Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mad Hoc: Episode 1, Defining the Mad Men universe

Today brings a new, collaborative weekly television feature: Mad Hoc. Deeply Problematic blogger extraordinaire RMJ and I are huge Mad Men fans, and we both love to read all the recaps and discussions about the show.  However, we also feel like the show gets a pass sometimes because it's so good in many respects that we as viewers assume that Matthew Weiner knows all and is perfect.  And RMJ and I have something to say about that.  So each weeek, we're going to chat about the new episode, in the style of Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess’s “Sexist Beatdown." We’ll discuss a mixture of general issues and episode specifics, viewing it all through both our cranky feminist lenses, and our huge fan goggles!  These posts will usually appear on Monday or Tuesday following a new episode. 

Coca Colo: Ok, so, I think it would also be good and proper for me to tell you a tiny bit about myself and my Mad Men background: I'm a grad student, phd in economics.  And, I actually haven't watched every episode of Mad Men!  I am very into it, and read lots of blogs about it, but I haven't seen all of season three.
RMJ: I am 24, living in Virginia (originally from Kansas!). I graduated from a women's college two years ago, live with my boyfriend and two cats, work as a composition tutor.
Coca Colo: Oh, and since you do such a good job of unpacking privilege on your blog, that's something we should make explicit, and keep in mind with regard to these posts. I'm half white, able-bodied, straight, cis, size-privileged.
RMJ: Good idea! I am white, mental disabilities/physically abled, straight, cis, fat with some size privilege, class privileged.

Coca Colo: One of my things with Mad Men, getting into content now, is that it's allll about sexy whiteness and wealth. And it's not just that, it's that there is a certain amount of goo-goo-ga-ness to its presentation of whiteness and wealth.
RMJ: Yeah no kidding. That was definitely present here, with the multiple fancy interviews in fancy restaurants and the whole “TimeLife building! Two floors! Wow!”  I often feel like they're giving a nod to civil rights, as with the reference to Andrew Goodman, without seriously addressing it the way they do feminism.
Coca Colo: Even with the white people, they show there are major problems beneath the facade, but we're supposed to ooh and ah at Betty's clothes. Within that framework of showing an admittedly very appealing fantasy, how much can you be subversive?
RMJ: Well, but is it supposed to be a fantasy? I mean, I think it's supposed to be "gritty" and "revealing" to a certain extent.  Like "this is what your grandma's sex life was REALLY like! In the CAR! Have you EVER!" And “people were RACIST and women were DISCRIMINATED AGAINST! My stars!” Which is a revelation...for rich white people
Coca Colo: Yes, I agree, but I just meant that part of what they draw viewers in with is how sexy and luxurious it is. It's not a fantasy life, but it plays on our fantasies.

RMJ: Also, while I think they're doing a great job of portraying problems with women and work and the home, it's not like "the feminist mystique" is really radical in 2010.
Coca Colo: It's 1964 now, and the Feminine Mystique has just been published, right? So I wonder if they will push that farther in this new season, if they will dig into the source of Betty's ennui. We've seen her move from her troubled marriage with Don into a relationship with Henry that doesn't seem to contain any more satisfying elements, except that at least he's still enthralled by her.
RMJ: I think that's going to be Betty's major arc - she's trying to recapture the whole "thrill of the chase" once again.  And I think that is a relevant critique, considering how much "rules"/Cosmopoliton nonsense women are still filled with today, where romance and being desired and protected are the most important components of a relationship, rather than respect or partnership.
Coca Colo: Absolutely. Betty and Don never had a relationship on adult terms, it was about her being a child and seeing how far she could push him and what the limits of her power over him were. And speaking of "rules", we saw a lot of that with "Betty junior", Don's date who knew better than to let a man "walk you to your door" while rich husband shopping.
RMJ: Yup. Don has moved on from that whole “get married have babies” ideal family mantra, it seems.  I'm not exactly sure where they're taking his character, but I'm intrigued.
Coca Colo: Yes. Many people have pointed out that Betty gets a lot of grief for her parenting, but Don has it easier--he just shows up, gives hugs, lets them watch tv, and then drops out again.
RMJ: Yeah. Don basically gets parades for not abusing his children, which is great and all, particularly for the time period, but Betty was just dropped into this without a choice. It's a good demonstration of why motherhood should be a practical choice.
Coca Colo: Yes, yes, yes. How should she feel about her three kids, given the situation under which she had them, particularly the last?

