Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Mad Men" and Real Men: Sliding Back to the Future?

In my review of the movie “Julie and Julia” two days ago, I noted that the parallel that film draws between a world of the past (the world of Julia and Paul Child) and the world of the present strikes me as not merely descriptive but prescriptive. I stated:

This is a movie about a world of the past that connects to the world of the present as a model, as a script for how it should be done. And the perhaps understandable (if inexcusable) invisibilization of gays in that world of the past is continued in the script for the present. As though it should be that way.

Because I think the past is commonly used that way—historical studies prescribe to the present even as they describe the past—I’m fascinated by the current infatuation of many of us (and I’m in the number) with the AMC series “Mad Men.” Since we don’t get that channel, Steve and I caught up with the last season only recently; we rented it and watched it through in two marathon evenings, because it captures our imagination, in part, because we came of age in those years.

Some of the commentary I’m reading about “Mad Men” online appears to confirm my insight about how we read the past as a model for the present. And some of that commentary deals with precisely the issues I raised in my comments on “Julie and Julia”—the current allure of some of the gender stereotypes of the past.

I was intrigued to read a posting by Peter Suderman about this at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog Monday. Suderman links to and comments on a posting of Katie Baker the same day at Newsweek’s Pop Vox blog.

Katie Baker confesses that many women in their 20s and 30s have a guilty crush on the main character Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. What excites their imagination, Baker thinks, is Draper’s retrieval of a manly-man image that seems to be under assault in our culture after several decades of feminist breakthroughs:

A man's man. A virile man. A masculine man. Strong terms. And ones that would make our postmodern gender-studies professors blush . . . . And maybe that's why we feel a little guilty when we stop to admit to ourselves why Draper excites us. Because we're not supposed to be using those terms anymore to describe our desires. Those words threaten a backsliding—they hint at some deep, unspoken turbulence; that, as if by saying we want a "real man," we threaten to erase all the gains our mothers made in terms of equality in the workplace and the home.

And that’s just what I was talking about in my comments on “Julie and Julia.” I detect a trend in some of the mid-century (the 20th, that is) period pieces we’re now being offered to rehabilitate gender stereotypes that, for justifiable reasons, we began to discard as the century went on, and which have proven toxic for both genders. And along with that rehabilitation, of course, there’s sometimes an unexamined rehabilitation of an unsavory aspect of the world in which those manly men of the mid-20th century ruled the roost: it included no gay men—at least not any open gay men.

I’m not suggesting that Katie Baker or everyone who finds “Mad Men’s” depiction of Don Draper tantalizing wants to bring back a world in which gays were closeted. What I am suggesting is that it’s possible to allow ourselves to be allured by depictions of the past that implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) reinforce stereotypes and exclusions we’ve rightly begun to question. And when we don't reflect on how we're being pulled into that world of the past as a model for the present, and what it means to continue injustices and exclusions of the past in the present, we're in trouble.

It continues to bother me that “Julie and Julia” kept the gays in the closet. “Mad Men,” by contrast, is doing an outstanding job of showing what it was like to be gay in America in the 1950s and 1960s, with the complex, well-scripted character Salvatore Romano, played by Bryan Batt. As Heidi Schlumpf notes at National Catholic Reporter, one of the appeals of this series is the way it scrutinizes—with a cold eye and considerable care—gender and justice issues that continue to trouble our society, even as we look back nostalgically on the “golden” period of the mid-20th century.

And as Peter Suderman acutely observes in response to Katie Baker, what really seems to attract some of us to Don Draper is not the really even the reality men of mid-century actually lived, behind the man’s man façade: it’s the façade itself. Draper is “a fictionalized, idealized fantasy of an iconic form of masculinity” who just happens to be a “cheating, borderline alcoholic sexist.”

The good old days may not really have been so good, after all—even for those who lived at the top of the world then. Sal’s painful struggle to come to terms with being gay and his decision to marry constitute a revelatory sub-script to which anyone nostalgic for the fifties and sixties needs to play close attention.

But perhaps even more, any of us who hanker for the return of virile men and for all the accoutrements that propped up a man’s man in the halcyon days of mid-century, need to think about just what that masculine gender role entailed. Not just for the gay men on whom they often stepped to demonstrate their unchecked power, or the women they so freely used and then discarded. But for the real men who lived inside those Madison Avenue suits, and who may be far more ambiguous symbols of masculinity we now imagine them to have been, through the distorting lens of nostalgia.