Don Draper vs Jenny Schecter: The Sexist Battle of the TV Anti-Heroes

don draper versus jenny schecter

There’s no character in the queer TV canon as universally reviled as Jenny Schecter. She holds the distinction of being loathed by lesbian and bisexual fans as much as she is by mainstream critics. Even now, almost a decade after The L Word‘s final season, with LGBTQ+ representation at unprecedented heights, we still hold her up as our ultimate villain. Her name is a curse, a swear, a shortcut for derision. She is a model of bad behavior.

A few years ago, during her run on SYFY’s post-apocalyptic space-western, Defiance, I interviewed Mia Kirshner, and our conversation inevitably turned to Jenny. Kirshner loved Jenny. She was surprised when I said I loved Jenny, too (she laughed), but when I compared Jenny to Don Draper she was stunned into silence. She’d spent years hearing from every person inside and out of the queer women’s community that Jenny Schecter was nothing more than a crazy bitch. “You think Jenny’s like Don Draper?” she asked after a very long pause, and when I listed the reasons why I did, she laughed again and said, “Whoa.”

Jenny and Don were both survivors of abuse and trauma inflicted on them in childhood, adults who’d settled into idyllic lives with adoring partners, and then burned it all down. They were both selfish, petulant, erratic narcissists; both constantly promising themselves and other people they’d get better, do better; and failing in the face of perpetual existential crisis and a self-destructive lack of impulse control. They self-harmed. They were endlessly petty with their critics. They were great observers of the human condition with the ironic inability to parse out their own motivations. They pushed and pushed away the people who saw them for who they really were, the people who really loved them. They demolished their lives, the things they claimed were important to them, systematically, in perpetuity.

The main difference between them, of course, is that Don Draper was endlessly rewarded in his show and in the real world, while Jenny Schecter was mercilessly punished in both.

“I’ve been doing these really terrible things.”

The Golden Age of TV is a playground for the white male anti-hero, and you don’t have to dig very deep into critical or fandom discourse to see the sexism at play in the way we talk these men compared to their women counterparts. Draper, Dexter, Tony Soprano, Nick Brody, Dr. House — they’re fascinating, sly, cheeky, sexy, charming, compelling, riveting. They don’t need to be likable. Men behave badly. Nurse Jackie, though? She’s psychotic. Patty Hewes? Ruthless. Nancy Botwin? Unhinged.

Nowhere is this double standard more apparent than on Breaking Bad. Walter White is a violent, manipulative, pathological narcissist and meth dealer. His main foil — which is to say: the moral compass of the show — is his wife, Skylar. It seems cut and dry that she’s the good guy in their fictional world and he’s the bad guy, but that’s the opposite of internet consensus. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed titled “I Have a Character Issue,” Anna Gunn detailed the bewildering anger and loathing she encountered while playing Skylar.

“A typical online post complained that Skyler was a ‘shrieking, hypocritical harpy’ and didn’t ‘deserve the great life she has,'” Gunn wrote. “[She] was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.'” And the vitriol didn’t stop on the “I Hate Skyler White” Facebook pages and message boards; some viewers ultimately turned on Gunn herself. “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” was a typical comment she encountered.

This TV Golden Age double standard isn’t something that’s been noted only by women. Former A.V. Club TV Editor and current Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff made huge waves in 2014 when he wrote about how his fellow critics and the commenters at the A.V. Club held men and women TV characters, and male- and female-fronted TV shows, to completely different standards. He invited readers to scroll down the comments of his article — or, in fact, any TV recap or review — and defy his observation that male TV characters could be lauded for the worst behavior, while women had to be both likable and fuckable to avoid ridicule and scorn. He even called out his own response to early episodes of Laura Dern’s Enlightened. “The show was called everything from annoying to self-involved — just like any number of too-emotional women who are often up in people’s personal space,” he wrote.

“Do you remember the shit that happened to you as a kid that made you not want to trust people as an adult?”

What makes Jenny Schecter and Don Draper’s juxtaposition especially interesting and increasingly relevant is that both of their stories centered on them being tortured artists. They both dissociated when they relived their past traumas; they both suffered breaks from reality because of their childhood abuse; and they both used their anguish to fuel their art.