RMJ: And of course, Carla's childcare is almost totally erased.  I think it's interesting how Betty's relationship with her caretaker was kind of idealized, whereas we never see Bobby and Sally's relationship with Carla.
Coca Colo: I agree with you about her presence being interestingly erased. I don't know what the "rules" are for inclusion as a character in Mad Men, versus someone who only gets to be onscreen when one of the designated characters is onscreen, you know? For example, Betty has been given the "character" designation, so we get to see her without Don, even though she doesn't work at the office, but most other people's homelives, we only see when they're there - no scenes of Jane alone, or Joan's fiance.
RMJ: Or Trudy
Coca Colo: So the issue is, they've decided Carla isn't a character, so we can't see her without Betty - and I wonder, why do they construct the rules that way, when you know it will exclude any person of color from being a character, since they won't be hired at the office.
RMJ: And Betty is the only exception to the SC rule - the beautiful white lady, and her father/daughter/etc.
Coca Colo: So if there are exceptions, why not make them for others, so we can see non-white/hetero/etc characters?  Like why does Sal have to be gone just because he got fired?
RMJ: Joan wasn't!
Coca Colo: And why can't we see a little bit more of Carla's life, and what civil rights means for her, and her children, which she probably leaves to care for Betty's rich white children.
RMJ: And you know what, they COULD expand their point of view to characters of color working in SC/DP.
Coca Colo: Right, because I'm sure there are office workers and others of color, but they've chosen not to show them, I think because it's not "sexy."
RMJ: Do you remember the scene where Peggy/Pete got it on, and there was the janitor watching and laughing? Who is he? Or the elevator operator, Hollis, how does he see SC, how does he interact with the executives and secretaries?  I mean, I can't write MM fanfic, and I understand that there are limits to the number of characters they can show. And they do do a good job of showing that people in the 1960s were really openly racist - they just don’t show characters experiencing and processing racism directed at them. They do as a good a job of showing that people in the 1960s were really openly sexist, but what’s great about their portrayal of sexism is that they go beyond that to show women experiencing and processing sexism directed at them.  It seems to me the point of view of people of color is as valid a perspective as Joan or Peggy or Betty. If the secretaries are worth exploring....what about the other workers then considered "menial"?
Coca Colo: This goes back to my point about the show presenting this, almost fetishization of rich whiteness, and refusing to deviate from that to REALLY place it in the 60s, and the experience for so many.  So that's what makes me wonder how progressive it really is, because they've chosen to only tell the stories of people of color as background players to white characters. They're only relevant if a white person speaks to them, or if they observe a white person, etc
RMJ: It's classic feminism: talk about the white ladies, nod to non-standard bodies without any kind of serious consideration.
Coca Colo: That's why I think women of color and feminists of color are NOT so excited about this show, because it's being progressive, but in that same very white-centric mold.  [See Latoya Peterson's work on this.]  The Mad Men world doesn't exist outside the walls of Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce), the Draper household, and expensive restaurants.
RMJ: It's consistently only about the white side of the domestic/social/professional sphere
Coca Colo: Yes. And I am NOT giving it a pass because "it's the period".  Yes, it's period-appropriate that people of color would not work side-by-side in the ad agency, but that certainly doesn't mean they didn't exist.  Weiner has chosen to define the rules of his universe in a certain way that excludes them.
RMJ: And also, women did not often work side by side - white women were likely not more important than black men in the advertising environment, but the Mad Men universe has chosen to include them. There WERE black advertising executives at the time, I’ve read (though I can’t find the source) but they’re just not showing them.

