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The Moonlight And Magnolias School Of Women’s History: Katie Roiphe’s Take On Mad Men

August 1, 2010, 4:00 pm


Who needs another blogger bashing Katie Roiphe for not being a feminist? And why read more about what is often obvious nowadays: that if you have decent writing skills, have gone to an Ivy League school, and have a mother in the business you can get published even if your ideas are peculiar, uninformed and often just wrong? And why belabor the fact that, while feminists can’t get published nowadays, if you are willing to stand up and tell young women that feminism just doesn’t matter, you can make a tidy living?

If, despite my advice, you were a blogger who wrote such a piece, Katie Roiphe would just say you are part of the victim culture bred by 1970s feminism, and you are so deluded.
Which brings me to what I really want to write about Roiphe’s contribution to the New York Times “Sunday Styles” section today, The Allure of Messy Lives, in which she argues — through a superficial reading of Mad Men and Cold War literary culture — that nowadays people are just too uptight for words. Roiphe, you may recall, earned her chops among the backlash crowd with a book charging that “feminists” had made her generation fearful of heterosexuality by talking about rape and sexual harassment as if they were problems that required solutions.
Silly us: so sorry.
Now, it appears, Roiphe has a new mission: to debunk contemporary social myths that alcoholism, adultery, lying and hypocrisy are to be avoided. Were women and children actually harmed by men drinking and f**king around in the 1960s, when men had all the money, jobs, access to credit and the power of the courts behind them if they chose to dump their families entirely? Heck no: and imagine the price we have paid in lost glamour for giving in to the victim culture once again. After all, Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson only used to beat each other up a little when they were drunk (which was pretty much all the time) — and they were so witty! Using the popularity of Mad Men, which just launched its fourth season last Sunday, as her central text about Cold War culture, Roiphe asserts that:
The phenomenal success of the show relies at least in part on the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behavior to our relatively staid and enlightened times. As a culture we have moved in the direction of the gym, of the enriching, wholesome pursuit, of the embrace of responsibility, and the furthering of goals, and away from lounging around in the middle of the afternoon with a drink.

Watching all the feverish and melancholic adultery, the pregnant women drinking, the 7-year-olds learning to mix the perfect Tom Collins, we can’t help but experience a puritanical frisson about how much better, saner, more sensible our own lives are. But is there also the tiniest bit of wistfulness, the slight but unmistakable hint of longing toward all that stylish chaos, all that selfish, retrograde abandon?


The world of the 1960s has been replaced by “tiny rebellions,” she writes; “vices [that] are so minor and controlled” (like Adderall and hooking up? or eating packaged food with preservatives?) Gone the world of chain-smoking, cocktail quaffing pregnant ladies waiting for hubby to come home; gone the “fun”world of the executive suite, where men were men and women were absent; gone the sexual playground of the typing pool, where the real work “the girls” got promoted (to marriage) for was done on their backs after hours; gone the world of fabulously talented, well-paid male writers passed out in public at their desks after sucking down several dry martinis at lunch.
So sad. Gone, gone with the wind, along with electroshock therapy as cure for homosexuality.
As a historian, I can’t help but notice the similarities between Roiphe’s androcentric view of the Baby Boomer years and the popular post-Reconstruction literature known as “Moonlight and Magnolias,” in which southern white women reminisced wistfully about a brutal plantation world they had never known. In the process, they transformed a land of white supremacy and black suffering into a glamorous lost “civilization” staffed with cheerful black slaves (who never got promoted either, come to think of it) and were forcefully separated from the white families they loved by cruel Federal soldiers. Disappearing slavery (as it was) required celebrating slavery (as it wasn’t.) By 1900, such women and their male allies in all-white southern state legislatures had begun chartering Mammy Memorial Associations, and building public statues to “Mammy,” that fictional, sexless black women who abandoned her own children to raise elite whites for permanent rule.
My connection here is that what Roiphe is celebrating in her nostalgia for the paradise of drinkin‘, and f***kin’, and smokin‘ in Mad Men is something that even a more slightly subtle reading of the show uncovers: a world where women and children had few, if any, rights; and men did exactly what they wanted, regardless of the consequences. It is the world of the patriarchal family, a world of hypocrisy and lies dressed up as a lost civilization of glamour, creativity and liberated sexuality.