It’s no surprise that Jenny’s tortured artistry earned her contempt while Don’s earned him respect. Lord Byron laid the groundwork for celebrating male “creative geniuses” behaving badly in both his poetry and his life in the 1800s; and, until very recently, we’ve never questioned the veracity of the trope.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Tara Isabella Burton published a brilliant piece for Vox examining the through line from Byron to Weinstein. “The ‘Byronic anti-hero’ has endured, from the tormented, disaffected Pechorin of Russian Romantic Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time to the Draco in Leather Pants of Harry Potter fanfiction,” she wrote.

Of course, these types of men aren’t just rewarded in fiction. There’s Weinstein, of course. But in the tidal wave of the #MeToo movement, dozens of famous women writers have spoken out about their encounters with men like him. For New York Magazine Emma Cline described powerful men in the publishing industry groping her, following her, making persistent and unwanted drunken advances on her with promises of promoting or ruining her career depending on how she responded. A few years earlier Claire Vaye Watkins’ Tin House essay “On Pandering” described similar harassment by men in the industry, specifically The Rumpus’ Stephen Elliott, who belittled her in his public newsletter when she refused to have sex with him. “I’m not presenting Stephen Elliott as a rogue figure,” she wrote, “but as utterly emblematic.”

In Burton’s Vox piece she details her own harassment at the hands of famous writers and editors, and offers forth similar experiences recounted by dozens of women in other publications at the hands of different men.

For Byronic heroes, their creativity and keen intelligence sets them apart. The rewards for their mental and emotional struggles are popular praise and a ceaseless supply of women willing to fuck them. Women, in fact, exist almost solely to be fucked.

Don Draper knew that, and Jenny Schecter did too. To be a woman, she explained to her predatory roommate Mark, is to “walk out that door and… walk down the street, and anybody that wants to fuck you, say, ‘Sure! Sure! No problem!’ And when they do, you have to say, ‘Thank you very, very much.’ And make sure that you have a smile on your face.”

“I’m not suicidal, I just fucked up my life a little bit.”

You don’t have to watch prestige dramas or premium cable, or read The Romantic poets to engage with this idea. Look no further than Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars, one of the top-rated, most written about, most tweeted about shows of the last decade. Tortured “genius”/high school literature teacher Ezra Fitz seduced one of his 15-year-old students to infiltrate her friend group so he could stalk and surveil their every movement in an attempt to write a true crime novel about their murdered friend. Over the course of the show, he exploited his power at every turn, his nefarious and illegal actions perpetually hand-waved away as him being simply “too romantic for his own good.” Ezra ended the show a fan favorite, a best-selling novelist married to the adult woman he’d seduced when she was too young to drive a car.

Compare him to Alison DiLaurentis, whose crime was being a ninth grade mean girl, and who also happened to be a victim of stalking and sexual assault by her brother and his friends. To atone for her teenage bitchiness, she was married off to a sociopath who drugged her into oblivion, chained her to a bed, and raped her to impregnate her with someone else’s fertilized sperm and ovarian eggs. Thus “redeemed,” she was finally worthy of happiness and the love of a main character.

Pretty Little Liars is unique in the propagation of the Byronic hero in that it was showrun and executive produced by an openly gay woman. Most TV shows that prop up these tropes — like most TV shows, period — are written, produced, directed, and edited by men.

According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women comprised 27-28% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography in the 2016-2017 TV season.

In her lauded New York Magazine piece, “Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People,” Rebecca Traister traced statistics like these to their logical end point. “In aggregate, when the statues are of white men,” she wrote, “and the buildings and cities and bridges and schools are named after white men, the companies are run by white men and the movie stars are white men and the television shows are about white men and the celebrated authors are white men, the only humanity that is presented as comprehensible — the kind that succeeds and fails, that comprises strength and weakness, that feels love and anger and alienation and fear, that embodies nuance and contradiction, that can be heroic and villainous, abusive and gentle — is the humanity of white men.”

