Sunday, February 13, 2011

Some Thoughts On Identification and Viewing While Female

So, Daniel Mendelsohn doesn't like Mad Men. Well, to each their own and all that. It's a very stylized show, obviously, and I could understand why some people might find it mannered or stilted. I do agree with his assessment of how the show fails on race, and his point about fans being drawn to the shiny surfaces is a fair if obvious one, I suppose, but I don't think it's quite right. The Sterling Cooper world has to be attractive enough for Peggy to want to join it but corrupt and hollow enough that her success can't be purely triumphant. It's not just that she's trying to succeed among people who can't or don't respect her, it's that she's succeeding at a job that is ultimately about nothing - think of the brilliant episode from last season around the award show. Peggy's hurt that Don gets the credit for her idea, but the sycophantic silliness of the whole procedure make you relieved for her that she didn't get brought along.

But what I found most interesting about Mendelsohn's piece was that he seems very bothered by the uniform unlikeable nature of the boys over at SC/SCDP. Sure, the show wants to make a point about sexism, but do they all have to be so sexist all the time?:
the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.
He criticizes the show for inviting us to feel superior to its characters, a criticism I've heard before but which really doesn't make sense to me:
For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering.
But showing both the appeal of the world and being unflinching in its depiction of its injustices is precisely the point. I don't trust this notion that depicting the sexism of the past has nothing to teach us but how superior we are. The idea that there's nothing in the show's sexism viewers can relate to doesn't seem right. Mendelsohn thinks it's hypocritical for the show to depict the men around Joan as louts but then show us how good she looks and invite us to leer. But what about a female viewer who is invited to share Joan's dilemma about the role she plays, and think about the double edged sword of beauty and being leered at? And even when the show does serve to show us how far we've come, isn't this a valid role? Take the scene in the first episode when Peggy goes to the doctor and tries to get the pill. (One of many, may scenes that belies Mendelsohn's claim that the appeal of the show is how the characters are 'unpunished' for what they do - and no, the men don't go free and clear either, even if the rations are skewed). If they're anything like me, viewers would leave that scene rushing for their credit cards to make a donation to Planned Parenthood - and is this such a terrible outcome, to feel so sharply what other women went through and feel grateful that we don't have to?

Mendelsohn gives a sense of where he's coming from at the end of the essay, when he argues that their real point of view on the show is the kids, and that the appeal to viewers is to see our parent's lives. There's certainly a lot to that, although my parents are a little too young for this to be largely the case for me and many of my friends who soak up the show so avidly. He seems relieved to have this point of identification, relieving him from being forced to identify with those unappealing lecherous boys of SC/SCDP. He seems to argue that somehow it's easier to see as complex the morally compromised figures of The Sopranos or The Wire, but in showing men who are attractive and intelligent to varying degrees and also refract, in their differing ways, the prejudices of the day, Mad Men just wants to rub it in. Well, I for one am glad the show dares to show sexism as the stew in which these characters simmer all the time, not just when it's topical, because that's how sexism works. If that makes some viewers uncomfortable because it makes them not want to identify with the protagonists they otherwise would, well, a discomfort in identification is nothing new to lots of viewers, especially those who have the unfortunate habit of viewing while female.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

One Fewer Reason to Vote Democratic

Back in 2000 when I was a wee thing, all my friends were voting for Nader. Everywhere I went people were talking about him with lots of excitement; when he drew a full crowd and lots of celebs to Madison Square Garden I was ambivalent about him for lots of reasons, and went back and forth on how I would vote right up until I got into the booth - I even remember reading and thinking about all the 'swap a vote with swing state' schemes that were going on. Seems quaint, doesn't it? Folks who've been made to feel embarrassed in retrospect that they voted for Nader can take heart that at the time I was very embarrassed that I didn't end up voting for him.

One of my roommates at the time wasn't having it. All her friends were voting for Nader too and I remember the button she was wearing that she also gave me, that's probably lying around in my collection somewhere. It said, "it's the Supreme Court, stupid." Nobody had to tell me or anyone else what it meant: fall in line, vote Democratic, or else Roe gets overturned. I've known plenty of people for whom this was a deciding factor in not going third party, or in motivating them to vote when they were otherwise apathetic, as well as otherwise apolitical or centrist women (and men) who felt motivated to vote Democratic because of choice. One of the things that frustrated me about the discussion around What's the Matter With Kansas and the whole cultural versus economic issues frame is that, aside from drawing artificial distinctions (how is the denial of benefits for one kind of health care to millions of poor women since the Hyde amendment not an economic issue?), it led people to talk as if all the juice was on the prolife side, as if getting rid of the issue (which is difficult and who likes to talk about it anyway?) could be nothing but a boon to Democrats, in spite of the fact that their stand on the issue was being used to keep Democratic voters who had highly legitimate questions about what their party stood for in line.

This week a lot of folks are rightly up in arms about HR3, which has gotten the most attention for its 'redefining rape' bullshit, since withdrawn, but is terrible for lots of other reasons too. Nine of its co-sponsers are Democrats, and so when the DCCC sent out a petition attacking Republicans, Sady and others have done a great job calling them out. As many have pointed out, even the existing rape exception is pretty feeble, given the hoops it sets up for anyone who would want to access it. The longstanding existence of the Hyde amendment is yet another example of how successful Republicans have been in washing wielding their 'taxpayer's rights' crap while the rest of us are stuck paying tons more for torture and fail to make more than a peep about it.

Is this the plan of the new Congress - a kind of inversion of Frank's thesis: vote for tax cuts and get abortion restrictions?