Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid
***TRIGGER WARNING: Rape***
Mad Men‘s season premiere got Tami and me–and guest ‘tabler Renee Martin–thinking about how much Mad Men is about aging: yes, about how we physically and emotionally age–and how different decades of life meant different things in, well, different decades–but also how institutions, like Sterling Cooper Draper Price, get on as the founders get on in age, and US society itself gets on with mediating changes, like the counterculture of hippies and wars with people of color. Conversation and spoilers after the jump.
Tami: I have decided that–at its core–Mad Men is about evolution. It is about the changes that happen (and the ones that don’t happen but should) as we age…as one generation gives way to another…as life just happens…as social justice movements make values morph…and how, as a result, power changes hands.
Can we talk about the age thing a bit? I tweeted last night:
There’s an air of middle-aged tiredness to #MadMen now. Don was a man of the 50s. His heyday is gone. SCD now smells like “reefer.”
The 50s were Don’s era. Betty’s, too. Back in Season One, Don was the youngish ad exec with swagger and a former model wife and mistresses to boot. Betty was living the ideal suburban life in a nice house in Ossining. Sure, we were already beginning to see the cracks in this–how privilege can be stifling for even the privileged. But Don and Betty, Roger, even Joan–they were the golden ones. Fast forward a decade and the characters that has been with us from the beginning seem to hold less promise. Don, in his suits that used to look so sharp and powerful, seems like a dinosaur next to the young, bearded creatives and his young wife. Megan wants to have sex while high on weed; Don wants a nap. And I don’t blame him.
Tami: Don and I are about the same age (though I like to believe I am a much better human being), and I feel like I related to some of what I imagine he was feeling last night.
Andrea: I think being in your 40s was a different experience than it is now. In 1967, a 40-year-old was unquestionably an adult. Nowadays, we’re talking about 40s being the new 20s or some whatnot like that.
Tami: Of course, I think the gap between the generations now isn’t so stark. But sometimes Millennials seem odd to Gen Xers.
Andrea: But I think that fluidity comes from the fear of turning “old” that the Baby Boomers enshrined in the phrase. “Never trust anyone over 30.” As Baby Boomers entered each decade, they tried to retrofit their age, like “40 is the new 20…” “50 is the new 30…” 60 is the new 30…” The decades of life keep getting pushed back as some “second youth.”
Tami: I remember my grandparents as always being “old.” Now, part of this is a function of how old I am, of course, but I don’t see my parents as “old” today, even though they are grandparents now. My fashionable, gym-going, tablet-toting, still-working mom is living a different life than her mother was at her age. I imagine it will be the same when I am the age my mom is now. I suppose we can thank the age-retrofitting for that.
Andrea: Yes…and no. I think that we (as an aging society) don’t want to admit that we’re not “young” to the point where we’re almost losing a language for the process. More and more, we’re moving into silence about major mid-life events, like perimenopause.
Tami: Yes, along with the retrofitting has come an uncritical worshipping of youth and an erasure of the joys and benefits of aging. I wouldn’t be 22 again for anything–even if my old (or young) boobies came with the age reversal.
Andrea: Exactly! That’s why Tyne Daly’s comment about the need to “look old” so deeply resonates with me. She said:
It is important to look old so that the young will not be afraid of dying. People don’t like old women. We don’t honor age in our society, and we certainly don’t honor it in Hollywood.
Tami: I’m not so sure that we know what it is we worship about being 20-something.
Andrea: The physicality, I think. And the seeming limitless horizon of life before us.
Tami: Those are big things, but there are some other really big things that make aging awesome, and we never talk about those.
Andrea: Guuuuuurl, yes! Like the sex. (You know me… :-D)
Renee: I think that youth is about hope. In your 20s, it feels like the whole world is out there waiting for you. Everything is new and exciting and as we age, though we know more about ourselves and how the world really works, we also become jaded to some degree.
Andrea: It can be a taproot that may start to grow in your 20s, if not earlier. But, in your 40s, that taproot has (hopefully) pushed down and roots have sprouted from it. That’s where the confidence comes from–I don’t know errythang, but I know some things very, very well.
And, with guys like Don, he can’t fuck or marry that retrofitting, which society still condones for men, but not as much as before. Same with Roger.
Tami: I think one theme Mad Men was playing with was that some of the older characters are aware of losing that limitless horizon. Things are beginning to change rapidly and they will not, for the most part, be the beneficiaries of those changes. In fact, the more privileged characters will lose a little–in part, because people like them have heretofore enjoyed a host of unearned privileges. Some, not all, of those inequities are beginning to be rectified. What Roger said to his therapist struck me. He said: “All I’m going to be doing from now on is losing everything.”
Renee: I think that it’s interesting that Roger didn’t cry over the loss of his mother but broke down over the death of man who shined his shoes. We were told that his mother worshipped him, but he remained sort of jaded and matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I think it’s because it’s expected that mothers are to revere their sons, so it was easy for him to take that for granted. For much of the episode we saw Roger trying to get his shoes shined though he was told that no one cares about his feet. For Roger, it’s these seemingly normal acts which are no longer accessible or understood to be vital, which remind him how archaic he has become.
