Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Favors metacommentary: Two out of three ain't bad

Okay, I'm going to have to admit that Hana Rosin is a lot sharper than I gave her credit for. My only excuse is that I was fixated on her particular blind spots but the problem with that is that we all have blind spots. Anyway, she really hit a lot of good points this week.

Let's start here:
Seth, I think you omitted one other important reason why Don does the favor for young Mitchell Rosen: his man-crush on Arnold. Given the way Don fixates on Arnold, I often wonder whether he’s sleeping with Sylvia just to become enmeshed with the good surgeon. 
The psychological insight at work here is called mimesis.  In it we form crushes on people not because we desire them but because we desire to be like them. The most obvious example of this is a child for the parent. Mimesis creates a sort of instant tension because the one experiencing it will see the person they imitate both as an object for imitation ("I want to be like you") and rivalry ("I want to replace you").

If that is really what is at work here, and I hope it is because it would give this season some real meat and purpose, then Don is not attracted to Sylvia in her own light but because he wants to be like Arnold Rosen who is married to Sylvia. This, by the way, is a very male thing. If a man you admire is suddenly attracted to a woman you would not normally find beautiful, you can be sure that you too will suddenly find things about her that are beautiful, not because her beauty wasn't always there but because you hadn't really tried looking for it.

In the eyes of some critics, mimesis explains everything about art and culture. That's overstating it but it is a powerful, and usually neglected force in human life.

I'll carry on with the rest of the paragraph I cite above:
Similarly, at their drunken confessional dinner, Peggy accuses Pete of being in love with Ted. Of course, that’s where the episode stopped being subtle. I can’t tell you how irritated I was at the Benson knee press. It’s always such a letdown when a mystery is solved and the answer is … He’s gay, even if Internet rumors have long abounded. How much more satisfying if the answer had been … nothing, as you wished for last week, Paul, and Benson had remained his thoroughly inscrutable shiny self for the whole of the season. Although I suppose we should have guessed it, since the vibe between Bob and Joan was more Elton John and Marilyn Monroe than Don and Sylvia.
Yesss!!!!! (Not incidentally, how much more satisfactory the drama will be if the root causes of Don Draper turn out to be ... nothing.)

As I was saying last time, the really irritating thing about Bob Benson's sexuality is how it's wrapped up in a nice guy motive and it isn't really, you know, sexual. This was the problem with the sexual roles women used to be offered: whore or the female equivalent of Bob Benson as gay man. I think Rosin would have been able to make her point more forcefully if Benson had been a woman for then the fundamental injustice of it all would have jumped out: all the other male characters on the show are allowed to have raw sexual desire and this guy has to be this neatly dressed, super-polite and thoughtful eunuch who just wants love. That is the way wives and mothers used to be portrayed and it is one of the great victories in a show such as Mad Men that female characters are show to be driven by irrational sexual passions just as men have always been. Why not gay men too?

As I hinted yesterday, I think a gay Pete makes much more sense. He acts like a man denying something about himself to himself would do. I knew a gay guy just like him in the 1980s who similarly overcompensated to the point of getting married and having children.

There were some who saw Bob Benson as a Don-like character and that makes sense if we think of the episode wherein the history of Don's relationship with Roger is revealed and how Don ingratiated himself with Roger. But the problem with that is that it's too narrow. To paraphrase Cary Grant: the force driving Mad Men is that everyone wants to be Don Draper, including Don Draper (a point I will return to).

Okay, now I want to trouble you with a thought that may make you uncomfortable. Here is what Rosin has to say about Don encouraging Sally to become a party to his lies:
As for what Don said, it was surely bad parenting—Sally knows what she saw—but there is something profound about asking a child to collude with you in an obvious lie. (Marjorie Williams addressed this question in her beautiful essay about Santa Claus and dying of cancer.) Contrast Don’s decision to lie with Pete’s to bully his way into what he sees as the truth about his mother and Manolo. Pete refuses to see that “it’s complicated,” as Don tells Sally, so he winds up in a cruel place where he robs his mother of her only comfort, fires Manolo, and sneers at Bob Benson. Sometimes we need our lies—something an ad man understands better than anyone.
That's a good, and very, very profound, point. I know, I know, this particular secret seems and odious one but we need our secrets and having secrets requires lying. For it is complicated especially when we bond especially close to someone. That is obviously going to be true of sexual relationships but also of child-parent ones. Think of the difference between the adult who is still capable of loving their father or mother and the one who hates him or her. The secret to loving her is not to be blind to your parents' sins but to be aware of them and grasp that it is complicated and, therefore, to collude with their lies to some extent. It is the adult or teen who really hates their mother or father who wants to drag every last ugly sin out into the daylight.

