Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Great Divide--or the Problem with No Name

Mad Men, Season One, Episode Two, "Ladies Room"


"There's something to remember, something to forget. As long as we remember, there's something to regret...." The closing song of this episode is called "The Great Divide" and is by a Swedish band, The Cardigans. Unlike most of the MM closing credit music, this song--first recorded in 1996--was created long after the 1960s; the real life Dons, Bettys, Rogers, and Joans would not have known it. It feels more directed to the new show's 21st century audience, reminding us that we can choose to remember or forget what life was like fifty years ago. Obviously, Weiner and his compatriots hope we'll opt for the former--and watch their show as a means of interpreting that era. And, if we do remember, we're exhorted to realize that there is "something to regret" in this time period. This show isn't about romanticizing the 1950s, which is basically where we still are at the beginning of the series. (Well, maybe we can romanticize the cool clothes.) The death knell for the '50s has rung out; these folks are on the cusp of the new decade; but, the attitudes are still decidedly those the Beat poets and civil rights protesters were struggling against. The chauvanism of the era--male chauvanism, white chauvanism, upper class chauvanism--is heartily on display in this series so we can remember, reflect, and compare.

In this episode, the "Great Divide" is clearly that between men and women. "Ladies Room" actually does such a fine job of dramatizing what Betty Friedan called "The Problem with No Name" that I've used this episode in my 1960s themed composition course to help prepare students to read that chapter of The Feminine Mystique. And, the students REALLY get it. In ways they didn't in semesters before I used MM, they understand what made the Second Wave women's movement so necessary. They are horrified at all the instances of what they're able to name as 'sexual harrassment,' most not realizing that phrase wasn't coined and didn't have any legal standing until many years later. They give the same "No Way!" gasp of shock that I always experience when realizing it's Betty's psychiatrist that Don is phoning from the dark study after the late evening dinner in Manhattan.

Friedan realized ways that mainstream social expectations of American women were toxic to white, middle and upper class women. It would take other writers to highlight the injustices against other women. But, Friedan, who had studied psychology at Smith, understood the way that ideology can enter the psyche, constructing identities that conform to it. And, human psychology then works to perpetuate the ideology--which is why such a 'problem' can be so difficult to free onesself from. Friedan's book devotes a lot of space to the role psychiatrists--and the valium they prescribed--played in the lives of those American women who could afford them as they struggled to discover why they weren't as happy as everything and everyone around them asserted they should be. At this point in the series, it's intimated that Betty is suffering from this affluent women's malaise--a malaise hard to identify, accept, and claw one's way out of when all women heard were statements like what Don says to Betty: "I always thought people see a psychiatrist when they're unhappy. But I look at you, and this, and them...and I think, 'Are you unhappy?'" What can Betty do but respond, "Of course I'm happy"? Was she really one of the many housewives suffering from deep dissatisfaction with the cultural script she was handed? Or, as Season Three suggests, was she unhappy with a husband whom she--at some level--knew was unknown (and unknowable) to her? I don't know that this question has been settled yet. My posts from last season reveal an increasing frustration with--and anger at--Betty. But, in Season One, I have to sympathize with her.

What this episode also does such a good job with is suggesting the extent to which the great divide between men and women was based upon--and perpetuated--a lack of knowledge men had about women (those oppressed--women here--always have to understand their oppressers more than they are understood by them). This lack of understanding is pathetically blatant among the Sterling Cooper men--Kinsey admits to having "stopped trying to figure out what they think" and Roger responds to Don's "What do women want?" question with "Who cares?" Don, though, clueless as he is, does try to discern answers to the question. While he puts Betty on the spot with the question I quoted above, he also tries to puzzle Midge out as well: "I can't decide if you have everything or nothing." Unlike Betty, the beatnik Midge doesn't feel compelled to give Don an answer that will make him happy, instead offering the Zen koan-type response "Nothing is everything."

The theme of lack of knowledge of the other is also highlighted in Betty's puzzling over the identity of Don: in bed one night, she whispers to the sleeping Don, "Who's in there?" This both serves to further the theme of Don as hero with a mysterious past, an identity that is quite complex and perhaps false, and highlight the chasm between men and women--and Don and Betty specifically. Reflections on more great divides will follow in Mad Men, but this episode was a quite fruitful early introduction to them.

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