Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mad Men: The Fashion Just Isn't Enough

I've tried so hard to understand why all the praise for Mad Men. I know I have friends who watch it, I read reviews and critiques, I hear it get called the best show on television. I've listened to Fresh Air's Terri Gross just gush all over interviews with John Hamm - more than once. But, in the same way I feel about football, I just can't bring myself to like it, even when it means missing out on (what seems like) an important piece of popular culture.

Unlike football, however, I actually do watch Mad Men. I watched all of the first season and part of the second expecting it to get better so that I could finally understand. And I still watch it, even now that I know Mad Men will never be the show it wants itself to be.

I hear about all the great acting and I don't doubt that with better lines, most of the actors on the show could be great. But there are too many spaces, gaps and pauses in the delivery for me to understand how John Hamm has won any sort of award for his portrayal of Don Draper.

I know a lot of people love the show for the fashion and interior design. But I have to wonder about this. We all know that women of this era wore clothes that were much more restricting and symbolic than the clothes we wear today. My grandmother was expected to wear hose every single day of her life, along with a garter belt, girdle, camisole, slip and heels. If we partner the fashion expectations with gender and marital expectations, we have a metaphor. Is Betty Draper sound tightly wound because her girdle is too tight or because her husband is too controlling? To have nostalgia for these kind of silhouettes, is to also have nostalgia for a time when women were treated like - well, like Betty Draper.

Which brings me to my main points. I don't really care that much about the bad acting and the fashion. It's the presence and absence of misogyny and the racism in the story lines.

The show certainly attempts to address the changing nature of sexuality in America. But I feel it does so without any heart or any direction. Let's start with Betty, the unhappy housewife whose husband cheats on her and calls her therapist after every session to find out what she said. We are given every reason to hate her. She's boring, she's shrill, and the only time she does anything interesting is when she's being an awful mother. So you end up feeling like Don has good reason to look for other women. So, what kind of feminist critique can we make of that? That Sally Draper is going to turn into one messed up teenage girl because of her mother? (And not because of her father?) By making us hate Betty, the writers let us ignore or diminish the problems she has as a woman.

Then there's the Joan/Peggy dichotomy. I actually find them interesting characters, but so much more could be done with the changing nature of women in the workplace. I'll admit, the last episode, in which Joan gets more aggressively harassed than ever before, did bring up some interesting points. For example, why did this incident of harassment bother Joan so much more? She's used her sexuality to gain respect and power in the office from the very first episode. And she has also dealt with stares, comments, innuendos and open flirtation all along. But suddenly she is faced with a younger man, who doesn't actually want to sleep with her, just to insult her. He uses her sexuality to put her in her place. To make her feel low. It was an interesting scene, but there are too few of such scenes. And the acting and writing was bad. The way in which Joan gets upset makes her seems like a school mistress who has lost control of her classroom. And then her rant in which she wishes they would all die in Vietnam seemed both cruel and immature.

What seemed like a great Feminist moment, was no such thing.

And I feel the whole show is this way. It presents itself as a drama that addresses the changing social issues of this important time in America. And yet, it doesn't thoroughly address anything at all. I have never seen another show in which a womanizing misogynist such as Don Draper meets so few consequences. Even Christian Troy from Nip/Tuck has consequences. He was presented as a sexual sociopath, he was punished for his actions. Don Draper gets a divorce from a women no one really cares about anyway. Oh, he doesn't get to live with his kids anymore? All the more freedom to continue being a man-whore. He drinks a lot post-divorce? He drank a lot pre-divorce. His womanizing isn't presented as a character flaw any more than his tobacco habit.

What other social issue was just emerging in this era? Oh right, the Civil Rights movement. Why does Mad Men refuse to address race? We know most of the characters (except maybe Peggy) are racists. Even the likable Joan is a racist. There is exactly one named black character, Carla, the maid (of course). I would think that people in advertising would have taken a little more notice back then. It was their job to be on top of social trends. Wouldn't they have at least been talking about it over drinks? Weren't they scared for themselves? I'm not sure why the show is holding out. This is a common criticism. Where are all the black people? Where are the conversations? What did white people back then say to each other about the coming changes? If we're supposed to believe that Don Draper and Roger Sterling don't think there will be any changes, then let's see that dialogue on the show. Let's watch them be foolish and ignore what we all know is coming.

Here's my principle complaint: The show needs to be more over-the-top. The moments I've liked the best are the times when something crazy happens. Like, someone's foot is run over by a lawnmower inside an office building, or when Don manipulates Roger into throwing up by making him walk up 20 flights of stairs after eating oysters and drinking too much at lunch just for flirting with his wife. In my opinion, every moment of every episode should be that crazy.

There should be more commentary, more critiquing of the time and less story line. Why should we be made to care about Don Draper? Why did the writers think that was a good route to take? I don't want to feel sorry for Don because he cheated himself out of his family. I do want to see the consequences of misogyny in action. I don't want to know if their ad firm is successful. I do want to see the white businessmen lose ground when they fail to change with the times. Stop with the melodrama. We don't need to be voyeurs into our grandparents' bedrooms. If we wanted to know what brand of cereal was popular then, we could ask our parents. I want to see an exaggerated vision of the Mad Men's world - just before it collapsed.

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