Coca Colo: Now, I promised we would talk about the kink we saw in Don’s Thanksgiving relationship. I was excited to see it, actually, not just because of the complexity it adds to Don's character, but because of how it shows unvarnished sexuality, not movie sexuality where it's all romance (from the woman's perspective) or hot babes (from the man's). It wasn't exploitative, the way that normally is.
RMJ: It's also interesting in that with slap happy kink, it's usually men spanking/slapping women, but here is the manliest, sexiest character on the show asking for a slap.
Coca Colo: What do you think it said about his character (and potential control/self esteem/parental issues)?
RMJ: I think it's supposed to be a reflection of his boredom with women and his emotional pain right now, and also his history of abuse.  Also, now that he's single, he can't just have affairs, he couldn't tell a, uh, non-transactional lover about his kink.
Coca Colo: I don't think he would have let his guard down that much to any of his lovers, he was still always projecting an image.  But I thought because it was hinted his relationship with the sex worker was ongoing, that it could also be a farther-back preference of his and not a new thing - just our first time seeing it.
RMJ: Sure, but it could have been developed in the year we as viewers didn't see.  You know, it is worth commending that Mad Men usually has a pretty decent and respectful representation of sex workers. they're workers, they're employees of sorts, they're professionals. Not exactly in-depth, but better than many shows
Coca Colo: Yes, you're right. There's no moral judgment on her in the least, it's seen very much as her being a professional woman in his life, not all that unlike his new maid. He can replace his perfect wife in pieces by women for hire--one for cleaning, one for slapping, perhaps one for babysitting next?  Also, it's interesting about the affairs, how it seems to have changed things that he's not married, that it's actually gotten HARDER for him to date women.  Ironic!
RMJ: Yeah, that IS interesting.  Now that he's single, every woman looks like a potential Betty
Coca Colo: And they also look at him differently, perhaps? It might not matter for women who are married, but for someone unmarried, hm, not sure how to say this without buying into sexist tropes. But, basically, he doesn't have an excuse anymore not to get serious with women. And at the time, that's still what was expected to come out of dating relationships.
RMJ: Whereas before, his affairs had an automatic expiration date, now there's an expectation of something more.  And there's also the Sterling/Jane relationship, which he clearly hates and wants to avoid.
Coca Colo: Ah yes, the famous Don Draper moral code: screwing everyone within a block radius is A-oK, but actually divorcing your wife for a younger woman is VULGUR.  I love how he is so self-righteous, despite everything!
RMJ: I know right? "I'm from the midwest, we ____."

RMJ: Now, what else was there to unpack in this episode? Peggy!  Do you think she has a little something something going with that coworker she was flirting with?
Coca Colo: First off, I love the haircut. I love the new sense of command
RMJ: Yes and yes.
Coca Colo: I even love the scenes with Don, even though he's berating her, she has a new sense of self in responding - she will not be reduced to a little girl.
RMJ: Tom and Lorenzo really nailed this part:
Pete pays a visit to the fabulous creative department, where Peggy's sporting a new bubble 'do and an attitude of confidence that makes you completely forget the nervous, sheltered secretary fresh from Miss Deaver's Secretarial School. This is when we meet Joey, the cute co-worker (artist? copywriter?) who defers to Peggy when she pulls rank on him, but seems to have a great working relationship with her consisting of constant repetitions of Stan Freberg's old "John and Marsha" routine. We just loved the image of Peggy sitting on her desk, whiskey in hand, bitching about difficult clients. Later, she barrels into Pete's office unannounced, confidently shouting out "He's expecting us!" to his secretary on the way in. She orders Joey to work with a sharp "Chop chop, Joey." She's supremely confident and in her element and she probably never would have gotten the chance to be so free and open at the old SC. It's really wonderful to see.
Coca Colo: Yes! I'm excited that you read them!
RMJ: Hell Yes! Their Mad Style posts are what I read when I get cranky.
Coca Colo: So, about Pete being a rapist... and yet being presented as so likable in this episode...
RMJ: I think this is an important conversation, but maybe we should revisit later in the season?  Because you just wrote about it, and this episode isn't about Pete, and this post is going to be mighty long anyway :)
Coca Colo: Yes, I think you're definitely right, let's revisit it later.

Tune in next week! (And please join the conversation in the comments!)

1 comment:

  1. ["Absolutely. Betty and Don never had a relationship on adult terms, it was about her being a child and seeing how far she could push him and what the limits of her power over him were. And speaking of "rules", we saw a lot of that with "Betty junior", Don's date who knew better than to let a man "walk you to your door" while rich husband shopping."]

    Why is it always about Betty being a child. Betty is not a child. She is an adult, who sometimes resort to childish behavior, when she is upset. Her childish behavior is something that all of the adults on "MAD MEN" indulge in. All of the them resort to childish behavior whenever they are upset or trying to avoid dealing with a problem.

    Why do fans constantly label Betty's behavior as childish, while at the same time, refusing to acknowledge that other adult characters - Don, Roger, Joan, Peggy, Pete, etc. - also indulge in childish behavior.


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