Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Mad Men" (Matthew Weiner, 2007)

Mad Men is one of those shows that makes you feel cool simply by sitting in front of the television. But it's a different kind of cool - a more nostalgic and retro kind of cool. In short, Mad Men really makes you wish you were alive in such a time.

What time is this exactly? It's a time when downing three martinis at lunch wouldn't turn a single head, all this coming after a two-drink meeting with a client before the siesta. Oh, and don't tell your doctor but you've already consumed a pack of cigarettes and are working on your second of the day and it may not be your last. Okay, enough with the vices.

Mad Men hits at why we watch visual fiction in the first place - displacement of the emotional self. In other words: escape. Cigarettes are still a part of our current culture, although certain restrictions have made it less available. Alcohol in much the same way, but it has been censored from our life between the hours of 9 to 5. After that, the floodgates open. Mad Men reminds us where we come from - our (Gen. X) origins. This is the lifestyle of our parents.

Where do we see this in the Emmy-nominated drama? No, not in the lives of the (mad) men. It is perhaps the women who are the most compelling of the gender groups (keep in mind, this is a male-written blog). If you're not paying attention, their suits look at least similar to current fashion trends. Female attire does look quite different. Skirts flare out and hair is tapered and delicately structured. It is in the female world that the cultural politics of the time seep through the screen. Sure, the men of work allude to certain historical moments, but it is within the women (and consequently the home) that one discovers America's identity.

I believe it is not just the presence of the female, but specifically the absence of the male that allows such possibilities. The cultural environment of Mad Men, is quite segregated between men and women. Men have their time in the workplace and women (seemingly) bide their time at home. The men are constantly involved with office politics and which secretary or phone operator satisfies their visual appetite. In fact, and not surprisingly, it is only when the two gendered worlds collide is when the tension heightens. Sure, the ad men have their squabbles but for the most part they dissipate in short order. No, the lingering conflict with Mad Men is between the male and the female. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) constantly flip flops between being faithful to his wife Betty (January Jones), but does maintain regularly scheduled appointments with another woman. It's hard to figure out where his romantic loyalties lie.

Women appear to have no real power. Men have the freedom to explore their romantic desires and escape out of the treacherous confines of the home. The women are trapped with their one-and-only male partners, whoever they may be and to whomever they may already be attached. Women do not have the recourse of leaving their loveless marriage unless the man frees her, but this is not a desirable position as it leaves the woman without financial support. No, the women occupy their time discussing the pregnancy situations of their neighbors and the social lives of presidential candidates.

Men exert their prowess between the hours of 9 to 5, but they can only do so within the office. It is within this same time-frame that women exert their own kind of prowess within the home world. They raise the kids and maintain the home - the same home that the working man must eventually return - but they also socialize among themselves.

The one anomaly in this whole equation is Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss, formerly of The West Wing). She exists within the working world. Okay, no problem, so do many other secretaries. However, Peggy managed to advance within the company and consequently into the world of men in the working world!

And so, this is the question that lingers for Mad Men. Which genre of woman will be the catalyst for the upstart females: the challenging Peggy in the working world, or the subtly subversive Betty Draper of the home world. I think if history is to be any counsel, then both sets of women may serve as a dual wedge supplanting the epochal dominance of the XY chromosome.

Why do I enjoy this show? I enjoy the 3-martini lunch concept as well as the massively-flared skirt. 6 rounds of oysters at lunch anyone? This drama exudes an air of nonchalance about most anything. As unfaithful as the men are, it never occurs to them that their domestic life may be crumbling. It can only come from overconfidence in...something. They can cheat and get away with it. I enjoy the stark balance between work and home. Home seems so inviting, but it is ultimately the most hostile of environments. Check the stock of the liquor cabinets!

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