“I mean, I try really hard.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation I had with Mia Kirshner a lot lately, about the canonization of the male anti-hero and how our minds have helplessly yielded to the idea that white men, alone, deserve compassion in the grey areas or at the edges of their humanity. I’ve been thinking about women navigating a society defined by the white men who control an industry that shields them from recourse against accusations of abuse, assault, and harassment. I’ve been thinking about how those white men continue to create TV shows and movies that perpetuate the centuries-old belief that they aren’t beholden to society’s rules or standards, stacking impunity and power on top of impunity and power.

Most recently I thought about Don Draper and Jenny Schecter when I watched Donald Trump speak at a political rally the very day his former campaign manager was convicted on eight counts of financial fraud and his former personal lawyer and fixer pleaded guilty to a variety of serious charges, both of which seemed to further implicate Trump in any number of high crimes. He stood on the podium that day, head held high, and led his followers in the blood-thirsty refrain millions of people who voted for him still sing — “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”

On the last season of Mad Men, Don Draper blew up his life (again) and set off in his car heading west. Critics and fans speculated that he’d kill himself, or that he’d be murdered, that he’d pay the price, on-screen, for seven seasons of destructive behavior and self-absorption. In the final moments of the show, having thrown off even his protégé Peggy Olson, the one person who’d stood by him through it all, he sat down on the grass in a field overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He closed his eyes. He hummed. A ding! He conceived “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” the greatest ad campaign of all time.

Jenny Schecter died face down in a pool, and her friends spent the final season of The L Word explaining why she’d fucking deserved it.


Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1037 articles for us.

54 Comments

  1. YES. I always related to Jenny (at least in the beginning, before she got character-assassinated in both the literal and non-literal sense), and it’s only since re-watching the show for the third time or so that I realized how badly she was treated by fans, the writers, and the other characters. I used to have an “I killed Jenny” pin that I’m now kind of ashamed of.

    Thank you for this piece!!

  2. Admittedly, I haven’t watched all the shows referenced (I’ve seen all PLL; all Weeds; all but last season of Mad Men), but speaking as a white male, I *liked* Nancy Botwin. She was intelligent, resourceful, funny, and yeah, hot. What isn’t to like? That said, I find a large difference between the “Byronic Hero” and the examples of Harvey Weinstein and Ezra freakin’ Fitz. A Byronic Hero would NOT treat women as Weinstein did, and in fact would act exactly the opposite. Rhett may have flirted madly, but he was always respectful. So was Spike (well, to actual people, not the happy meals with legs), and mostly, so was Damon (Only seen first three seasons, so may need correction). What Weinstein did was loathsome on any and every level — I think even in Gilead his behaviour would be frowned upon. And Fitz only *wished* he was Byronic … moronic, more like.

    • Interesting points, @mrcrinkles. Unfortunately it’s not possible to sugarcoat the fact that Spike attempted to rape Buffy or that Rhett likely raped Scarlet. Rhett was respectful to Melanie (the saint) but rarely to Scarlet (the whore). But it’s true that at the end they’re both given the mantle of hero despite their bad acts.

      • With Rhett it’s open to interpretation, I think. Certainly if it was rape, Scarlett didn’t seem too upset about it. Now with Spike, you’re completely correct. He did attempt to rape Buffy. And once he realised that, he was so horrified that he went off and got his soul back. Don’t really see Harvey Weinstein going thru the trials anytime soon, you know?

        • Mark, man, I’ve tried to be a cool chill gal here and let you have your feelings, but you are a white guy on a queer women’s website who just said “If this character was raped, she didn’t seem too upset about it” as justification for I don’t even know what. If she didn’t show that she was upset about rape, it wasn’t rape? Or if she didn’t seem upset about it, it wasn’t a bad rape? Or…? I don’t even know. The point you seem to be trying to make is that Weinstein is bad-bad and these characters you’ve listed as Byronic heroes are only a little bad — not bad enough for the women they raped to stay mad at them — and so it’s not fair to draw a line from Byron to Weinstein? That’s a terrible argument, proven by the fact that it’s unraveled right here before you. Either way, don’t defend rape, dude. That’s gross as hell.

