Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mad Men: The SATC grid

Remember Ted's Gilligan Island grid? The one where he mapped out every possible type of product spokesperson according to which Gilligan's Island character they corresponded  to? You can do something similar with Sex and the City. One of the really fascinating things about SATC is that all the women were characterized in terms of three binary qualities. I take this from Emily Nussbaum but I have renamed the qualities.

These are all foundational qualities. If I tend to be Romantic, and I do, my base belief is that life can and should be romantic. I may, certainly will in fact, modify my attitudes to deal with certain inescapable facts. But I always start out meaning to be romantic. Likewise, a Realist like my wife, may pursue romantic possibilities, but the thing that defines her is that she always starts off prepared to deal with the hard facts of life.

That's the first binary quality.

The next is second versus third generation feminist. A second generation feminist believes that women do best when they pursue equality first. Women may have special qualities as women but the foundation of their social, as opposed to private, life must be the pursuit of equality. A third generation feminist believes that equality is a good thing and commends second generation feminists for all they have achieved, as we all should, but argues that equality will only get us so far and that to complete the job, we must all recognize that women have special strengths, needs and wants.

The final binary split is moral. Some believe that the foundation of morality is rules and duties. We can argue about what those rules and duties should be but, in the final analysis, some set of rules and duties are the basis of morality. Others believe that the foundation of morality is human flourishing. Rules and duties have their purpose but they may be modified or even profitably ignored because the real point of morality is to help me and you flourish. This is not a selfish morality, I can want you to flourish every bit as much as myself, but it is a morality that demands a certain amount of hypocrisy for there will always be necessary social rules that people who hold this view will tend to secretly break.

Once we have that set up, we can chart the women from SATC:

If you were paying attention back in math class, you will know that 2x2x2=8, which is to say that there are four other possible combinations of these binary qualities. The other four just don't seem to come up in fiction, which is not to say that they cannot in real life. 

Why not? I suspect the reason it works out this way is that certain combinations are so threatening to the social order that they cannot be allowed. If, for example, you are a realist and a third generation feminist, to base your morality on rules and duties would just be impossible because the required rules and duties wouldn't feel like morality at all. Likewise, if you are Romantic and third generation feminist, the only kinds of flourishing that would leave open could only make sense in an alternate universe ruled by butterflies and unicorns.

The four existing combinations all embody tensions, that is, they will obviously be difficult to live, but will not seem impossible. 

Joan is established early on as a Romantic and third generation feminist who wants to flourish but she cannot because the first two qualities leave her needing rules and duties to govern her life. Roger appeals to her Romantic side but she is always in some tension with him because she wants live according to a script dictated by rules and he wants to buy her a bird.

Betty has the same qualities but it works out differently. She is also third generation feminist and rules and duties moralist (remember her saying that getting the analyst to look down her top made her feel like she was doing her job?) Her Romanticism, however, keeps her directed at modelling and she therefore fails to see that Jim Hobart's job offer is just a ruse to capture her husband who is more desirable than she is. (Even when planning her burial and trying to be a hard-nosed realist, Betty can only pursue Romantic outcomes.)

The basketful of kisses established Peggy as a Romantic and her long struggle with Joan's attempts to make her play up her sex appeal establish her as second generation. She can, like Carrie, take a very male approach to sexuality but, also like Carrie, she quickly realizes that what she thought she wanted isn't what she likes.  Similarly, when each dresses up in the killer dress she gets Ted/Big to take her home that night but immediately realizes there is no commitment. A point nicely highlighted when she delays sex with Mathis's brother because she thinks this has the possibility of being something good.

Trudy is very much rules and duties driven. Remember her countering Pete's suggestion that their love life was the most important thing in their marriage with the claim that caring for their daughter is? And remember her seeing Pete with the box of Don's secrets and bluntly telling him that it isn't his? What I want to call attention to here is not her moral conclusions but her moral foundations. At the bottom of Trudy's moral arguments there is always rules and duties. At the same time, she is a realist and that means she must be a second generation feminist like Miranda and, also like Miranda, she is a joyless bore. (It's telling that in SATC, which is all about domestic play, and in Mad Men where a woman like Trudy is kept out of the office environment, both Miranda's and Trudy's very real strengths are hidden. Carrie would be immediately exposed as the shallow twit she is if she were forced to work beside Miranda and Joan would seem a lot less impressive if we had an office Trudy to contrast her with.)

There weren't many Samanthas in the show. The most obvious was Bobbie Barrett. The fascinating thing about her is the way the show slut shames her just as SATC relentlessly slut-shamed Samantha. She's a realist who wants thing so she goes out does stuff that will help her to flourish. But she wants to flourish as a woman and society punishes her for the ways she pursues sex.

Well, that's all pretty miserable. Have I closed all the doors to happiness? No, I haven't.

The way out is to live esoterically. My choice, if I were a woman, would be to present like Charlotte and while secretly pursuing a morality based on flourishing. I'd do that because I am a  romantic at base. If I were a realist at base,  I'd present like Miranda while secretly pursuing a morality based on flourishing. (Don almost gets it right when he says, "You're born alone and you die alone and this world drops a lot of rules on you to make you forget those facts but I never forget." But it isn't life that drops the rules on you, it's society.)

I get the appeal of Carrie and Samantha but both those combinations make a woman very vulnerable: Carrie (like Peggy) is vulnerable to Mr. Big's endless games while Samantha (like Bobbie Barrett) is vulnerable to slut shaming from other women. This happens because to be either of those types is too threatening to either men (Carrie) or women (Samantha). We all pretend that this plays the other way but trust me, there are a very good reasons millions of women read Pride and Prejudice and millions of men don't. Watch movies aimed at men—you might want to start with To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Mask and Fight Club—and it should soon become obvious just how un-threatening Samantha type women are to men. Challenging is a different quality than threatening.

Okay, the obvious question is can we do a similar grid with male characters? I'll try tomorrow.

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