This is not to say that I don’t love Mad Men: I do. Although the first episode of the new season was not the winner I had hoped it would be, when I MadMen myself, I identify heavily with the flawed and foolish alcoholic pussy hound Roger Sterling. But ="blsp-spelling-error" id="SPELLING_ERROR_14">Roiphe’s superficial gloss on the series is a poor counterpoint to what she claims is her generation’s obsessive need for order and control in their own families. While Mad Men’s award-winning design and the references to 1960s popular culture are nostalgic, the show itself is quite disturbing: the retro fashion and perfect sets only provide a brittle frame for a fraying heteropatriarchal culture where white people can almost — but not quite — ignore the change that is a-gonna come. Whether you think the series is, in and of itself, sexist and racist; or whether, as I do, you think it provides a forum for pondering sexism and racism, the evidence for a far more critical take on the world of my youth is what Roiphe deliberately ignores. For example:
1. The series is called Mad Men. This is hardly an accident, and it is also hardly an accident that nearly all of the older men in the show drink heavily and are also divorced or separated; while the younger men drink less, are more self-disciplined, and despite engaging in sexist banter, are better able to achieve intimacy and equality in their relationships with women. That said, the vast majority of women in Mad Men are on a short journey from their fathers’ houses to their husbands’ houses, with a stop at a Seven Sisters college and a couple years as an actress, model or secretary.
The few choices offered to women in the 1960s, and the costs of making those choices, tell us why marriage was what women invested in prior to women’s liberation. By season 4, Peggy has become a copywriter and a player at the new boutique agency put together by the refugees from Sterling, Cooper. But she is still subject to abusive tirades from Don (do we think the drink in his hand plays a role?); and Peggy is the only woman executive. Don sometimes thinks better of his nastiness towards Peggy; but only once, when he was persuading her to jump ship with him at the end of season 3 and his marriage was collapsing, has he been able to admit how badly he treats her. Joanie, the office manager, as dedicated viewers of the show might recall, ended her regular nooners with married partner Roger Sterling to find a man who was actually available, only to see Roger dump his wife and children for a fresh-faced, new secretary. Later, the physician-fiancee with whom Joanie thought she would make a secure life raped her in Roger’s office, and then joined the Army without telling her.
2. Don’s drinking is directly connected to his f**king; Don’s f**king is connected to his hard-wired need to lie to people he says he loves; and all are directly connected to his inability to care genuinely about anyone but himself as he maintains the parallel lives of home and work. In fact, Don might not be too drunk to function, and function well, as Roiphe points out. But he has certainly been drunk enough for three seasons not to be emotionally available to anyone in his family, and particularly to his wife Betty, who was catastrophically lonely. On top of this, Don’s f**king kept him away from the house for days at a time while he assured Betty, and perhaps himself, he was “working” for the family’s future. (And can I say that just because TV characters don’t get drunk from drinking all day doesn’t mean that real people can drink all day and function well?)
Granted, the writers introduced a peculiar subplot in season one, whereby we were given to understand that “Don Draper” was an assumed identity, and the protection of his real past created a context for Don’s secretiveness that even he might not have understood. Furthermore, it was the exposure of this lie that was the precipitating event for Betty’s decision to leave him for another powerful, wealthy man.
But there is a more significant historical thread Roiphe misses here, and it is about women at a crossroads between dependence and independence in the 1960s. While “Bets,” as Don calls her, is an unattractive character — child-like, ill-tempered, cold, selfish, punitive and unloving towards her children — she is also a woman whose options have been narrowed by sexism, by her limited access to money, by her enforced immaturity, and by the assumption that women’s highest calling is domestic and maternal. A graduate of Bryn Mawr (one is reminded of M. Carey Thomas’s famous line, “Our failures only marry”), once Betty married and had children she had the choice of either putting up with Don’s endless lies and ill-treatment or subjecting herself to the fate outlined in the punitive divorce laws that plunged many women and their children into poverty prior to the 1970s. When, at the end of season 3, she chooses to leave Don, it is as much for survival as for love, because she no longer trusts him to take care of her.
3. Don’s drinking helps him control his own reality, and helps him control the people around him. For three seasons, Don has lied by commission and omission to his wife, and by extension to his children. Yet he views each collection of lies as singular and not as a string of events that point to his own emptiness and corruption. As a metaphor for advertising, I think this is very skillful, but as a recipe for being a human being it has devastating consequences for his family. In season one, for example, we learned that Betty was depressed; Don sends her off to a (male) Freudian therapist to be “cured” of “her problems.” What Betty discovers in season two by listening to herself (no thanks to the therapist, who reports regularly to the husband who pays the bills) is that she is depressed because no one has listened to her, and because she is living in a fantasy marriage. Furthermore, she discovers that what she “knows” is that her husband sleeps around, and what is making her crazy is that Don (who has built a wall of alcohol and women between himself and his contempt for Betsy) keeps telling her there is nothing wrong and that she is the one with the problems.
The significancance of booze in this series is not its unimportance. Rather, alcohol is the elephant in the room, a force that is so fully integrated into daily life as to be indistinguishable from its effects. Mad Men is not, in fact, a portrait of a generation, as Roiphe would have it, and it offers far subtler advice to the contemporary world of men and women making lives than Roiphe perhaps understands. If the historiography of the last twenty years tells us anything, it tells us that you can’t really generalize about “generations” very profitably, and you certainly can’t once you understand that social inequality defies our attempts to synthesize a “generational experience.” Finally, the question Roiphe fails to ask is whether the safety her peers desire has something to do with the safety they didn’t experience as children, the vulnerability of their own mothers to the whims of fathers who had all the power, and the drinking that kept the whole project of family together.
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