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.