Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Men: Male types

I promised this yesterday and then ended up driving around doing errands all day long.

Anyway, the question I asked myself was, "Can I line up the three binary qualities that I applied to female characters on Wednesday and apply them to men?"

The three binary pairs were:

  1. Romantic or Realist
  2. 2nd generation feminist or 3rd generation feminist
  3. A morality based on rules and duties or a morality based on what makes you flourish

Okay, so it's obvious which one is difficult. I mean, male characters might well be concerned about treating women fairly and equitably but they aren't necessarily concerned. And, even if they are, they don't have the same visceral concern for the issue that women do.

Of course, some might question my applying the categories of second and third generation feminist to characters set in the 1960s. I might too, except that they really do fit. There are two reasons that might be. That might be because all the episodes for the show were written in the last decade and the writers unconsciously applied characteristics from contemporary women to women in the past. Or it might be that while second and third generation are contemporary categories they mask something far deeper and more permanent about the human condition; it might be that there are different ways to approach being a woman that currently manifest themselves in terms of feminism but are always there, feminism or not. I believe the second is the case.

The reasons why I believe that are complicated I won't go into in any depth here. Instead, let me suggest that, for men, the similar categories are, drawing on the distinction that anthropologist Michael Herzfeld found villagers in Crete made, 1) that one can aim to be  good man or 2) that one can aim to be good at being a man. Brett McKay has already applied this distinction to Walter White on Breaking Bad and noted that we can't help but admire White for being good at being a man no matter how much we might want to criticize him for being a bad man.

We can find the same deep rift in feminism for a second generation feminist would argue that even to suggest that it is important to be good at being a woman is sexist. A third generation feminist will soft pedal the claim that a moral woman is a woman who works at being good at being a woman but this is implicit in all third generation feminism whether acknowledged or not. At the same time, everyone knows that some women really are better at being women than their peers and we all can see the difference and they get admiration just as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper do.

McKay says there is something potentially amoral about such men:
It is possible to be good at being a man, without also being a good man. For example a mob boss has a dangerous job, supports his family, and is highly resourceful. He also whacks people on a whim. He’s not a good man, but he’s good at being a man.
McKay's point is not that being good at being a man is necessarily amoral but that it can be. I think that's right if we use "amoral" in the very specialized sense of ignoring socially accepted rules and duties as opposed to being genuinely amoral as no one would admire someone genuinely amoral.

McKay does not think the reverse is the case. I think he's wrong about that but that he is wrong for an important reason that cannot be denied. Why do I think he is wrong? I hesitate to even bring it up as it is such a hackneyed argument but, here goes, the concentration camp guard is a good man who is essentially immoral. The guard knows full well what is going on in the camp but he keeps doing his job because he is a good man. His morality is really just pragmatism and he knows it.

I know why McKay makes the the claim he does. A man who is good at being a man may or may not be a force for social good. That is what plays as amorality. But none of the dark trio of the television renaissance are amoral: they have morals they just aren't very comfortable morals for a citizen to have. A good man is always a force for social good by the standards of the society he lives in but those standards may be depraved when viewed from outside that society.

I could go a lot of places with that but I want to focus on one thing and that is that the man who seeks to be good at being a man or the woman who seeks to be good at being a woman will always be in tension with the social order they live in. They are doing what the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman empire called being a philosopher (a very different thing from most of the boring dweebs who teach philosophy at universities nowadays). Ultimately, though, I also think that the only way to be really happy (in the Aristotelean sense and not just feeling happy) is to be good at being a man or good at being a woman.

I could go on about this but I'm going to abruptly shift the discussion back to Mad Men. Earlier this week we had a discussion in the comments about why we like Pete even though "he has never lost that swarmy feel". I think the reason for this is where Pete fits on the grid. He's a romantic at heart: he aspires to a romantic life and we see this in his buying the rifle, in his wanting to be a writer, in his attempts at being a lover, in his love for Beethoven. He's also driven by a desire to flourish and to help his wife and child flourish. By the rules I established Wednesday, he should, therefore, be under pressure to embrace a rules and duties morality and this he tries to do.

But he really doesn't want to. That's the fault line of Pete's character. He goes along to get along but he chafes at his leash and collar. For example, everybody goes to brothels so Pete doesn't feel any remorse with doing it until he runs into his father-in-law at one. Also, when he discovers Don's double life he is genuinely shocked that there is no consequence of his exposing it. There could have been a consequence, of course. But what shocks Pete is that there wasn't necessarily a consequence.

Why does that shock him so? Because the way that rules and duties moralists talk themselves into accepting rules and duties that often run at cross purposes with their personal desires is by convincing themselves that, however much they might seem contradictory in the short run, ultimately they line up. This can be done in an idealist way or in a cynical way. The idealist will either argue, like Kant, that the rules can be good even if we struggle with them if they are dictated by reason or, like a modern Catholic moralist, that the rules can be ultimately beneficial even if we struggle with them if they are dictated by God. The cynic will argue that no matter how much good might come out of ignoring a rule, the punishment for being found out would be so severe as to make it not worth the trouble. Most will do a bit of both as every cynic is a disillusioned idealist at core. At that's Pete.

Pete is swarmy because he keeps following rules he hates while quietly rebelling against them in little ways that he thinks he won't get caught at. Mostly, he keeps to the rules because he thinks that if he is a good man—we might just as easily say, a nice guy—that he will be rewarded in the end no matter how uncomfortable it is for him now.

And Pete is a classic nice guy in that he feels he is a good person for following the rules but he is really doing so for base reasons. He'd never really thought through what it would be to be good at being a man until he met people like Don Draper and Bob Benson, and if that should make you think of Tyler Durden and Lester Burnham.

Don is something of the reverse case. He broke the rules to get what he wanted and he did it big time. As long as he can be Don, that's not a problem; but whenever he is faced with the risk of exposure, he runs. Don, like Tony Soprano and Walter White, lives in a way that is a threat to society but society is also a threat to him so he, like an ancient philosopher, must live esoterically never revealing his real purposes except to an inner circle of trusted collaborators.

And, let's face it, you know Pete because, most of the time, you are like him thinking that if you keep on being a nice guy you will be rewarded. And, just maybe, you might get to know Don too because once there was an opportunity to do something you really wanted to do even though it was against the rules and you did it and, once it was done, it could never be undone. It probably isn't anything as big as what Don Draper did but this transgression might give you enough of a thrill that the thought of making the jump starts to feel real to you and ... well, you should be able to figure out the rest for yourself shouldn't you. (Note, this author takes no responsibility for any consequences, good or bad, of your treating this as an advice column.)

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