Monday, September 21, 2015

Don Draper's Emmy

They've finally given an Emmy to Jon Hamm. With it comes an "explanation" of why it took so long, "explanation" here meaning "theory".
The Emmys’ revised rules permit a broader, less informed voting pool, and whispers of it being “Hamm’s time” likely secured his victory. The result was an award that felt more like an apology than an ode to craft. Which prompts the question: Why did it take this long to recognize the star of the decade’s most praised series? And what is it that made Hamm’s performance as Draper so antithetical to awards?
I'm not sure it feels like an apology so much as if feels like fan service.

And is Jon Hamm such a good actor? I don't know and I suspect you don't either. I've never heard of him doing any other roles terribly well. Perhaps he has. Perhaps he hasn't. I can't help but wonder at the "broader, less informed voting pool". Perhaps professional actors aren't so impressed at Hamm as we fans are at Don Draper. Or, to put it another way, was it Jon Hamm's acting that made the show or was it the role he had to play?

There is a big clue hidden in the Slate article I quote above. The article makes passing mention of a "notorious pan" of the show by Daniel Mendelsohn. You can read it here but, if, like me, you're a big fan of the show, you won't like it much. You won't like it because so much of what Mendelsohn has to say is right on the mark. There is a lot about Mad Men that was simply awful. There are entire episodes that are so badly conceived and written that they should never have been filmed never mind inflicted on the public.

But it's even worse than that. Mendelsohn sums up the shows appeal towards the end of the article and comes very close to getting it right.
This, more than anything, explains why the greatest part of the audience for Mad Menis made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts—people who were in their twenties and thirties and forties in the 1960s, and are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties—but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today, which is to say of an age with those characters’ children. The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.
That's what the show tried to be. But it failed. Much like The Preppy Handbook, of decades ago, the unintended effect of the show was to make the culture it meant to criticize seem like something to emulate.

In creating Don Draper, Jon Hamm and the shows writers created a sort of character that we don't see any more; they created a character of the sort that John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart and Gary Cooper used to play. Those actors always played a sort of ideal male and they always played the same ideal role.

And that sort of acting is not currently in style, which is what makes it so hard to say whether or not it good enough for an Emmy. You apply a completely different set of criteria when judging such acting and a big part of that judgment is of the character himself.

That, by the way, may have a lot to do with why it took so long for Hamm to win. Awarding him the Emmy while the series was still running would have amounted to an endorsement of the character. We could all see that Weiner et al were trying very hard to deconstruct Don Draper but the fan reaction showed it wasn't working. It never did but the show being over has dispelled the magic. Don can't come back now. Not as Don Draper anyway.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mother figures in fiction for boys

"We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering iof another woman is really the answer we need."
One place you can get a glimpse of how feminized our society has become is in the way mothers are presented in children's fiction today as compared to a century ago. Mothers have very rarely been criticized in children's fiction; they have always been almost sacred figures for reasons that ought to be obvious. But there are ways to criticize mothers in fiction without tackling them directly and it used to be much more common than it is today. The most famous example of this is the evil stepmother.

For boys and girls adoption fantasies, and that the evil stepmother is just one of variety of adoption fantasies, are very powerful because they help prepare us to break up with our mother. Despite a lot of talk about patriarchy, our mother is the person we come out of and she holds a powerful sway over us. She is often the one who gives us most of our earliest moral lessons. If it is not our mother, it is typically other women, such as nannies or daycare workers, who give us these lessons.

For much of human history, we got handed off from women to men beyond a certain point in our upbringing. That, as Tyler Durden observes in the quote I put at the top of this post, is no longer the case. Nowadays, a boy can go from one female teacher to another all the way to adulthood and, even then, choose a lover who is really just another teacher.

It didn't used to be that way and one way that fiction prepared us for that was by belittling our mothers. That shocks us, of course, but we should ask ourselves why it bothers us so little that fathers are constantly belittled by the modern entertainment industry.

