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Monday, September 21, 2009

Mad Men blogging with foot notes

In comments last night, one arseidman writes:

Michael, I, like the rest of the world, am definitely going to need some disability-studies related analysis of the extremely dark yet undeniably hilarious turning point in the latest Mad Men episode.

Hilarious?  You think that’s funny, you must be some kind of weirdo sicko freak.  Now, Roger’s response ("Somewhere in this business, this has happened before”), and Joan’s perfectly delivered “that’s life—one minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running over your foot with a lawn mower”—that’s funny.  Unfortunately, that line left Joan and Don giggling helplessly (and have we ever seen Don laugh like that?  ever?) just as the Brits arrive, and Don and Joan exchange a long Meaningful Look that says “OMG did they just hear us laughing”—as well as many other things.

Well, Mr. Arseidman, the disability-studies-related analysis goes like this.  Open your copy of Erving Goffman’s Stigma (1963, ahem), folks, and begin checking off the various stigmatized identities whose marginal or despised social positions have provided Mad Men’s writers with material:

__ people of color
__ Jews
__ divorced women
__ unwed mothers
__ prostitutes
__ children of prostitutes
__ unmarried women over 30
__ bohemians
__ homosexuals

Is anything missing here?  Why, yes, curiously—people with disabilities.  Peggy’s post-partum depression/hospitalization has to be covered up, of course, and Don’s willingness to cover for her (and visit her in the hospital!) is very much a point in his favor.  But until now, that’s as close as this series has come to dealing with mental illness.  (For his part, Don manages to find some empathy for just about every kind of stigmatized person, being such an outsider himself: he feels sorry for the first black man hired at a rival agency, he has a serious thing for Rachel Mencken, he keeps Sal’s secret secret.)

So Janet wagered, a few weeks ago, that Betty’s baby would have a DES-induced disability.  It was a good wager, I thought, but nope, it didn’t happen.  (1963 is just a bit too late for thalidomide, if any of you were thinking that.) I was of two minds about this: on the one hand, it would be TV-groundbreaking and very interesting.  On the other, it would be très melodramatic, and to its credit, this series has largely steered clear of melodrama.

Instead, we got a whole nother kind of melodrama: Guy MacKendrick, a dashing young executive, losing a foot in a bizarre, blood-spraying office-party lawn-mowing accident.  Nothing runs like a Deere, indeed.  And his senior colleagues immediately pronounce his career to be over: though he’s been a prodigy up to this point, and was about to take over the Sterling Cooper office, suddenly he’s finished as an accounts man. Don, as ever, responds wisely*: “that’s not necessarily true,” he says, puzzled, whereupon the Brits have to explain to him that the guy can’t walk, he can’t play golf any more, his professional life is over. I believe Goffman covers this on pages 28-29, where he discusses the advertising executive who lost his foot in a bizarre gardening accident.**

It’s not about the disability, people.  It’s about the stigma.  The executives from Admiral don’t want it known that their product is purchased by Negroes; the executives from PPL don’t want to be represented by a man without a foot.  It’s similar, only different.

Now, I have a question of my own.  Why was Don so off his game in that meeting with Conrad Hilton?  (And hey, everybody was right—the old guy at the bar was Conrad Hilton!  There’s a life lesson there: those who so disgusted by old-school racism as to absent themselves from the blackface spectacle get to meet Connie Hilton.) First he almost refuses to give Hilton some much-needed advice on those terrible print ads,*** then he merely asks for the Hilton account and has to be told to aim higher, at which point he suggests he doesn’t want to be one of those snakes that go for months without eating and then suffocate themselves on a huge meal.  Ew!  This is just after he’s suggested to Hilton (rightly) that no one wants to think of mice in a hotel.  Who wants to think about snakes and ad execs?  And is Don really that hungry?  Sure, he’s disappointed that he’s not getting the London-NY gig that Bert Cooper fantasized for him, but he’s a pretty well-fed snake as such creatures go.  So I’m left to think that Don was uncharacteristically nervous and discombobulated at that meeting—and perhaps more than a little abashed that he spoke about his humble, back-country origins to a person so high on the Bourdieuian Cultural-Capital Scale as Conrad Hilton.  Thoughts?


* In the Goffman sense of “wise,” of course: “wise persons are the marginal men before whom the individual with a fault need feel no shame nor exert self-control, knowing that in spite of his failing he will be seen as an ordinary other....  Gentile employees in delicatessens are often wise, as are straight bartenders in homosexual bars, and the maids of Mayfair prostitutes” (28-29).  And maybe advertising executives in bohemian performance-art cafes.

** I made this part up.  For what’s really on pages 28-29, see the preceding note, right up there above this one.

*** I’m sorry, but saying “I think you wouldn’t be in the presidential suite right now if you worked for free” to Conrad Hilton borders on the downright rude.  Why not something like, “I’ll need to look them over a moment—why don’t we set up a meeting early next week, and in the meantime I’ll see if I can’t improve on these?” That way you can find out if Connie is willing to consider giving you the account without abjectly saying “I’d love a chance at your business” a few moments later.  As for the mice:  it’s not merely that the mice in those ads raise the hygenic question Don mentions in his grudgingly-offered one-sentence critique.  It’s also that it makes no damn sense to pitch the Waldorf Astoria to people by inviting them to imagine themselves as a country mouse in overalls.

Oh, almost forgot: in calling Mr. Arseidman a “weirdo sicko freak,” I did not intend to stigmatize him in any way, except to suggest that he is not fit for decent society.

Posted by Michael on 09/21 at 11:12 AM
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