Hello mah beauties.
For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve recently become obsessed with the television show, Mad Men. Many people perceive it as a love/hate relationship, because I tweet things like “Mad Men makes me want to stab something while watching EVERY EPISODE.”
These tweets are misleading, however, as I don’t have ambiguous feelings about the show at all. I adore the show. I think it’s brilliant, and at least five times an episode there’s something that happens with the writing, or the cinematography, or the direction, that makes me marvel at the show’s genius.
What pisses me off (and what is supposed to piss me off) is the society Mad Men depicts. But it pisses me off in a good way, and it pisses me off in a way that I think our country needs to be pissed off, especially now.
After all, we’re living in a time of major economic difficulties. I’d love to be all upbeat as usual, but when it comes to the economy, I can’t. I think America has been living in a very luxurious bubble for a really long time (something that Mad Men addresses) and the fact is that bubble has to break. When half of the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, it’s a bit bizarre to assume we should all have our own McMansion, complete with multiple cars, flat screens, etc. The fact is that Americans are going to have to scale it back, and live like the rest of the world. But this is a difficult adjustment, and another sad fact is that major inequalities in our society mean that some still get to live the caviar lifestyle, undented, while others have lost everything. This makes people angry, and it makes people lash out against easy scapegoats. Age-old scapegoats for rough times have traditionally been the Other: other races, other religions, and other genders.
I have a lot of friends who shake their hands, wondering at the recent spate of attacks on women’s rights. Under the auspices of “pro-life” legislation, there are insane attempts to redefine rape and ever-increasing attacks on women’s health care (even Fox News reported on this one). I would argue that these are merely the more extreme symptoms of a more pernicious malaise: the idea that some people wish we could go back in time, to when things were “simpler.”
When confronted with America’s instability (both economic and social), with our countries ever-loosening grip on its role as the world’s sole Super Power, and the struggles with our own identity that these facts engender, is it any wonder that people are looking to the past for answers?
Especially when that past was so lovely, right? We’re involved in a “quagmire” of a war, when the war my grandparent’s generation fought is known simply as “The Good War.” Everyone had employment, and people stayed in those jobs until they retired. Children didn’t engage in inexplicable “flash mobs” (either of the dancing or the looting variety). Wives didn’t work 60 hours a week when their husband’s can’t even find a job, and they certainly didn’t divorce their husbands to “find themselves.”
It all sounds so great, right?
The fantasy does sound awesome. In a world where I confront about 50 decisions a day, where I see myself, my friends, and my students struggle to figure out how to make it in a world in which there are no more rules, even I understand the allure of a black and white world.
And that’s where Mad Men comes in. It is that golden world that we’ve heard discussed in hushed voices. A world in which the Greatest Generation strides the earth like lions, smoking up a storm and napping at work. At work! After having a four martini lunch!
Then there are the outfits, and the hair, and the garters. I swoon at the women’s garters, alone, and I imagine myself with enormous torpedo-shaped breasts, swanning around in about fifteen layers of lingerie, and petticoats, and dresses, while batting my luxurious fake eyelashes up at my gorgeously suited companion.
But let’s look under the proverbial petticoats of that world, something that isn’t hard, since Mad Men‘s genius is that it makes sure we do just that.
The structure of Mad Men is a bit like a call and response song. For every moment of glamour, beauty, luxury, and ease of lifestyle that’s depicted in Mad Men, there is an answering moment of pettiness, ugliness, poverty, and difficulty. Yes, the white women in the beautiful dresses go into powder their gorgeous noses in a luxurious bathroom. But the answering tableau is of the African American bathroom attendants peering out at the ladies as they leave, wondering how they’ll make a living now that the purses in fashion are too small to hold the tip money upon which the attendants live. Yes, Don’s beautiful wife Betty wears the singularly most gorgeous outfits we’ve ever seen, but she does so while sitting for hours and hours, smoking alone, at her kitchen table. Yes, the men all pull out the ladies’ chairs, but they also order for them, and this situation is a metaphor for their whole lives.
In fact, there are a hundred little carefully inserted needles an episode, puncturing the balloon that is the fantasy of Mad Men. For example, in the wonderful scene where Don’s secretary confronts her nemesis, the great beauty of the office, Don’s secretary says something about how she’s the first woman to write copy “since the war,” pointing out that part of the country’s current largess was due to the hard work of women who stepped up while the men were fighting, and who had to then step back into subservient roles when the men returned.
But the greatest triumph of Mad Men is what makes it so difficult to watch. When I first Tweeted that I was watching it, I had about a dozen people reply they couldn’t get past the first episode. And I had the same feeling. I wanted to punch everyone in the show in the face, hard, about fourteen times an episode. The women? They’re vain idiots, who fill me with a deep sense of shame and anger. The men? They’re monsters–silly boys who with no sense or sensibility, horrifyingly granted the powers of Mark Twain’s vicious child on the beach who destroys his sandcastles because he can.
