Monday, September 5, 2011

Madwoman on Mad Men

After leaving it for a while having been distinctly unimpressed by the first episode, Vincent and I are giving Mad Men another go. The first episode seemed void of any substance (or plot), and the sexism and racism really, really pissed me off. I read other people's opinions - that it is really a feminist story (really? I don't think so) - and saw in more and more blogs and magazines the show's influence on fashion. I felt it myself; I wanted to look like a lady too, and then stopped and wondered what I'm saying if I want to dress like it's the fifties when I'm disgusted by what the fifties were. Can you separate those things? I'm not sure. My favourite fashion is from the thirties and forties, and now I wonder what I'm expressing when I wear outfits inspired by those decades. The difference with Mad Men and fashion, though, is that the popularity of the show's style serves to glorify it; can it do so without glorifying the time in which the show is set? I don't know that it can. Those waists and lipsticks are directly linked with the oppression of the fifties on women (and even then, these were women of privilege; every black woman so far has been in some kind of uniform.)

Anyway, the main thing that bothers me now about Mad Men is something that most TV shows are guilty of, but seems more noticeable in Mad Men because of being set in such segregated times, and that is the fact that it once again shows life from a privileged white perspective. At first I thought it was simply the time in which it is set, and that shows set now are more likely to have diverse casts because there is more diversity in our societies. But that simply isn't true. TV shows now are nearly always centred around white characters (The Wire a significant exception), and will frequently be completely devoid of any non-white ethnicities. There could easily be a show set in the fifties about black people; sure it couldn't be set in an advertising agency unless from the point of view from the lift operator, but why would it need to be? As long as we don't get to see their stories, I think a lot of TV watchers forget these invisible people existed; I have my moments but my mama didn't raise no fool, and I just told you what I first thought about the era being the problem, and not the story. And it goes further; as long as the stories are only about white characters, the only actors getting these jobs are also white. I read recently in a magazine an interview with Keira Knightley where the interviewer stated her success following Bend It Like Beckham over that of Parminder Nagra was her acting ability. I was furious. It's one thing to live in a world where things are a certain way, but to lie about why things are this way is insulting and completely unjust. Parminder Nagra has had one notable role since Bend It Like Beckham, on ER. Hospital dramas seem to me to be light years ahead of other TV shows in the ethnic diversity of their casts (although the central protagonists are still usually white). Say what you like about Grey's Anatomy, but it is one of the only shows on TV where non-white characters have relationships with white characters and don't have to be white-featured or ridiculously good looking to do so[/deserve to]. Miranda Bailey's character was originally written for a white, blonde woman, but went to Chandra Wilson; I understand a writer having a picture of a character in their head while writing but I like to think that this made the writing on the show more open.

There's a lot more I want to say about this but I think that'll do for now. The problem with Mad Men for me, really, is me. I find it watchable, and in spite of my objections to what I see, I know I will keep watching it. And I did get something interesting from an episode we watched last night. A character told Don there was no point in competing with the Pete Campbells of the world (Pete Campbell is a young, fairly competent junior executive who cannot be fired because of his family connexions), and I thought about how true that is. At first I thought I was being cynical, thinking that privileged birth will always be more important to success than personal achievement. Then I thought some more, and realised how true it is, and how important it is to capitalism that we, the un-privileged, don't believe it. I know part of National's success is due to people who don't benefit at all from its policies but believe that one day they will, and how National sells the State-House John lie to make it seem like we are all in control of what we can do in life, but I hadn't thought about how crucial that lie is to the entire system. To support capitalism, we have to buy this lie that everyone is equal; if not, why will we try? How will the smarts of people like Don Draper be exploited if they don't believe they are where they are on merit and all of the Pete Campbells are too? I may sound like a conspiracy theorist, but if you think about it, I think you might agree.

One more thing. Is it enough to rely on viewers to interpret what they see for themselves? I'm not sure. I'm not an advocate of censorship, but I do believe in responsible broadcasting; we're not stupid, but when we're treated as such (news and reality TV being the worst culprits), broadcasters need to be consistent. Shows like Mad Men are supposed to be watched by discerning audiences; one can be discerning without having any idea of what is real or acceptable. So much of what the male characters say in Mad Men is similar to what I've heard my own friends say, I don't trust them to know where the line is. Do you? I'd be really interested to know what other people think about the show. (Except people going with the feminist line; pull the other one. Finger, I mean.)

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