Friday, August 14, 2009

Going mad for Mad Men? What's with the feminist love?

For the past few weeks the blogosphere has been buzzing about the premiere of season 3 of AMC's critically acclaimed Mad Men. Feminist after feminist blogger has declared her love for the show and its portrayal of gender roles in 1960s America.

At some points I found myself enjoying the show. The drama was interesting. Some of the characters are incredibly compelling. Everyone can play armchair psychologist while they watch the show. "Pete Campbell has such daddy issue and a huge case of white privilege. " "Peggy is trying so hard to shake the repression she faced growing up, but she can't even fully decide if it was a bad thing." So it has that appeal. Plus, an article in the London Review of Books after the first season really sums up its other sources of appeal perfectly:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.

Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.

Sooner or later, though, unless you watch the whole series with the sound off, you will have to face up to the story.

And the main gist of the story centers around Don Draper. And Don Draper is a real asshole. And that's really what I can't get over when I watch this show. He's a terrible person, and the people around him are worshipping terrible people. That or their victims of the terrible people. And I get so tired of the psuedo-edgy male protagonists in dramas these's nothing new. It's been around at least since Joseph Conrad in the 1890s. The detached male figure, isolated, trying to figure out his identity in a crazy, mixed up, modern world. It's so cliche. And what bothers me even more is that he's portrayed as being so dreamy. He's an asshole, and yet his fellow characters, and even progressives who watch, seem to admire him. You might know he's a sexist, capitalist, narcissistic asshole, but you can't help but gawk at his beauty, his power, his smooth talking.

I think there's a desire to see a lot more subversion in this show than is there. I just can't see the depiction of patriarchy and racism and economic injustice as subversion, if it's never called those things, and the man who stands as their champion is our hero. Yeah, we see a lot of misogyny, and every once in awhile we see a little hope that the women on the show just aren't going to take it any more. But that's not a startling critique of society -- society then or now. It's just a depiction of society in the 1960s.

I think it's part of an artistic cowardice among progressive artists these days that creator Michael Weiner betrays in choosing this approach. They want to show negative social structures, but they don't want to get preachy, because they don't want to alienate people who might still believe in those structures. They'd rather keep their audience big. They want to show self-congratulatory folks how far we've come and how bad things were and make them think they're watching a good piece of criticism, but they don't want to turn off the people who remain misogynists and racists among us, at least not entirely. While some of us are seeing the sexism in the show as exactly that, vintage sexism from a time before the women's movement of the 1960s, others might see it as simply a portrayal of how things once were, and maybe even, be able to watch the show and go on thinking those gender relationships were just fine. Don Draper is sexy. And rich. And he gets everything he wants, even if he is torturing himself a little inside. It's doesn't look all that bad, in the end.

And let's face it, there's something intoxicating about the show and all of its sin, and I don't just mean the incredible amount of alcohol the characters consume. These people are attractive. They have very sexy sex. And the nostalgia of years past, even if we can recognize the social ills of the time, appeals to us at some level, even if it's not the old fashion or the traditional family, but something like the smell of social change in the air. I can understand the desire to try to read more subversion into the show than is actually there. Watching the show has some pleasure in it, so it's not unbelievable we'd want to think we're doing more than we are by watching it.

I just wish we could watch shows like this and acknowledge what it is we like about them, not try to turn them into the works of art for social justice and social commentary that they aren't even trying to be. Showing sexism is not the same thing as fighting sexism or even labeling sexism. And it isn't necessarily progressive in any way (Even Jezebel's feature on "15 Feminist Moments From Mad Men" is really just a list of moments where sexist things happened to women). Let's just face the fact that at the end of the day, watching a drama about Don Draper and the madness of the 1960s is good entertainment. There's little redeeming about him, and as far as I can see, little redeeming about the show and its take on anything, including gender roles.

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