Hold that thought, and consider this brilliant insight that gets two thirds of the way home:
Lately I’ve begun to think of the show as operating on two very different planes. One is full of fairytale conflict and Jungian archetypes and Biblical-level dramas. This is the plane on which Don and most of the characters from earlier seasons are trapped. The plot twist that led Sally into her worst Freudian nightmare was straight out of a 17th century play: a purloined letter. (In classic French farce characters are always eavesdropping behind doors and screens.) Meanwhile the original spirit of the show—rooted in a particular moment in American history and moving along with the decade—resides with the newer characters.
That's so true. The worst episodes this season have been the ones that explore the supposedly deep psychological roots of Don's behaviour.  (I'll leave aside the biblical issues for a moment.)

Meanwhile, however, there is the "original spirit of the show". Rosin gets this wrong and does so in a way that is typical of her and her generation. But go back to the first season and you will clearly see that the original spirit of the show is indeed a particular moment in history that has been lost. The show is driven by nostalgia for a particular kind of manliness and, although to a lesser extent and less lovingly, for a certain sort of womanliness.

And here we get to the point that separates people. As I said above, even Don Draper isn't Don Draper but he wants to be. There is an entrenched line of criticism that says that is his great moral failure and that he should embrace authenticity instead. But Don Draper is not an unusual creation. A whole generation of men and women left behind their rural and ethnic roots to become something like him. Think just of actors and singers:
Archie Leach became Cary Grant
Doris Kapplehoff became Doris Day
Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis
Ann-Margret Olsson became simply Ann Margret
Anita Belle Colton became Anita O'Day
Dino Paul Crocetti became Dean Martin
Norma Jean Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe
Allen Stuart Konisberg became Woody Allen
I won't go on but I could. Nowadays performers still change their names but most do so to seem more exotic than their given names would suggest. Al those people above changed their names so as to seem less exotic and to conform to a sort of ideal of all-American virtue. And it wasn't just a new name they sought but a new personality to go with that image. Don Draper too didn't want to be a dick anymore.

Final thought for now: in the opening season, Weiner dropped some heavy biblical hints about Don Draper as a sort of Moses character. Now, if we step back to Rosin again. For her, the most important thing about the show is its portrayal of a moment of historical "progress".
Meanwhile the original spirit of the show—rooted in a particular moment in American history and moving along with the decade—resides with the newer characters.
She cares about where the thing is going. But no one would have watched a show that featured only those newer characters and their progress.  The entire appeal of the show for five seasons was in Don, Roger and Joan. At the same time, we all knew they had to get swept off the stage at some point. And thus the nostalgia: something was gained but something was lost when characters like them disappeared from American life. And one way to handle that dramatically would be to have Don Draper be a sort of Moses character who leads us to the promised land but cannot enter into it because of his own sins.

Unlike Rosin, I miss characters like Don and Roger and think a lot of our current cultural problems would be solved if men were encouraged to adopt characters like theirs again. And I'd have put Bob Benson in with them until he became the rather sad character he became last Sunday night. The central lesson of the show, as I've said many times before, is that who and what you are trying to become is more important than being or trying to be the person you "really are".


  1. Your comment about a gay Pete is interesting. This is a piece I ran across back in 2009. I don't know who the author is or if he's gay or not. I don't buy it but judge for yourself. There seem to be a lot of man crushes on Mad Men. Makes you wonder.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009
    Gay Don
    As "Mad Men" fans salivate while awaiting the third season premiere (my mouth is moist as well), it's time to address a subplot that's been brewing since Show One.

    Betty Draper's hidden pill addiction?

    Roger Sterling's monogrammed cock ring collection?

    Peggy Olson's taste for puppy flesh?


    It's time to acknowledge what's been staring us in the face from the beginning: Don Draper's homosexuality.

    Now, most of you are saying, "Um, excuse me! Isn't Sal Romano the closeted gay character?"

    Well, that's what Matthew Weiner and his writers want you to think. And you fell for it -- all of you. You should be embarrassed. I'm embarrassed for you.

    Had you been paying attention, you would've noticed Don's queer side long ago. Consider the facts.

    1). Don is beautiful. Too beautiful to be straight. Just look at this guy!