Tami: Roger is really a man with a babyish ego: a guy used to being rich, pampered, and powerful, who has felt useless and powerless at the firm his daddy founded for a while now. The loss of his mother = a loss of unconditional love. There is no one else on earth now who sees Roger at their “sunshine.” His ex-wives have moved on. He has failed to forge a meaningful relationship with his daughter; she is more concerned with his wallet. I don’t think it was so much that Roger cared more about the shoeshine guy, but that the loss of this constant in his life was the drop that burst the emotional dam. The full impact of his life’ evolution hit him.
Andrea: I agree with that. And I think where this is where the age retrofitting doesn’t serve us well. We don’t know how to cope with that because we’re so busy trying to refit our horizon to that limitless perspective. We should definitely talk about how straight male privilege gets (somewhat) mitigated with age. And how white female privilege is mitigated by age, too. (Rf. Betty Draper.)
I think I remember telling you, Tami, what Jack Nicholson said about turning older and not getting “the chicks” anymore, right? What he said specifically was: “There were points in my life where I felt oddly irresistible to women. I’m not in that state now and that makes me sad.”
Renee: Well, women are sold the lie from childhood that beauty is power, but what we are never told is that it is a declining power. I think this is especially true for women of Betty’s generation because there was little to no identity for them beyond wife, mother, and occasionally sexpot. Betty is desperate to remain relevant, and she clearly does not understand the way the world is changing.
Tami: I think part of Don’s and Roger’s ennui is simply not being young alphas anymore. Don showed signs of this last season when he ditched (new, young creative) Michael Ginsberg’s great ad idea for his own good but not great one. And Ginsberg said “I feel sorry for you.” Can you imagine how a man like Don feels about being pitied by a man like Ginsberg? Dick Whitman risked everything to become Don Draper and win the class privilege to accompany his race, ethnic and gender privilege. He changed his whole identity to be the man that everyone of this era admires and envies. Now this young, Jewish kid pities him.
Andrea: Gawwwwd, yes re: Ginsberg.
Tami: Roger is also an interesting study in privilege. He has never had to work for anything. He was, right up until the early seasons of Mad Men, a party boy. His function in 50s-era advertising was to be the guy who took the client to the right steak house and hooked up the classiest ladies of the evening he could find. But, increasingly, that’s not what advertising client service is about. And there is nothing sadder than being the old man at the club–the guy who stayed too long in the Champagne Room, then looked up to find he was partying alone.
Andrea: Wait…is Mad Men talking about freegans?
Tami: I think back then they were just called dirty hippies!
Renee: Betty’s interaction with the hippies was really quite interesting. As much as Betty is not content with the status quo, seeing the life the hippies chose disturbed her greatly. For her, rebellion can happen but only in a certain way. She made the jump when she left Don but quickly found herself in a situation quite similar to the one she left. Betty wants an escape from the role of wife and mother but not if it means giving up security and certain living standards. I think that risk is something that terrifies Betty.
Tami: I agree, Renee. And I think part of that fear is the fear of giving up the privilege that comes with proximity to the patriarchy. The idea of being a pampered, suburban princess is both smothering and comfortable. Betty (like Lady Mary on Downton Abbey) has benefitted greatly from the patriarchy and only disdains it as far as it keeps her from getting what she wants. At her core, she is in favor of the status quo. Betty freed herself from Don, but I’m not sure her mind can wrap around the possibility (and instability) that come with not being a “housecat” (as her father so charmingly called her).
Oh! What did you think of newly sassy Sally (who already hates The Pigs)? If Betty never has her Feminine Mystique awakening, then for sure Sally will ride the second wave of feminism. And I suspect she will hate her mother for what she was without truly understanding Betty and how she was molded into who she is.
Renee: It’s telling that, when Betty returned from her sojourn with the hippies, that her daughter simply closed the door in her face. To be fair to Sally, even if they do have a generation gap to contend with, there is very little which is likeable about Betty Draper.
Tami: We can’t leave the topic of Betty without touching on her disturbing talk about rape. What did you make of it?
Andrea: When I look at Henry’s face, the only pleasure I read from him is the aural pleasure of his enjoying the violin-playing, not any sexual pleasure from looking at the young woman herself. Understandable why Betty is suspicious of Henry looking at another woman–considering how Don stayed cheating on her–but Betty goes way, way too far with her discussing Henry raping the young woman with Betty’s help. Betty never contains her vicious jealousy; you see that in her interactions with her children, whom I swear she sees as competitors for Don’s love as much as she sees them as flesh of her flesh. I attribute that to her “housecat” status. Both Don and Henry have both had to talk her down from her “envy trantrums”, both of them being shocked at those ugly eruptions as a bargain for her beauty on their arms. But Henry, and we viewers, see how depraved Betty is in her envy over anyone younger than she is–and can get along in this world with more than good looks. And it shows how deeply she clings to the bill of sales patriarchy sold her regarding her looks, the value of other women and girls, and endorsing rape as a way to express her jealousy.
