I’m only recently a fan of AMC’s television show Mad Men, which is to say that I picked it up in the middle of the second season. I had watched moments of it in season one but found the story lines too difficult to parachute into. Finally, after reading sufficient fawning commentary, I undertook to devote the effort to learning those story lines anyway. Now I’m hooked.
The catalyst for this post was an argument between Will Wilkinson and Micha Ghertner (Distributed Republic) about the show’s meaning. Wilkinson commented on a Kay Hymowitz post that I myself excoriated when it originally came out. But in the course of disagreeing with it, Wilkinson makes Hymowitz’s argument much more compelling that she herself does:
I think I first saw this kind of argument clearly laid out in Tocqueville. If I remember correctly, he noted that there is a kind of soothing clarity in stratified societies with brightly marked class lines. When classes are stable over generations, and there is little mobility up or down, conventions that govern class relations become settled, making it easy to know how to behave toward those above and below one’s station. Moreover, when classes are fixed and mobility is limited, there is little anxiety about improving one’s position, since there’s so little prospect for doing so. American-style democratic equality creates a pattern of unceasingly stressful striving for relative rank, and all this mobility up and down produces a confusion in manners that can lead to dangerous social frictions and resentments. It becomes too hard to know what to expect of others, or what others expect from us.
This is, as far as I can tell, Hymowitz’s argument about gender relations in the post-feminist era. Women attaining something like social equality with men has created not so much liberation as a kind of toxic confusion. When women are free to be individuals, free to want different things than other women, men can’t be sure what any particular women might want from him. To open the door for her or not!? To pick up the check or not!? To be a nice guy like she says she wants or a bad boy like she really wants?! These unresolved and unresolvable questions have led inevitably to the contemporary condition in which men are either unlovable whining sad sacks or misogynist assholes who cite a cartoon version of Darwinism to justify treating a woman as little more than an upgrade from Jergens and a sock. If we don’t like it, we only have feminism to blame. Or something like that.
Exactly that, actually. Male angst is not the only issue at stake, certainly, nor even the most important one, in and of itself. (More on this later.) But to the extent that I address the issue, this is how I would describe it if I were a better writer than I actually am.
Wilkinson, of course, disputes the point:
But annoyances and disappointments suffered in the process of realizing fundamental conditions of a decent society don’t call into question the desirability of those conditions. All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn’t about delaying adulthood, it’s about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.
Just about every word in this paragraph is wrong. The equation of “equality” and “decency” is asserted rather than argued, and in our own experience they work at cross purposes. Had Will Wilkinson simply said that the world we have created – easy divorce, confiscatory child-support, affirmative action, sexual harassment laws, etc. – make it easier for a (small) number of ambitious careerists to shape a work environment they find congenial, and left it at that, he would have been on firm ground. That he asserts that anything like a majority of men should like this world is beyond comprehension. There is, quite simply, nothing in it for us. Further, Wilkinson’s assertion that making men and women “equal” allows for greater complementarity is so idiotic that I can’t help but wonder if he even knows what the word means. Oh, but at least we’re “meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be,” which is why the divorce rate went down over the last forty years, right? Oops, wait, it didn’t.
So what does this have to do with Mad Men?
I think Hymowitz’s story gives too small a part to resentment at the loss of male privilege. Many men aren’t angry and confused because they don’t know what women want. They’re angry because they want what their fathers or grandfathers had, and they can’t get it. They’re confused because they can’t quite grasp why not. I think part of the fascination for many white guys with the show Mad Men is that it is a window into an attractive (to them) world of white male dominance and privilege that has largely disappeared.
It is this paragraph of Wilkinson's on which Micha Ghertner pushes back:
Mad Men displays exactly the opposite of what [Wilkinson] is trying to express.
What I see when I watch Mad Men is a bunch of privileged dominant white males - and their trophy wives - who are absolutely miserable, partly ( largely?) because they can see their privilege and dominance cracking under the weight of inexorable social change.
That's why Peggy seems to creep everyone out except Don, who is too busy trying to juggle all of the various lies he has made to his wife, kids, coworkers, mistresses, and clients to care that Peggy is breaking the glass ceiling, getting impregnated out of wedlock, and doing all of the things a woman of her station in life shouldn't be doing. Don sees himself reflected in Peggy, as a rule breaker and successful social status climber who has to navigate a new, false identity.
No one is truly happy in the show, and we the audience, with the advantage of 50 years of hindsight, know that things are only going to get worse for those characters desperately trying to clutch onto some romanticized, illusory past.
In some sense, Mad Men serves as a Rorschach test: all viewers, both liberal and conservative, can find and in fact have found in the show messages with which they can agree. Wilkinson, I think, nails the source of its appeal for many male viewers. Micha, in turn, correctly discerns the social vectors the show portrays. But Micha makes two errors. First, he asserts that the past the characters are “trying to clutch onto”, as “romanticized and illusory,” which doesn’t make any sense if the characters are actually living it. But the greater error is that the show intends the audience to regard the prefigured social changes as good things.
The pivotal moment, to my mind, of season two occurs during Don Draper’s entanglement with the “jet set”, a group of apparently wealthy practitioners of nearly complete sexual licentiousness. These people, who apparently idle away their days traveling from one vacation spot to another, live a life that we might expect would appeal to Don, a lothario whose adulterous affairs are the show’s most salient feature. But even though Don begins sleeping with a twenty-something girl named Joy, he is horrified by this world. He is horrified that Joy’s father finds them in bed together and doesn’t mind that his daughter is fornicating with a man she just met. He is horrified that Joy thinks nothing of appearing topless (in the pool, admittedly, but still) before the adolescent son of a recently arrived guest. And he is horrified that Joy assures him that, should he join the jet set on their journey to the Bahamas, “he can be with anyone he wants, [Joy] won’t be jealous”. As Joy makes this offer, Don stares into the bottom of the cocktail glass he has just emptied, and makes a discovery: the glass is cracked.
Remember how I wrote about how the show is a Rorschach test? Well, that cracked cocktail glass is the inkblot that crystallizes the show’s message: this world of sexual decadence is not sustainable. Finding that crack symbolizes Don’s realization that the life Joy and her fellow hedonists live, a life into which Don finds himself being drawn, will ultimately collapse, destroying everyone and everything on its way down. And Don doesn’t want that. He doesn’t want a world where the innocence of children is unprotected. He doesn’t want a world in which fathers are indifferent to the chastity of their daughters. And for all the enthusiasm with which he pushes the boundaries of social convention (as he continues to do in season three, evidently), Don doesn’t want a world in which he might someday push on those boundaries only to discover that they aren’t there anymore.
The future that Don sees – the future in which so much of our society is in fact having to navigate – is not one that will last. And it won’t matter that the Wilkinsons and Michas of the world are happy that it is “equal” or “decent” or whatever. They may think that they’ve outsmarted their ancestors. They may believe that the wisdom of the past can be discarded in a generation, that they have truly ushered in the brave new world of free love and unlimited pleasure. But they are wrong. God will not be mocked, and history is littered with the remains of every civilization that has tried.