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Monday, September 20, 2010

Mad Men and women

After watching last night’s episode, I thought it would be a good time to unearth Larkspur’s comment on the whole entire show, from a thread on episode six:

What it is, basically, is a horror story.  It’s set in New York in the 1960s, and is NOT ripped from any of those headlines of yesteryear.  It’s about the American advertising industry, and even though it’s set at the beginning of the Vietnam war, World War II is omnipresent.  The United States was different from the other Allied (or Axis) countries in that is suffered virtually no war damage to its own soil or infrastructure.  (Contrary to popular belief, we Boomers did not ruin everything, but god knows there were hordes of us coming of age during the uproar.  And boy oh boy, were we a very fine and enticing demographic.)

The horror part of it is that like most entertaining horror, it takes a familiar world and injects something unspeakably hideous into the narrative.  This horrific element is, in “Mad Men”, primarily (but by no means solely) displayed in the tribulations inflicted upon the women and girls in the story.  (And remember, all female humans were “girls” except the ones who were “ladies”.)

Switchboard workers, steno pool, executive secretaries: stringent traditions of behavior and dress.  To get by, most female humans in the work force had to shut up and take it.  Take his coat and hat upon his arrival, take his colleagues’ undisguised ogling and verbal abuse, take and somehow avoid the presumption that you were a comestible not unlike the liquor and cigars in every exec’s office (kept sparkly and stocked by you).  And what’s more, you were encouraged to hope to marry one of your overlords.

And black people?  Men worked the elevators.  Black women you never saw in the office suite.  They labored elsewhere, sometimes with the offspring of the mad men, often in the laundries and factories.

There weren’t any actual gay people.  There were homosexuals, but they would burst into flame when exposed to the light, so you kept that door closed.

Part of the horror that extends even to the overlords is that some of them kinda sorta get it that they should flee the scene before the scary music gets too loud.  And they know that their jolly, convivial colleagues would happily drink their milkshakes and eat their branes if it’d give them an edge.  They worked scared.

And the socially connected men have been made uneasy, because they feel the country club’s foundations groaning. Stupid war.  Still, the upstart usurpers remain vulnerable to the freeze rays that can be deployed upon them by the aristocrats.

So the mission for an intrepid player in this horrorshow is to somehow navigate the environment and improve one’s lot in life, without getting killed ded, hopefully without killing others ded, thereby retaining discernible souls, all so that they can have interesting work and a chance at higher pay. And maybe fulfillment, or at least intermittent enjoyment.

They’ll keep trying even if they can’t get to the pump before the vandals take the handles.  They’re creative.  Peggy will figure it out.  I just wish I could give Joan superpowers.  But that would take us from horror to alternate universe.

But forget everything I said, because whatever the intentions of the show creators and runners, we are supposed to be blown away by how awesomely cool everything was when men were men, girls could type AND get coffee, and black folks couldn’t possibly ever be president of anything.

And the undergarments that enable the women to look so exotic and delicious?  Were very uncomfortable, left red compression lines all over your body, contained straps and doohickeys that broke or popped open willy-nilly, cost a lot of your paycheck, and did I mention they hurt?  And do not forget: they did not have spandex or other stretchy fabrics, and even though I am the sort of monster who happily rips the wings off of maxipads, the products preceding the adhesive age were worse.

But I enjoy the horror genre, so I’m kind of a fan.

Over at Basket of Kisses, I see that a few commenters are pissed that an episode in which Peggy brings up Fillmore Auto Parts’ refusal to hire Negroes is also an episode in which the guy who robs Roger and Joan at gunpoint is black.  Yes, it would be nice if there were some good, complex roles for African-Americans in this horror show, just as there are good, complex roles for women (one of whom thinks that Negroes should just work their way into hostile businesses, the way she did!  though clearly she’s having second thoughts about that).  But surely the point is that the civil rights movement was an urgent, world-historical thing, and any decent person should have been disturbed by a client’s refusal to hire black folk, regardless of whether any given mugger happened to be black?

A point that was lost on all too many white folk at the time.  “The time” being, oh, roughly then to now.

Posted by Michael on 09/20 at 09:16 AM
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