        • Mark, if this is something you didn’t know, because, I don’t know what your excuse could possibly be, but I will say this exactly one time: YOU CANNOT JUDGE IF ANOTHER PERSON HAS BEEN RAPED BASED ON HOW THEY REACT WITHIN THE SITUATION AND/OR TO THEIR ATTACKER GENERALLY. Period.

      • Hi all. First, I loved the article and have been thinking about it for awhile so I’m late to the discussion. I hope you’ll bear with my many opinions.

        I’m not sure why Rhett was chosen as a Byronic hero by Marc. Rhett wasn’t an artist and didn’t try to absolve his behavior as excusable. He knew exactly who and what he was and changed when he realized his daughter would be hurt by his behavior. That isn’t Byronic.

        Also, I don’t recall anything in the text that suggested he raped Scarlet. He understood her better than anyone, including Scarlet herself. He treated her with respect and gave her everything she wanted. He would call her on her behavior but I don’t consider honesty and teasing (as he did both) to be disrespectful. He knew Scarlet, liked and loved her for who she was, not just who she pretended to be and that is a valuable thing.

        Anyone condoning rape in any way is obviously wrong and that is not what I’m saying. I just don’t think the rape was something that happened. Scarlet was in serious denial about a lot of things and I believe if she had really not wanted Rhett in her bed, he wouldn’t be there. Over and over she finds herself shocked by what actually makes her happy. If she hadn’t enthusiastically responded, he would have left.

    • What?!!! Spike didn’t try to get his soul back after trying to rape Buffy, he tried to get the chip out so he could be dangerous again and exact his revenge against the scoobie gang (because how dare Buffy deny him sex? Thats clearly punishable by death). The only reason why he got a soul was because he was an idiot and wasn’t careful about the wording of his wish

      Also Damon raped Caroline over and over at the beginning of seaso. 1, and his equivalent of a tantrum was to kill Jeremy (who had a ring but Damon didn’t know that) to punish Elena.

      How does that make them respectful to women??? I am baffled again by the cis man’s ability to edit out sociopathic behaviours in men because they, idk, fed a kitten once.

      Way to prove Heather’s point in this piece, Dude!

      • Well. That certainly did not go well. First off, to be clear, I was not attempting to excuse or condone rape and/or sexual assault in any way shape or form, whether within a marriage (Rhett & Scarlett) or the context of a *seriously* messed-up relationship (Spike & Buffy) or in any other fashion. I am *VERY* sorry that I did not choose my words more carefully, and I completely apologise for any distress I may’ve inadvertently caused. Queer Girl is quite correct; I do know better and I ought to have been more careful. I am sorry for that. The fault was entirely mine for … both what I said and how I said it. Thank you, all, for … correcting me (and becos I know it’s difficult to distinguish tone, I am NOT being facetious or sarcastic — one of the things I like most about Autostraddle is that it helps me learn how I need to change my thinking, so I *do* thank all of you).

        That being said … Heather, you are correct in that I was trying to say that it is … not really fair to Baron George to call Harvey Weinstein and his ilk “Byronic”. For one thing, the Byronic type is typically portrayed as broody, melancholic, pensive, etc — Harvey always seems happy about his crimes, not tortured by them. For another, the typical Byronic hero is “excused” (in quotes, becos there really is no excuse) for their behaviour becos of their creativity — while this does apply to Don, from what I understand, no one — not even Harvey, I believe — is saying he ought to be excused becos of his creativity; Harvey’s excuse is based on his position of power in the entertainment industry. And excusing assholes becos of their power goes back *way* further than Lord Byron. That is all I was trying to convey.

        Again, I am … I am ashamed that I didn’t choose my words more carefully, and that what I said came out sounding as if I was defending rape. That was never my intention, and I am sorry.

      • Hi Chloe,

        On the Buffy thing, I’m sorry, but if you rewatch the scene, which I did so I’d be sure, Spike says things deliberately misleading because Joss Whedon loves to do that sort of thing. He says things like “Give the Slayer what she deserves” and stuff like that to make everyone think he is going all evil, but the demon asks if he understands and he is clear about what he wants and that is to be the man Buffy wants.

