Monday, September 20, 2010
Of White Feminism, Civil Rights, and Giant Negroes: Mad Men's Episode, "The Beautiful Girls" Reviewed
Mad Men has earned just praise as one of the best shows on television. As has been suggested elsewhere, there are few shows on television that speak as richly and sharply to the Age of Obama. The premise of Mad Men--a show about the creation of the true lie that is advertising and the happiness machine--is actually a window into the illusory power of memory. Ultimately, Mad Men is a meditation on the lie of whiteness, suburbia, American prosperity and consumerism. In exposing this true lie as such, Mad Men deftly engages questions of power and identity in ways that often go unnoticed by the casual viewer (and frankly by many professional reviewers who to my astonishment have not commented on the centrality of race to the show's melodrama).
This is the genius of the show. On the surface Mad Men is "just" about men of a certain age and their corporate machinations as they try to cultivate desire in the consumer's republic. More than offering a mere Easter egg of detail that some shows offer (of which my beloved Boondocks is a prime example), there is real meat to Mad Men.
The recurring vein in Mad Men's current season is change. The first two seasons offered an idealized world where white men were king, America was rightly ordered following the Korean War, and "those people," the minorities, women, gays, and young people knew their place. The political salience of this fiction is not to be underestimated.
It is the basis for the Leave it to Beaver, Norman Rockwellesque fiction that animates contemporary American conservatism from (at least) Reagan onward. It is a return to the world of Mad Men seasons one and two--"the good old days"--that animates Pat Buchanan and the Right's culture war ethos of the late 1980s into the present. And grappling at this illusion of "a natural order of things" is what Palin and The New Right presently pander to in their histrionic, crackhead-like, political meth-infused, herrenvolk yearnings for a return to "real America."
In Mad Men's third and (now) fourth seasons, those folks who existed in the shadows and on the periphery of Don Draper and his brethren's hermetically sealed bubble are moving front and center. The barbarians may not be at the gates, but the normative centrality of the white male heterosexual gaze is being disrupted. Whether from the Civil Rights Movement, a growing anti-war movement, or the increasing assertion by white middle class women of their own self-interested feminism, change is gonna come. The question remains, how will Don Draper and company respond?
Per tradition, here are some questions and observations:
1. Was "The Beautiful Girls" a pro-feminist or anti-feminist episode? Is the death of Miss Blankenship a signal to a changing of the guard? Alternatively, is her passing a portent of how work and the rat race will trap all of the women in one way or another, even those who were as ahead of their times as Miss Blankenship secretly was? Not to be forgotten--wasn't Burt Cooper's eulogy grand?
2. Could the signal to the various ways that women negotiate their own identities, work, and relationships be captured any more perfectly than the concluding shot where Faye, Joyce, Peggy, and Joan--all four of whom are very different women--enter their respective elevators?
3. Is Don Draper excited by the prospect of a serious, long-term relationship with Faye, a person who in theory remains semi-independent of him? Is Don capable of seeing the women in his life as anything other than secretaries? Is Faye overreacting in her rage toward Don?
4. Is Peggy a liberal racist? Does she honestly believe that black Americans fighting the tyranny of Jim Crow and formal white supremacy have anything in common with her struggle to become a copywriter? Contrary to the norms of center-Left political correctness, I have always suggested that oppressions can in fact be ranked. Here the oppression of middle class white women in the 1960s is quite low on the misery index. Once more, does sexism trump racism? Can Peggy avoid giving in to the power of white women's tears, and the narcissism of Whiteness?
5. You have to love the flippant wink to racism above the Mason-Dixon line in the meeting with Fillmore auto parts. You also got to love the Harry Belafonte/Dean Martin exchange.
6. A historical point. How long until Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has to reach out to the African American market? Will one of the self-interested, forward looking characters hire a black consultant? Alternatively, will Pete (as signaled to by his hapless conversation in Season three's episode "The Fog" with Hollis, the African American elevator operator, about black folks' television buying habits) work with an African American owned PR firm in order to fatten his bottom-line?
7. We are finally in the center of the frame. Was Joan and Roger's robbery a "giant negro moment?" Given the lack of non-whites on Mad Men, was this scene racist? Was it honest? Could it be both? What to make of the fact that an armed robbery is the spark for a curb-side rutting in the shadows of an alleyway? Depraved or erotic?
8. Talk about take your daughter to work day! Don Draper has to negotiate childcare duties without either the help of his wife, or the heretofore often forgotten Carla.
Question: how often do the white, second-wave feminists of the 1960s forget the role of class and race privilege in their struggle? That the suburban comfort that white women yearned to "escape" was in large part made possible by the working class black and brown women who took care of their kids and homes?
9. When will the 800 pound elephant in the room be dealt with: There is something amiss with Sally. She is oddly adult at times and is clearly the victim of more than parental dysfunction and divorce. The signals are all present: I would suggest that Sally was in fact molested by her grandfather. Thus, the root-spring of her sexual acting out earlier in this season.
There is likely one more dark secret afoot here--the smart money says that Betty Draper was also a victim of her father's advances. The clues are all present. Will Mad Men connect these dots?