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Girdled: Mad Men and Gender Role Nostalgia

June 01, 2012 by in Blog

madmen

Season Five Reconsidered

Seen through Banana Republic-branded opera glasses, Mad Men is a girdled and chi chi little performance, all teak side boards and New Wave cuts of chain smoking and conversation. Matthew Weiner’s little baby hit the sun-fried airwaves in the summer of 2007 like a cold and stylish splash of gin and it owed its success as much to its impossibly kitschy-cool interiors as to its tack sharp writing. Even as Mad Men was exposing the sordidness under and on Sterling Cooper’s retro couches, the tedium of life in Betty’s plaid kitchen and hot curlers, and the steel-plated undergarments beneath Joan’s vavavoom, we were fetishizing and merchandizing its impossible look. Shirtwaist dresses, wiggle skirts, and midcentury décor flooded malls and a thousand slick editorials pined after 60s fashions and their stitched-in gender relations (http://www.tomandlorenzo.com/2010/05/vogue-uk-far-from-heaven-2.html). Apparently decades of comfortable women’s wear and sober employment had us yearning for the bullet bras and permed posturing of another era, for workplace drinking and gentlemen’s accounts. Our favorite characters were chafing, sometimes literally, under their clothes, their narrow gender roles and expectations just as we were eagerly buying into them.

We forget that Mad Men is about unraveling this atomic age idyll—a post-war utopia that wasn’t so perfect up close after all. Pre-noon drinking hid not-so-functional alcoholism and a man’s executive account, his privileges and his secrets, could wreck a marriage and chew up a young woman. The first seasons of Mad Men are a documentary of this nuclear Rome’s fall—and the willful obliviousness of its inhabitants, sucking down lead-laced G&Ts. Don and Co. were chic but they were already running on borrowed time, burrowing beneath their mini-bars and their stylized manners, hunkering down in a fabulous fifties bomb shelter against change.  And we adopted Don’s calculated amnesia—his mantra that it “never happened”—and eagerly erased or ignored a sixties and a Mad Men that didn’t fit into our Kodak Carousel of merchandized nostalgia. This Mad Men was a high gloss finish over rotting wood and as consumers, and sometimes as viewers, we couldn’t see beyond the shine. In retrospect, the early sixties is an endless double martini lunch and Mad Men is a restrained, stylized swoon, an ode to a bygone time—not the swan song of a dying empire of privilege.

Season five, now hurtling through 1967, is more blunt, full of loud patterns, pop culture intrusions, and mega-phoned themes. And the commentariat has been grumbling, claiming a season of ham-fisted themes (envy! happiness!) and shoe-horned topicality (The Rolling Stones! Hare Krishna!) represents a breaking point, the shark-leaping end of Mad Men’s subtlety. But is a season stuffed with ripped-from-the archives stories and desperate, drastic measures so much of a departure for the show? Aren’t historical topicality and radical choices an appropriate way of depicting the late 60s? This is the era when the bomb shelter of white, male affluent privilege came under assault: as the fifth season opens protestors are literally gathering at the gates. As activism has become impossible to ignore and kids in protest pins and white go-go boots have started dictating policies and tastes, Don and his ilk seem increasingly out of touch. Man Men hasn’t thrown its characters from their rarefied, 37th floor tombs yet but their privileged, if unhappy, lives are looking increasingly rickety and the demonstrations on the street below ever closer. The white carpet is getting stained, Don’s speeches are ringing hollow, and Mad Men and its world are looking a little less polished.

But first let’s get rid of the idea that Mad Men isn’t the kind of show to employ season finale shockers and soapy plot twists. Primetime schedules bursting with poisonings, bomb threats, and extraneous aircraft disasters have clearly desensitized us to the old shocks of pregnancy and truth-telling. A show that has produced two interoffice love children, one in perhaps the greatest bait-and-switch of the last decade (Peggy isn’t fat, she’s enceinte (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNZxb0wXZg4)!) and simultaneously exploded our hero’s office and marriage at the end of the third season clearly isn’t afraid of theatrics. Mad Men burns slowly over its thirteen episode arcs but it’s clearly not afraid to detonate drama. A show that hanged its protagonist’s brother in the season and laid the blame squarely on that hero can certainly kill off an SCPD partner in the fifth. And show that finger banged Bobbie Barrett and strapped Peggy into a glorified vibrating girdle can certainly march Joan off to a client’s bedroom. Mad Men is unruffled and restrained but only until the John Deere tractor runs over someone’s foot and blood splatters like a horror movie.

And these dramatic season five developments, Lane’s suicide and Joan’s prostitution, aren’t ratings bait or manufactured water cooler moments. They’re the reactions of people forced into inflexible gender roles, rotting in unhappy marriages and laboring unrecognized in swanky offices. They’re a testament to the double violences of a patriarchal system, the narrow spaces men too occupy as they wedge women into tighter dresses and tighter roles. Lane’s upright sense of masculine propriety pushed him to commit suicide rather than admit failure and start again. His decline was a series of emasculations, sobbed in front of Don, broad-shouldered pillar of masculinity; was reprimanded for his leering flirtation by Joan; and was purchased a Jaguar—the car of open-road male freedom—by his wife.

Unlike Lane, Joan has always occupied her gender role perfectly—“Joan isn’t a Marilyn, Marilyn is a Joan”—and turned an objectifying, ass-pinching patriarchal culture to her advantage. But as Joan used her wiggle and jiggle to climb the office ladder she was capitulating to and reinforcing a dangerously misogynist system, one whose stares and sly jokes about her breasts escalated to explicit demands for her body. When she sought love and a marriage, her fiancé raped her on the floor of Don’s office. And if she broke the glass ceiling at SCDP she only did so by bartering with her body and dignity. If the partners were initially horrified by Pete’s proposal, they came around quickly. They’d been fetishizing those curves for more than a decade; bundling them off to client’s office was hardly a leap from doodling and smirking at their owner behind her back. It’s hardly a coincidence that she wore the fur coat Roger purchased her in the show’s fifties flashback to her rendezvous: men have been bartering for her for years.

Ultimately these season five bombshells—suicide and prostitution—are the rotten outcomes of the suave office culture and stylish male entitlement we so admired in the first seasons. Seven of Mad Men’s nine writers are women and they’re working hard to dismantle that early 60s cheeky cool misogyny, or at least to show the nasty flaws and violences beneath its winks and its lunch hour sex. But Mad Men isn’t just about that older generation withering away under its tight gender roles and perfect appearances. It’s also about a younger generation that’s rebelling against them. As Joan used her body to advance, Peggy made a triumphant departure from SCDP, one that had Don literally groveling at her feet. It was the show’s best and boldest assertion of girl power, an optimistic declaration that, nostalgia be damned, what comes next will be even better than what came before.

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