Sunday, November 1, 2015

Mad Men’s Ambiguous Take on Masculinity

Instead of spending some of my summer further reflecting and writing on the show, as I’d planned, I spent it recovering from an accident. I’m finally getting back to the wrap-up blog posts I’ve been thinking about. This fall, I worked on a presentation for an academic popular culture conference. My topic was masculinity in Mad Men and my focus was on Don. I read him in the context of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1983 book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight of Commitment. Here are some of those thoughts on just ONE way to understand Don Draper. I'll have more. (In some places, I borrow from past things I’ve written on this blog.) I’m interested to know what you think about them. It’s long, just so you know:

In the first episode, Rachel Menken--who is doubly marginalized in Madison Avenue’s WASP-y patriarchy of 1960 for being both a woman and a Jew—says to Don, “I don’t think I realized it until this moment, but it must be hard to be a man too.” While I have often discussed—as have many others--how Mad Men deals explicitly with the sexism women endured in the 1960s and the variety of roles that became available for characters like Peggy, Joan, Megan (and even at the end, Betty) to create as the decade progressed, I haven’t as often written explicitly about the show’s take on masculinity and the change the 1960s culture wrought on male identity, yet, it is even more central, if more subtle. From the series’ very first episode, we see—in Don—a man with a secret identity: an ad executive in the City with a beatnik girlfriend and the power to shape the public’s opinions on a deadly product, who also possesses the idyllic suburban home, beautiful wife, and requisite son and daughter. The City/Suburbs identity split covers over the deeper Don Draper/Dick Whitman split, and through seven seasons, we watch our protagonist “don” multiple identities and ways of performing masculinity. From our first encounter with him in a close, dark, smoky bar, jotting ideas for how to sell men cigarettes to our last glimpse of him on an open, sunny Pacific ridge, imagining selling world harmony and Coca-Cola to a diverse group of young people, the show has offered numerous takes on manhood.

Writing on the “masculine mystique” in Mad Men after the series had aired four seasons, Jeremy Varon (in an essay in the book Mad Men, Mad World) compares the masculine ethic there to that of Mob movies and TV shows like The Sopranos, with their move to “school the viewer in the mechanics of a subculture that dispenses with both the most sacred rules and the quotidian norms of ‘straight’ society while imposing its own” (260). He reads both The Mob genre and Mad Men as creating worlds in which men can indulge in the forbidden just at the boundary of socially acceptable behavior. He argues that this mirrors a prominent male fantasy in our own world (261).

As we have seen continuously, most of the male characters in Mad Men live out this fantasy, yet in the seasons after Varon published his essay, Don evolved a great deal in his understanding of himself and his performance of masculinity. While his was no linear progression—and there are numerous other possibilities to draw out in future readings--I want to argue in this post that one way to read Don’s fluctuating masculinity is through the lens of Ehrenreich’s book, which is a study of shifts in American masculinity from the post-WWII era through the post-Vietnam years. She documents a change from a focus on the breadwinner role to a rebellion against it—most notably through Playboy’s construction of masculinity as free from all familial and monogamous commitments--to a more androgynous role for men that emerges out of a reaction to the extreme violence of the war in Vietnam. I think we can read Don as embodying each of these roles while also rebelling against each of them. We can see his constructions of his masculinity and his reactions to what the world around him imposed through three of his most memorable advertising pitches: the Kodak Carousel, Jaguar, and Hershey, and speculate about the series’ end focus on the Hilltop Coca-Cola ad.

 Of the “breadwinner” role, Ehrenreich writes that “by the 1950s and ‘60s psychiatry had developed a massive weight of theory establishing that marriage—and, within that, the breadwinner role—was the only normal state for the adult male. Outside lay only a range of diagnoses, all unflattering” (15). Think poor Sal. In the 1950 bestseller, The Mature Mind, H. A. Overstreet describes the scientific and psychological efforts to understand human maturity. Ehrenreich quotes him: “[T]he person who cannot settle down, who remains a vocational drifter, or the person who wants the prestige of a certain type of work but resents the routines that go with it, are immature in their sense of function” (qtd. on 18). Whom does that sound like? Additionally, in 1953, psychologist R.J. Havighurst laid out eight developmental tasks of early adulthood that included “selecting a mate,” “learning to live with a marriage partner,” and “starting a family” (qtd. in Ehrenreich 18). “If adult masculinity was indistinguishable from the breadwinner role,” Ehrenreich notes, “then it followed that the man who failed to achieve this role was either not fully adult or not fully masculine” (20). 1950s diagnoses of “immature” men ranged from “manifestation of unnatural fixation on the mother” to homosexuality (20). We see Don continually both trying to live that breadwinner role and transgress against it.