    No nellie, he. Very Cary Grant or Rock Hudson. Need I elaborate?

    2). Don's utter contempt for women. He's a complete misogynist. His era's social/sexual restrictions fill Don with primal fury which he unleashes on whomever he happens to be fucking. Betty is a beard, which explains her depressive anger. The lone exception is Anna Draper, Don's fictional ex-wife who serves as a mother figure. And gay men love their mothers, as any queer expert can tell you.

    But wait, you yelp: doesn't Don like Peggy? Not really. He promoted her to piss off Pete Campbell. That she blossomed as a copywriter is a bonus. Plus, Don thinks Peggy is a dyke. In the early sixties, closeted gays stuck together. So Peggy doesn't count.

    3). Don's ability to make straight men want him. Not every gay man can swing this, but Don does it with ease. Pete Campbell is clearly in love with Don, and would take it up the ass with a smile and a "Yes sir!" Knowing this, Don teases Pete, slaps him around like a whiny, pasty, nerdy catnip mouse. Just when Pete thinks that his love will be reciprocated, Don slams him back to the ground. Tops can be so brutal.

    4). Don's real name is Dick. Enough said.

    5). Dick Whitman is essentially wearing the skin of the deceased Don Draper. Kinda like Buffalo Bill in "Silence Of The Lambs," only much gayer.

    5). Don's always well dressed, regardless of his surroundings. No straight guy tucks in his shirt on weekends. An obvious sign most people have missed.

    6). Don has never fucked, or tried to fuck, Joan Holloway.

    That's the queer siren going off. You think that Joan doesn't want Don? Please. She'd be a bigger Don whore than Pete Campbell. I mean, Joan fucked that pretentious dweeb Paul Kinsey. And she's engaged to Dr. Rape, or whatever his name is. Don would be heaven for Joan. But Don hasn't lifted a finger. He doesn't even check out Joan as she sashays down the hallway.

    If that's not gay, I don't know what is.

    Will Weiner and company develop this subplot this season? We'll see. Personally, I'd save Don's coming out for the Stonewall riots. Imagine him in leather kicking ass. Can you say hot? Bring on the seventies!

    posted by Dennis Perrin at 11:15 AM

  2. "... it is one of the great victories in a show such as Mad Men that female characters are show to be driven by irrational sexual passions just as men have always been. Why not gay men too?"

    Maybe we're not at that point yet, and maybe we won't be for a long time. I think that's probably just as well. I don't know that portraying female characters driven by irrational sexual passions represents progress. Plus, the entire gay marriage campaign has focussed on "love" between two men or two women, its been sanitized and the raw promiscuous and often anonymous sex which is certainly more realistic has been carefully avoided for the sake of the political victories.

    1. Since women in real life are, like men, driven by irrational sexual passions, it seems to me that they ought to be in fiction too. Otherwise, you get this false portrait that creates false expectations of what women are like and, not incidentally, what they are supposed to be.

    2. I understand what you're saying, but I don't know many women who fall into that category, maybe because women usually pay a bigger price for it than men do. When men behave that way they're just, well, men. They can't become pregnant and, like it or not, they normally don't have to endure the same type of scorn that a woman in that situation would. Scorn, not from men,but from other women. How many times do we see well-educated and well-employed women married to or "with" men who make a quarter of their salary. Invariably she is looked at as something of an anomaly, what does she see in him is the question women ask. Women do think differently than men, you've alluded to this in your earlier posts about this. Economics normally doesn't enter into it for a man (unless he's a gigolo) but it does for women. Which maybe is the reason more are not driven by irrational sexual passions, or they do it once, lick their wounds after, and think twice the next time the opportunity presents itself.

    3. Funny you should say that because I don't know any women who don't fit into that category. I know lots of women who like to think they aren't like that and would like others to think they aren't like that but, if you get to know them well, you find lots of clues to suggest otherwise. (Of course, a gentleman pretends not to have noticed but any man who doesn't pay attention to these things is setting himself up for serious deception.)

      As to your second point about scorn from other women, yes, there is lots of slut shaming and the like amongst women still going on but the women who do it are deeply aware of their own secret shame (that is probably what makes it so vicious).

  3. I must be moving in the wrong circles then. Isn't the kind of behavior you're describing a little unseemly to say the least over a certain age, like maybe 25? Another thought is that if they are that way maybe they've decided to keep it private, not to broadcast it. That would be a novel idea wouldn't it.