The novel Jim Davis by John Masefield provides an interesting example of this. The eponymous hero of the novel is an orphan. He ends up in the care of not one but two women: his aunt and a Mrs. Cottier who is deserted by her drunken husband and comes to live with Jim's aunt and uncle. The uncle, like many fathers, is a distant authority figure.

Before going on, I want to pause and tell you how this novel was understood by the wider culture when it was published in 1911. The copy I have was part of a collection authorized by the Boy Scouts and called Every Boy's Library. Here is how the foreword describes it:
Tempting boys to be what they should be—giving them in wholesome form what they want—that is the purpose and power of Scouting. To help parents and leaders of youth secure books that boys like best that are also best for boys, the Boy Scouts of America organized Every Boy's Library.
The word I want you to notice more than any other in that paragraph is "wholesome". I want you to notice it because the way Jim learns all the important lessons of life is by falling in with outlaws.

And then there is the way the novel deals with mother figures. In one early adventure with the outlaw who befriends them, Jim and his friend Hugh are hiding in the woods when Jim's aunt and Mrs. Cottier coming looking for them. They ignore the women's calls. Later, they confess to having done this and the following ensues:
My aunt said something about 'giving a lot of trouble' and 'being very thoughtless for others', but we had heard similar lectures many times before and did not mind them much.
Think about that for a while. Here is a book representing the establishment views of the era that told boys to just ignore their mothers when they went on about some kinds of moral responsibilities that women might want to impose on boys. You could not do that today, even though it is very good advice.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Critical thinking

I keep thinking about our reaction to this Syrian boy drowning. Tragedies happen everyday. Why does this one seize our collective imagination? And why do facts matter so little? We now know, or should know, that most of the "facts" originally reported were not terribly factual. The answer to both questions seems painfully obvious: presented with a compelling photo, we stopped thinking.

But did we? I think we did think about it. The problem was not that our judgment was turned off by the photo but rather that it was turned on.  We suddenly started reaching conclusion and deciding that action had to be taken about things we already knew about before we saw the photo. The problem is not that our brains were turned off by a photo but that they were turned on and we started making judgments we didn't need to be making.

I have started putting together a list of critical thinking questions to ask myself in cases like this. It's nothing new, I've been informally using some of these for years now. I want to become more disciplined about asking them though. This list is not final.

  1. Is my reaction based on a photograph or video? If yes, turn off judgment and just gather experience. The moment we make a judgment, we stop paying attention to our experience and focus instead on our judgment.
  2. How did the camera get there? The other day, someone shared a post with me about the pope's surprise visit to an Italian slum. The video at the post showed news footage of the event. It was a tripod shot over the heads of thousands of people who were already standing there when the pope's vehicle pulled up. How can this be a surprise event if a news team had time to get assigned to drive across town and set up a camera before the pope arrived? Likewise, how did the crowd get there? Nothing against the pope, all politicians use orchestrated media events but the rest of us need to be more critical.
  3. Why was this shot selected? The Syrian boy can't have been the first refugee to die trying to get out of that hellhole of a country. Is there good reason to believe that a news editor chose this shot for its emotional impact. If yes, see question 1.
  4. Does this photograph change my understanding? I already knew before I saw it that there are desperate refugees all over the world trying to get out of their countries. I already knew that some of them die making the attempt. I do not have a single new fact as a result of seeing this photo. Actually, it's worse than that: an explosion of false information accompanied this photo.
  5. Are the things I am tempted to say after seeing this photograph or video new? Am I saying or thinking anything I wouldn't have said or thought yesterday? If the only thing that is different is the intensity that I feel them—"Something must be done!"— I should just stop talking and see how I feel 48 hours from now. (Actually, this is true of most news stories. It's reasonable to act immediately to a storm warning but just about everything else can wait until the day after tomorrow and then the decision will most likely be to do nothing new.)
  6. Are my judgments really about the situation or are they about me? Photos like this trigger massive public response and the temptation to engage in virtue signalling—that is narcissistically demonstrating my virtue by showing everyone how outraged I can get about something.