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.


  1. Great post. One of the fascinating aspects of the show is how it draws us into sympathizing with Don Draper - at least to some degree - despite all the objectively awful ways he treats women. I appreciate that the characters aren't just heroes and villains; most of them are pretty complex. I have some sympathy for Betty, despite her coldness. Really, the only character I find utterly dreadful is Pete.

    And yes, sexism was ubiquitous in the 1960s, and all the shows that don't depict it have done us a disservice. It's hard to imagine now. I'm just old enough to remember the early 1970s, when plenty of '60s-style sexism was still part of the furniture. I've read that some women who were in the workforce during the '60s don't want to watch Mad Men because it just feels too familiar and fresh.

    Sungold of Kittywampus

  2. Hi Kittywampus - Thanks! I agree with everything you say: I think part of what Mendelsohn gets wrong is in thinking that the full-on sexism of these characters makes them less complex, when in fact this is much more the case when, as is more often the case, a single person is asked to stand in for the problem. They're all swimming in it, but the each express it in different ways in relation to their own stuff, just as the women suffer from it in different ways - and the men suffer in ways too, and the women participate - to find this 'wearying' suggests it's him who is unattentive to nuance, not the show.