It is here that I locate Mad Men’s singular power: it understands how, as we saw in the Plantation South, great beauty can be built upon grotesque underpinnings. We also see the fallout the various characters endure: the loneliness, spite, and eventual craziness of the women (Betty Draper’s shooting the pigeons with her cigarette dangling from her lips has to be one of my favorite TV moments ever), and the emotional paralysis of the men that has them shuttling between variously inappropriate women while competing with each other with the viciousness ofÂ fighting cocks.
And this is why I think everyone should watch Mad Men: because it does piss you off. Indeed, it wants to piss you off. Its power and its genius is that it makes you so angry about issues that we don’t even want to fight about any more. If I had a dime for every young, awesome, confident female student I’ve had that has blithely said, “I’m not a feminist, ew,” I’d be a millionaire. I think the feminist revolution was so successful that it’s easy to forget how recently we were empowered. Watching Mad Men’s women ask their husbands for money, or ask them whether it’s all right they work or pursue interests, or sit quietly despite desperately wanting to know about their husband’s lives is an amazing lesson in what our own realities could still be like, if we hadn’t had women willing to stand up for themselves, and for us.
So go watch Mad Men. Get really, really pissed off. Become absolutely horrified. Then think about what you’ve learned from those feelings, while you look around our own world.
See anything you don’t like?
And now for our Wieners from last week’s contest! The Contest Can has spoken!
The Wiener’s are Allison W., Holly K., and donnas! Email me at iheartselkies(at)gmail(dot)com with the name of ANY book on Amazon at $7.99 or under, with your address, and I’ll have it shipped to your door!
Thanks for playing, folks! Your comments were awesome and I’ve learned a lot. I’m really glad people are reading the blog, and I’m considering doing a newsletter, probably 2x a year.
Thanks again for all the comments.
12 thoughts on “Why Every Woman Needs Some Mad Men. Also, WIENERS!”
Excellent post! I think I just might have to get around to watching the show once I stop passing out the moment the Bug goes to bed. 🙂
This is brilliant. I love the show and I love how you've broken down its unsettling appeal. I totally second the pigeon-shooting scene. (Also, that scene with Don and Bobbie Barrett outside the restaurant bathroom? Talk about summing up an entire cultural pathology in a fifteen seconds…)
Great post Nicole. I think that what is happening in the US at the moment is reflected all around the 'first world' at the moment. It's happening here in Australia to a lesser degree as we haven't been hit as hard by the GFC (Global Financial Crisis). It makes my blood boil when I hear constant whinging about how hard it is to get by when you only earn $100,000.00 a year. My first thought is that if you cut some of the unecessary 'stuff' out of your life you'd probably be doing fine. The older I get the less I think I really need any of it. It's nice to have cool 'stuff' but not necessary to living you know? Everyone expects a little too much I reckon. And as for the backward looking societal changes…what can you say? At least there are people (as evidenced in these comments to start with) that can still think rationally. At least there'll be a few of us…
Wow that is a lot of “food for thought.” Your honest, compassionate, anger is stirring. I agree with it all. You comment about, “If I had a dime for every young, awesome, confident female student Iâ€™ve had that has blithely said, â€œIâ€™m not a feminist, ew,â€ Iâ€™d be a millionaire.” really hit home for me.
My freshmen year of college a professor once asked our class “How many of you are feminist?” and only three people held there hands up (one of which was my prof. a male).
I would love to say that I was one of those intrepid souls who threw-up their hands, but I was not. I had this ridiculous notion that a feminist was anything, but feminine and in my vanity I kept my hands at my side. I still look back at that moment and chagrin at my action (or lack there of).
He then asked “How many of you believe that a woman should have the right to decide how she lives her life?” To which practically everyone threw their hands up. He smiled and then said, “That’s all feminism is. The right to equality.”
I have no idea when I convinced myself that a woman’s willingness to dictate her own life on her own terms was not “lady like”. Through my years of reprograming I am glad to fine that I was utterly wrong; First of all for thinking that there is only one image that can correspond to the term feminine and Second for dismissing my rights as a woman for that image.
As a woman I thank you for posting this entry and am glad to see that you are fighting the good fight. Keep on roaring Ms. Peeler.
YES!!! I SECOND ALLLLLLL OF THAT!!!
What a great post! You rock.
It is so easy to forget how far we've come. Then you get an abrupt reminder…
I was recently denied a repair quote from a basement repair company because my husband wasn't there. My husband's name isn't on the deed. His name isn't on the loan. He's in GA trying to wrap up our life there and sell his house. This did not matter, the issue with the basement would not be assessed and no quote would be given–just a quote, not a commitment to repair–without my husband there for the repair assessment and estimate.
