel that this role is born out by the way that sex acts are depicted when they are (rarely) depicted—is not to give the illusory world described by the catechism, the world of pornography and its false thrills. Rather, Mad Men presents these relationships (and they are always relationships, never just acts, that are being depicted) is to shatter our illusions by confronting us with a depiction of reality that is more honest and therefore, for the properly disposed viewer, even salutary.

          However, what about the *effect*–even allowing for a good *intent*? Not everyone will receive the piece, however constructed and intended, to the same effect. This is where I think that the comment is right on target that says we would not allow our 15-year-old to watch such things. Absolutely. And this has to do with how viewers of various ages and states of maturity are disposed to receive and to assess a scene. A moment of confession: When I was thirteen, I saw a miniseries that was supposed to teach the viewer Spanish. It did a great job. There was one scene where a woman, flushed with happiness at having just had a wonderful date, having returned to her hotel room *alone* threw herself back on her bed with a happy smile, fully clothed. I was thirteen, so the sighing rise and fall of her chest reminded me, well, of sex. I was thirteen, so I watched that moment five or six times because at that age breasts and their movement were, well, captivating. I was turning a perfectly innocent scene into a well-nigh-pornographic moment. Had I watched Mad Men at that age, I could easily have taken the most tragic moment of sexually-expressed folly and turned it into something enjoyable—because I wouldn’t have felt the emotional pain that the show works so hard to prepare in its viewers. I wouldn’t have gotten the *point* of that scene. This is why I don’t think that teenagers should ever be watching this show. The hormones are raging and, more importantly, they lack the life experience and emotional development to appreciate fully what is going on. At thirteen, wherein sexual activity and the pleasure that accompanies it is easily separable from relationships, I wouldn’t have profited from watching Mad Men, even though the sexual dimensions of relations are, well, part of relationships in that show. At thirteen, I could easily render pornographic what was not pornographic or illusory in its intent or presentation. That is why my children will not see Mad Men while they live in my house; this is why I will tell them not to watch it until they are older and (preferably) married.

          So why do I allow myself to watch this show and even to argue that it is a good thing? It is not that I am incapable of sexual arousal. I have no interest in porn but I am not so foolish as to claim that I would be immune to it if I decided to look at it. That’s why I’ll never look at it. Rather, at my stage of life, sexual arousal is located firmly in its role (at its best) in a relationship. The relationship that contextualizes the sexual interaction defines, for me, my perceptions of that interaction, to the point that I have merrily (and somewhat incorrectly) told a lot of people that “there are no sex scenes in Mad Men” precise because I hadn’t noticed them as “sex scenes” in the classic sense.

          But this also is why I would not therefore claim that every married man over the age of 30 should plunge into Mad Men. Subjective disposition matters. Not everyone will feel safe watching Mad Men and, moreover and more imporatntly, not everyone will profit from it. The insights that I have derived from Mad Men, I am confident, others might derive from elsewhere. Irrespective, even, ofwhether or not one is “safe” watching the show, they may find those insights elsewhere and be none the worse for having read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky rather than having watched Mad Men.

          That being said, I think that the distinctions that you introduce, Kathleen, help us to get at why Mad Men is not objectively “bad” but depends for its effect both on the intent and skill of its creators and on the subjective dispositions of its viewers. One must be discerning.
          Take care.

  2. I also want to say I am not some perfect person who’s never watched something I should. I struggle with this often, wanting to watch shows or movies with objectionable scenes and then finding myself watching shows and feeling like I am condoning actors participating in indecent acts on screen… It’s hard..

  3. To expand , Christy, on this question you asked a little more: “would also like to ask you how you feel about other sins being portrayed on film and if watching other sins being committed on screen makes us complicit and part of that sin as well?”

    Obviously, there is a distinction between acting out things that are illicit and actually doing them. Clearly, pretending to shoot someone in a war movie is not illicit. Actually shooting someone is. But there are some things that are always wrong to do, such as taking the Lord’s name in vain. Screaming terrible profanities about Christ would be an effective way to portray a character’s vulgarity, but it requires an actor to actually violate the 2nd Commandment. This is why you don’t rehearse the full wedding vows at a Catholic rehearsal; you will actually be married. Some things are always real. Pretending to kill someone does not violate the 5th Commandment. When the portrayal of sin actually requires the actors to do things that are intrinsically immoral (like graphic sexuality in public between unmarried people), they cannot be justified regardless of the end.

    The objectionable sex scenes we are subjected to involve actors ACTUALLY DOING things outside of the private and intimate context of marriage that we would be opposed to our adult children doing with significant others before they are married. Out of a concern for their souls we should not condone it. On a totally separate level, it is indecent and unchaste to watch it. I don’t think anyone here is arguing that watching people kiss chastely in public is the issue.
    I also challenge that the purpose of sex scenes in TV shows is not to sexually arouse. Of course it is, at least in part. That’s why it is included.

  4. Thanks for engaging in this conversation. Sorry, I should not have used the word “let” which I realize made me sound like I want to rule my family with an iron clad fist. I am trying to raise my kids with a spirit of freedom, because I know that we can not love or choose the good if we are not free. I meant, “would you feel uncomfortable if they decided to act out some of the scenes in Mad Men.”

    I believe with Dostoyevsky, that “beauty will save the world,” that good art appeals to our highest aesthetic ideals and leads us to truth. It’s why I, like you, enjoy talking about what constitutes good art. I work with high school girls and see how our overly sexualized shows, magazines, literature effects them in concrete and serious ways. I just don’t think sex scenes in films are good for the actors or the viewers.. and I was trying to explain why I thought it was fundamentally different than say a statue of Venus or Yeat’s rather intense poem “Leda and the Swan.” As I said before, I’ve see secular artists discuss these themes successfully while respecting the dignity and sacredness of the human body.

    The nature of blog comments probably lends itself to less constructive dialogue and more so to misunderstanding. I was trying to make a specific point and perhaps this was not the best venue to do so.

    Thanks for taking time to respond.

    1. Kathleen, no problem, thanks so much for listening to the podcast!

      I agree that in our society there are a heck of a lot of bad influences from media in our society, but I really feel that it’s in education people on what beauty and truth mean that we will become more discerning consumers of entertainment and hopefully encourage more well-made, well thought out productions. It’s a challenge, but an inspiring one, to bring together the beauty of the truths of the Church in harmony with the study and creation of art. It’s also good to remember that as Catholics, we have the fullness of teaching and are better able to see the underlying truths in art in our culture.

  5. Phew! I must say I really appreciate Kathleen’s comments and this discussion. I feel as if there is an elephant in the room. Though these shows do have artistic merit and are well-done, they are not something my family partakes in due to the gratuitous sex scenes. I feel in some circles I am labeling myself a prude by admitting I didn’t watch Downton Abbey after a few sex scenes left me rattled. Thanks, ladies. 🙂 Some of us feel called to a more guarded watching of media. If I wouldn’t watch it with my priest in the room, I don’t watch it.

    1. Dear Faith,

      Please see my rather long response to Kathleen, above (if the moderator has posted it). That doesn’t mean, of course, that you must watch it. I would feel comfortable watching it with my priest in the room, if he were comfortable.


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