The Mad Men season finale aired this evening and while I’m wringing my hands wondering how long it’ll take before we see the next season, I finally had an epiphany regarding the gender representations on the show.
First, some background: What I find so refreshing, compelling, provocative, and engaging about Mad Men is not the aesthetics, not Betty, Joan, and Peggy’s page-by-page replay of the Feminine Mystique…no, that’s easy. Women’s representations in mass media have been studied and studied and studied and studied, and, for me, at least, the women in this show are the least fascinating part of it.
It’s the men that I find compelling. Not just because they’re (mostly) good looking and not just because I think Don is one of the most complex characters ever created. I find the men compelling in the show because, for once, the show makes it clear that it’s not just women bound by gender performances, it’s men as well. Furthermore, we see not only the privileges attached to masculinity, but the costs and constraints as well. This is terrain that remains unfortunately unexplored, in media studies and in other areas.
Think of Pete, for example, and his never-ending existential angst rooted deeply in his sense of masculine entitlement that’s constantly undermined by meager assertive expressions of empowerment from the women in his life (Trudy swinging a mortgage for their first apartment, and Beth, who gets to call the shots in their relationship).
Then there’s the charming man-child, Roger. As he exercises his masculine privilege, we see the costs on his body. He wines and dines clients, and he pays for it dearly with his health.
As for Don, that’s a volume by itself. And for the record, I think this season’s cliff-hanger was PERFECTLY suited to this show.
But what’s irked me is the negative portrayal of marital relationships. NO ONE who is married is happy…for long. And I haven’t been able to figure out why that matters to the show. Why must everyone hate their marriage so much? Why MUST it be so dissatisfying?
I think I figured it out tonight, with the cliff-hanger (which I won’t reveal). If the show is a stunning critique of gender performances and expectations, their impoverishment, and the failures, disappointments, and constrictions that are a part of American masculine and feminine mores, then marital relationships are the ideal site to display the rot and the stifling of self-determination that results from following gender norms as passed on through, say, American consumer advertising.
That is, it’s not marriage and monogamy, per se, that is detrimental. Rather, it is within each marriage on Mad Men- and in culture, in general- that we see “ideal” expectations of gender most clearly displayed, contested, and passed along. For the households we get to see most intimately on the show, their belongings and their homes match an ideal of the white, affluent American heteronormative nuclear household. Don and Betty, Don and Megan, Roger and what ever wife, Pete and Trudy, all live and interact and chafe and strain in the spaces positioned as “ideal” and “perfect” at the time. The walls of their idyllic homes symbolize the idyllic- and unrealistic for the vast majority of people- expectations and aspirations attached to gender norms, as put forth in American mainstream culture.
In other words, there is no better cultural site which represents the constraints and the disciplining effects of gender in American life. The characters’ individual dissatisfactions with their lives and achievements refracts through their marital relationships, and, in turn, as the epitome of heteronormative gender roles, marital relationships animate their actions, (crappy) choices, and personal trajectories. When we think of gender as always relational, as the masculine and feminine always defined in relation to the other masculine or feminine, and when a marriage most intimately makes gender “work” to define itself, the failure of marriage to satisfy any of the characters in Mad Men makes perfect sense. Their gender expectations don’t fulfill them anywhere else in the world; they certainly won’t at home, the very source from which gender emanates, propagates, and circulates outward.
And on that note, I really can’t wait to see what happens in the next season. Please, please, please, Mr. Weiner, don’t make us wait so long this time…