As an infant and child, Dick Whitman was poor, unwanted, unloved, and abused. As the adult Don Draper, he sought out the love, security, and respectability that the ideal nuclear family might bring. Yet he is continually anxious, in part because he knows he is living a deception. As psychologists of his time saw it, “heterosexual failures and overt homosexuals could only be understood as living in a state of constant deception. And this was perhaps the most despicable thing about them: They looked like men, but they weren’t really men” (Ehrenreich 26). Don walks around during the early seasons knowing that he is one thing on the outside and another on the inside. He desires the breadwinner role, yet also feels—with the male novelists Ehrenreich also cites--that “Adjustment as preached by the psychologists was not the route to adult masculinity, but to emasculation” (32). How better to fight against emasculation than to engage in numerous affairs? In the Season One finale, while his family life is in disarray, he gives his pitch to Kodak for their Wheel, which he renamed "Carousel."  

Recall all of the nostalgic images Don offers in his heart-rending presentation of Betty and him as newly-weds, as expectant parents, as happy parents of young Sally and Bobby, all suggesting that they were blissful and perfectly suited, that he is the ideal breadwinner. Yet after it was over, after he’d reduced Harry Crane, of all people—remember the first season when Harry wasn’t quite the full-of-himself ass he became later on?—to tears, Don slogged home to an empty house. Betty had taken the kids to her father's for the holiday without him, and we last see Don sitting on the stairs, alone. The role is a sham. Does that mean his masculinity is also a sham? Two seasons later, that marriage ends in divorce after Betty discovers Dick Whitman. But Don’s confession to her begins a process of letting Dick out little by little. During his Season Four status as a single man, Don often adopts the Playboy model of masculinity that Ehrenreich chronicles as one of the rebellions against the breadwinner role. Yet, as his Don/Dick dichotomy is less rigid, his expression of masculinity at times is less rigid and conforming too.

In one of the most powerful—and devastating-for-me-to-watch--episodes, Season Five’s “The Other Woman,” recall Don creating the Jaguar ad pitch that is a brilliant argument against the use and commodification of women that is central both to those in his world and to advertising in his era. Yet Don doesn’t all of a sudden turn into a feminist activist. He takes this stance after his partners vote to prostitute his friend and colleague. When Pete first pitches the idea to Joan, she says, "You're talking about prostitution." "I'm talking about business--at a very high level," he retorts. Business=prostitution. But, as I wrote at the time, anyone who thinks that Joan's transaction is not qualitatively different from any other person's business transactions (and Matthew Weiner expressed that position in an interview with Jake Tapper on April 4, 2013: “I don’t know if [Joan having sex with Herb] was anymore prostituting yourself than Pete telling American Airlines that his father had died on that plane.” What!?! He did concede that it was “a tough thing to do.”)  has only to look at her eyes when Herb, the head of the Jaguar dealers' association, begins to undress her and when he talks to her in bed after they've had sex. Her eyes glaze over and focus nowhere; she is gone. Only Don--Don Draper, the frequent user of women extraordinaire--knows different and refuses to participate in the agency-as-pimp-enterprise. Don—Dick Whitman—who comes from a woman who sold her body and a man who paid her money for the sex; Don/Dick, who later lived in a whore house among women who were commodities and watched his pregnant stepmother prostitute herself for a place for her, her child, and her step-child to live. He was forged in the oven of objectified, commodified women and men as consumers of them. And, while aspects of Don’s performance of masculinity conform to this model, in this instance, he will not have it.

In the ad pitch, Don develops the tag line that Michael Ginsberg came up with: "At Last. Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own." He masterfully speaks truth about desire and how to work with it to sell cars AND critique his audience at the same time. He opens up talking about beauty: "when deep beauty is encountered, it arouses deep emotions. Because it creates a desire--as it is, by nature, unattainable." These beautiful things are always out of reach. The camera keeps cutting from Don's pitch to the scene of Joan with Herb in his hotel room the night before. And Don is explicitly targeting his campaign to those men who lust after just women's bodies. "I thought about a man of some means, reading Playboy or Esquire and flipping past the flesh to the shiny, painted curves of this car." At one level, we're supposed to see Joan as the beautiful "thing" that is desired--like the car. But, Don is also skewering Herb--whom he hopes he has kept Joan away from. For Don isn't just talking about beautiful women here. He refers to "deep beauty." He refers to "deep beauty" in the context of an ad about Jaguars--a car that he has admitted to others that he doesn't like. He doesn't think Jaguars are beautiful. And if they do have any beauty, it is just surface beauty. Joan, on the other hand, has the "deep beauty" that Don names. And, Don knows that Joan is deeply beautiful. We’ve seen it in his respectful interactions with her at various points. We saw it in his defense of her and his pleas not to sleep with Herb--who only sees her surface beauty. Joan's deep beauty has aroused deep emotions in Don--and they are not emotions that lead him to try to bed her. He is set apart from the other men in the episode in this recognition and it is a sign of how much his character has evolved. He's coming to recognize that women aren't, and shouldn’t be, men’s to control. And with that, his commitment to the traditional breadwinner role, and to the Playboy model of use and move on as a form of rebellion, is truly shaken.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s schema, a shift in masculinity occurred again in the U.S. in the late 1960s as the war in Vietnam and opposition to it were engaging citizens in ideological battles. She paints with a broad brush, but for segments of the culture, this rings true: “The war discredited American foreign policy even in the eyes of our Western allies; within America, it discredited the style of aggressive masculinity kept fervently alive by two decades of Cold War anticommunism” (105). Dick Whitman went off to fight in one of the Cold War police actions. His Don Draper was born out of the violence of war. In the last two seasons, we see Don experiment with performing the more androgynous expressions of masculinity Ehrenreich points to, including vulnerability, honest expression of “non-masculine” emotions, and stepping into the world of counter-cultural spirituality, in which he is able to merge disparate parts of himself: a feeling, happier, more androgynous man looking for peace, with the artful crafter of images into advertisements that commodify the experiences that shape him.