Tami: Interesting how the new in-charge Peggy Olsen is being read. Take this commenter at AV Club:
Good start, but I do not like this new confident/assertive/arrogant Peggy. She’s an off-brand Don Draper. They’re probably going for that, but it gave me douche chills.
Peggy “leans in” and is branded an arrogant douche. Y’know, unlike all those male creatives who have behaved in the same way over five seasons. Paging Sheryl Sandberg!
Renee: I think that they are ignoring the realities of the business world. Nice people, no matter how talented they are, do not end up in powerful positions today, let alone in the early 60s. This is especially true for women. Peggy has far more to prove than Don ever did simply because of her gender, so comparing her actions to his in this fashion ignores the roadblocks in Peggy’s path. Peggy is in an uncommon position for a woman. Even today when a woman gets promoted, it doesn’t take long for people to start suggesting that she is little more than a token or slept her way to the top. We haven’t seen this accusation thrown at Peggy, but I do think that it can–and, in fact, should–be assumed. If Peggy is tough, it’s because she has to be.
Tami: Yep, Renee. Like Queen Bey said in her documentary: “Business and niceness don’t mix, but women are expected to be nice.” I kind of like the way that Peggy’s male boss was positioned as the easygoing one who wouldn’t ditch his retreat for work and wanted to let the team go home to celebrate the holidays. Not saying that being a slave to the job is admirable or what women should aspire to. But it is refreshing to see a likeable female character portrayed as driven and smart and on top of her business.
Speaking of the women of Mad Men, I am itching for them to expand Dawn’s storyline. Matt Weiner has portrayed how gender bias affects a variety of middle-class white women: Betty, Dr. Faye, Peggy, Joan, and Megan (Betty 2.0). But the experience for women of color was quite different. It would be nice to see the burgeoning women’s movement through Dawn’s experience as the first black woman at SCDP. I need her to do more than take Don’s coat. I mean, even that feisty old secretary who died at her post had a personality!
Of course, this being Racialicious, we have to talk about the one explicit mention of race. Don meets the soldier on furlough in Hawaii
who is preparing to marry “a Mexican woman.” He asks Don to take his drunken best man’s place so that he does not have to have a native Hawaiian stand up with him. “They look too much like the enemy.” There was so much in those very brief scenes: The demonizing of Asian peoples following three wars (WW II, Korea, Vietnam). Note the guy expected Don, a Korean vet, to share his belief that all people in the Pacific count as “the enemy.” The fact that the soldier was certain to mention his wife’s ethnicity. “I’m marrying a Mexican woman” vs. “I’m getting married.” I found myself worrying for her, marrying this racist man already scarred by war. What is her life going to be like if/when he comes home?
Renee: This scene shocked me because Mad Men so rarely deals with race. The truth of the matter is his response is typical of Vietnam vets. US propaganda expected them to see Asian people as subhuman to make it easier to kill them. My only disappointment is that they didn’t make this more explicit. Instead what we got is that two White men left to their own devices should agree to hate people of colour.
Tami: Back to the idea of change–apart from age. I think the viewer was supposed to relate to Don and Roger’s feelings of confusion in some sense. I found myself disoriented by the changes in SCDP. (By the way, really glad that they kept the “p.” Lane deserved that.) Don was bemused by that annoying Bob fellow who tried to talk to him in the elevator. Don was like “Who the fuck are you?” Suddenly there are all these extra people and extra floors to deal with. It felt stressful and I think it was supposed to.
Renee: Actually, I think that scene in the elevator was about reflecting Don’s changing role. He did the same sort of thing to Roger way back when he was selling furs and trying to get into advertising. Don showed up pretending that Roger had hired him when he was drunk. This scene tells us that Don is no longer the young upstart looking to catch a break but part of an established group now playing gatekeeper to the younger generation.
Tami: Oooo, good catch, Renee. You are absolutely right.
Andrea: Don’s been running scared from his own self-made man’s shadow since the beginning. I think he’s tired of running–or he can’t run anymore. Don’s creation is, indeed, bigger than him. He’s becoming the Organization Man, a cog in the wheel of his own making.
Tami: Good point about him being an organization man. Remember how in early seasons Don didn’t want to be tied to a contract with Sterling Cooper? He didn’t want to be tied to the Man. He was a free spirit. Now, as the D in SCDP, he is essentially trapped.
Andrea: Yep! The “gilded cage,” as it were.
Renee: While Don may not have wanted a contract, he became trapped the moment he married Betty and took a position with Sterling Cooper. This is about finding out that the life you thought you wanted, isn’t what you assumed it would be. Don is the typical grey-flannel-suit guy of that era, who works too much, smokes too much, drinks too much, and eventually dies early of a heart attack. Don was so desperate to escape gut-crunching poverty that he never considered the other side would have its problems as well. He entire life has always been about running without any thought of where or when he would stop.
Tami: Be careful what you wish for…