        Don’t forget, Spike was an asshole a lot of the time, but he was always all about love. He would have done anything for Drusilla and eventually he feels the same for Buffy. She couldn’t be with him as he was so he wanted to be free to be himself and earn her love. He works hard to redeem himself. He was legit horrified about almost raping Buffy and that was without a soul.

        Now, if you are still reading, you are totally right about Damon. He raped Caroline repeatedly and used her in all sorts of horrible ways. I’ve only watched the first season or two so I don’t know if he did manage to redeem himself. I know Caroline kicked his ass, which was a start.

        I do think the writers hadn’t realized how charismatic the trio would be and they backpedaled how bad Damon was. I know he still did awful things, but I do think the writers would like to retcon a lot of it. But yeah, charming as he was, he was a dick.

  3. Thank you Heather for this phenomenal piece. You are such a gifted writer. I have been saying this ever since Breaking Bad because i LOATHED Walter and thought very highly of Skylar. Whenever someone says their favoru=ite character is Walter all alarm bells go off. I hadn’t made the connection to Jenny yet, I always thought she was so fricking annoying in the L Word. Maybe I should rewatch all seasons (even the horrible later ones) with this essay in mind :-)

  4. I haven’t seen The L word yet, but I definitely will. I know little about it, but yes, I knew Jenny was “THE EVIL” though I had no real idea why. From what I read, I absolutely agree that Jenny would have been adored if she had been a man. It’s really sad how deeply double standards go and I’m ashamed when I see them in myself.

    I’ve watched a lot of Mad Men and Pretty Little Liars; one big reason I stayed with Liars was for the awesome Heather recaps. I always hated what they did to Alison. They decided to ‘redeem’ her by not only torturing her, but by removing her personality and her skills. It hurt to watch and I never liked Alison. I wanted Emily and Paige to end up together but mostly I wanted Ezra to end up alone.

    I read the article on Vox about Weinstein and thought hard about it all. I agree with the poster that said he wasn’t Byronic. I don’t think the Trump thing is Byronic either. Both of them are pure abuse of power. I read a great article on Daily Kos about how Trump is a cult and fits every criteria. I think that is closer to true for him and Weinstein. It’s okay cause of money and power, not excusable as artistic bad boy behavior.

    Still, the whole Jenny gets terribly harshly judged when Don gets adored is painfully true. It happens over and over. Like another poster, I haven’t watched Breaking Bad or the Sopranos. I understand they are supposed to be great shows and all but the leads are terribly off-putting and knowing they will be lionized makes me reluctant to start watching. I just started watching Wynonna Earp and I’m hoping she continues as flawed heroine worth watching. We need more of the female anti-hero.

  5. Anti-heroes I have a Pity, Despise, Admire Aspects Of thing and well I pity Jenny.

    Despise Don Draper and a lot of male “anti-heroes” for what they have and just threw away.
    Product I guess of having a learning disability and struggling to reach average I having an instant loathing for people that piss away their advantages and good fortune that intensifies when it’s a character being propped up like a super cool rebel idol.

  6. If only the world were this simple…
    The only difference between them is their gender? Nope. Nope. Nope.

    Bc the main difference is that don was actually a creative genius in ways we as an audience could understand and be in awe of.

    He had a unique point of view on the world and humans.

    Jenny only thought she did. And her work was self indulgent and shitty.

    Don was a tortured genius- Jenny was a wannabe.

    She was disingenuous and playing a part- that’s what made her insufferable.

    Don wasn’t precious about his work- his whole job was manipulation and he knew it. It was never about his own self expression.

    Jenny was a self indulgent hack.

    The work is the lens for me.

  7. Still stuck on this.

    We love don Bc we see him try to be a good person and fail over and over and it’s heartbreaking Bc it’s all of us.

    We hate Jenny Bc she never seeks anything but the fulfillment of her own power. Don doesn’t want power consciously, people give it to him. Jenny wants control.

    Blame the L words writers, but this is way way way more complex than you are making it sound. The reason it resonates with the actress is that she HAS to empathize with Jenny to play her.

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