I was flabbergasted to say the least, it was like I'd slipped back into the 50's or something. The guy actually tried telling me it was "Ohio law". I called bull#$%t as I'd just had the kitchen remodeled, the pool fixed, and a new driveway dug, all without the DH being in attendance. I made him admit it was actually company policy. I told the gentleman: If you can't do business with me, then I don't do business with you. He left.
I have someone schedule to come and fix the basement later this month and not once during the quote process did he inquire about my marital status, the number of people living in the house or even who owned the house.
Pam: I LOVE those moments in Mad Men, like the picnic you described! It's so idyllic! It's so lovely! Then BAM they smack you in the face with the fact people littered, something that's so anathema now. And Don Draper is the hottest thing EVER. Just watched that episode last night where he makes the guy take off his hat cuz there's a lady in the elevator. I wanted to punch him and make out with him AT THE SAME TIME. Oh the tension.
Crissy: I totally just had a "shut your mouth" moment!!! I can't believe that happened to you!!! You should totally call the Better Business Bureau, cuz that is BULL SHIZ. Also, see you in October. 😉
Kayla: It’s great, I think you’d really enjoy it!
Damaris: I don’t think your reaction is something to be ashamed about, in the sense that the backlash against feminism was nearly as effective as feminism, itself. 😉 Thanks for posting here so honestly, I really appreciate it!
AJ: Which scene is that???
Anita: All of what you said is so true, and it’s something Mad Men talks about, in the sense that they’re the people (the ad men) who “create need.” So fun to think about! 😉 Thanks for posting!
I was ENAMORED with Mad Men the first few seasons. I admit I dropped off this last season, mostly because I had to drop something and sadly MM seemed to be it. But anyway, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of this show is OH MY GOD IT IS SO DEPRESSING. I would HATE to have to dress like that, and behave like that, and just ahhhhhhh! There are so many little things you notice along the way that are just so completely foreign to our lifestyles now. One that distinctly jumps out at me, is Don and Betty take the kids on a picnic and when they are done? THEY LEAVE EVERYTHING ON THE GROUND. There were no trashcans, or anything, they just upped and walked away leaving all their leftovers and trash on the ground. I have crazy mad love for Joan. Out of everyone in the show she is who I am able to empathize with the most, I WANT to empathize with Betty but she makes it so hard. What she does capture is just HOW FREAKING MISERABLE she is with her life… The show just captures the various super complex roles women played in the 50s-70s and it is fascinating but after every episode I found myself saying “holy shit I am so glad I didn’t live in the 50s….” I don’t know where you are at in terms of the seasons but your tweets totally entertain me because the show is a freaking enigma!!! And DAMN if Don Draper isn’t hot and I feel so wrong for lusting over him because he is such an asshole.I was WAITING for you to get to Betty shooting the pigeons!!!!!!!!!!!! I used to have her holding the shotgun with the cigarette hanging out of her mouth as my twitter avatar because DAMN if you don’t completely understand her coming undone! Anyway, enjoy watching, you’ll continue to become enraged and fascinated as the years progress forward. =)
I am exactly ONE episode in of the FIRST season and I am trying to get my head in gear for more. Same as everyone else here I both love it and can’t stand it. It makes me appreciate what amazing people my parents are…to have been raised in the south in small towns in the 30’s and 40’s. They ARE that generation. Yet my Mother played semi-pro basketball and my Dad thought that was the coolest thing ever. My Mom always had her own savings and checking account. In her own name. That was still VERY uncommon in the 50’s-70’s. I remember my Mom helping women friends of hers who were suddenly divorced who had never opened a bank account and had never written a check. They didn’t know how to do it. Nothing would piss my Mom off more than some yahoo insisting that her husband had to be present for a business transaction. That was, and still is, the quickest way to lose her business. Not too long ago she and my Dad, after having just retired to the country in Oregon, were at a John Deere dealer trying to buy a mower/tractor for her. Large mount of money about to be dropped. The salesman wouldn’t talk to Mom. He wouldn’t look at her and wouldn’t address her. Just kept telling Dad everything who kept throwing it all to Mom. Mom finally said, “Ya know what. I think I’ll take my business somewhere where the salespeople will talk to ME because I’M THE PERSON WITH THE MONEY IN HERE RIGHT NOW.” She left and drove to their competitor who was quite happy to talk to Mom and take her money. She’s 74 years old but seriously do NOT mess with my Mom.
… I don't know what to say about Mad Men view of the world. It shows the world in the light that no one wants to see it in. We have come a long way.
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