In the finale to Season Six, Don starts out giving a pitch to Hershey's that is full of nostalgia and a false image of his childhood. The candy is "the childhood symbol of love," Don lies. But then Don looks over at Ted Chaough, the partner who had just confessed to Don his need and desire to start over with his family--for his kids—wanting to be a better father. And there's Don, bullshitting about his own father, his family life in disarray again as his daughter continually rejects him. Don glances down at his hands that start to shake and--tells the truth. Which is also a touching story. He tells all of them sitting at the table--three of his partners and the candy execs--that he was an orphan raised in a whore house; that he was unwanted and unloved; that the closest he got to feeling wanted was when one of the "girls" let him go through her johns' pockets while she was with them and root out the change; and, that Hershey's candy bars made him feel "like a normal kid...It was the only sweet thing in my life." Making himself emotionally vulnerable (traditionally feminine?) in this way loses Don his place in the firm, but gains him a stronger sense of self and relationship with his children, particularly Sally. It’s Thanksgiving again, like the timing of the Carousel ad, but, unlike the first season's Thanksgiving, Don doesn't spend this one alone. He's with his children. And begins their day with some truth-telling to them too with a visit back to where so much of his emotional damage occurred. He's taken the steps to move into a more (in traditional terms) “feminized” expression of his masculinity.

Skipping ahead to the series finale: Don heads to California, gets dragged to an Esalen retreat by Stephanie, is abandoned there by her, whereupon he suffers something of a breakdown. He makes his second “person-to-person” call to Peggy. She tells him, "You can come home," but he doesn't know where that might be. Mystified and worried, Peggy asks him "What did you ever do that was so bad?" Part of his confession centers on his worries over masculine identity: "I took another man's name and made nothing of it," Don tells Peggy as he cries. While Peggy and Don have long had a relationship in which each cares for the other, in this instance, Don is reduced to (again in traditional gender terms) a feminine mess of emotion uncontained, while Peggy plays the traditional masculine role of reason and support (though she’s also clearly frightened for him.) Though he initially scorns the retreat for its elements of hokum, Don finds his truth in the story of the very ordinary man who feels invisible: "It's like no one cares that I'm gone" has always been Dick Whitman's fear, born of having been a child who no one wanted to be there. As Don moves toward this stranger and hugs him, then goes out to view the ocean and sit contentedly in meditation, I argue that he has reached this more androgynous identity of which Ehrenreich writes. As he apparently imagines the Hilltop ad and we watch the “real thing,” he sees young men representing a range of masculine expressions: with varied hair lengths, they are clad in everything from Don’s more typical suit and tie, to t-shirts to brightly-colored African print shirts to Nehru jackets. They are interspersed with a diverse group of women. Is he moving toward a greater blurring of gender binaries? Though the ending raises a number of fascinating questions, it seems that, in part, it is about holding what can be seen as binary opposites together in one space: the ad is both idealistic and happy AND it commodifies the yearnings of the sixties movements. Don (since Weiner has publicly stated his intention that Don be seen as the creator of the Coke ad, I’ll remove the sense of ambiguity that I originally wrote) expressed in this ad the truth that the violent, warring world could use a little harmony. And with that truth, enmeshed in and inseparable from the pathos of world peace, the big lie that Coca-Cola is "the real thing.” As he becomes more androgynous, as he is better able to bring together the masculine and feminine sides of his self, as he is merging the Dick/Don duality, he seems also able to use his artistic side to bring together his new insights about self and world AND go back to the self who is the consummate ad man.