Mad Men Monday: Katie Roiphe is wrong again

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, August 2, 2010 13:58 EDT
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Honestly, it must be exhausting to be Katie Roiphe, to have to spend so much time ginning up stories where the whole point of them is to be so wrong that it makes people physically uncomfortable. I mean, if I could get paid like she does to be wrong in ways that delight and invigorate the privileged as they strafe against the guilt trips laid upon them by those who have no real power over them, maybe I’d be able to summon the energies to be so very, very wrong all the fucking time. Her Saturday essay about “Mad Men” theorizes that people are fascinated with the show because of jez jelus, because supposedly Americans are a bunch of health nuts who don’t drink very much, or commit adultery. (Hat tip.)

I will say this in Roiphe’s favor: She does do a neat trick, turning inside out the usual mainstream media assumption that the East Coast elite aren’t “Real Americans”, and replacing it with the assumption that they are the only real Americans. Statistically speaking, the notion that we are a nation hungry to leave the gym to sit our collective asses swilling alcohol and screwing around, is completely backwards. Compared to the 1960s, for instance, Americans are much thicker in the waist, indicating that Roiphe’s thesis that we’ve abandoned gluttony for the elliptical simply can’t be true. In the U.S., per capita alcohol consumption has remained steady since the 60s—in 1965, it was 2.27 gallons of ethanol alcohol per capita, and in 2007 it was 2.31. As for adultery, well, that’s a tougher row to hoe. The notion that we’re less sexually promiscuous in the 60s is flatly false, as any hysterical conservative will gladly tell you. That we’ve replaced the young marriage-adultery-divorce-remarriage cycle that was really starting to dominate in the 60s (as documented on “Mad Men”) with the youthful experimentation-later marriage-fidelity with a dose of sex toys and porn in the bedroom cycle doesn’t strike me as being so sad, and Roiphe, to her credit, can’t even make a case for the deliciousness of the old ways of Doing It. But should the allure of adultery inspired by youthful marriage and sexual repression still have its claws in you, there are many red states full of religious fundamentalism that provide that opportunity, and the high divorce rate to go with it.

At least she’s hip enough to catch that a lot of the culture of petty indulgence of the 60s was a minor escape from the crush of responsibility, though she makes the mistake of playing like the suburban set’s drinking and screwing around was somehow some new thing that precluded the hippie rebellion.

In the early ’60s they smoldered against the repression of the ’50s; and it may be that we smolder a little against the wilier and subtler repression of our own undoubtedly healthier, more upstanding times.

There was a slight increase in alcohol consumption from 1955 to 1965—2.00 to 2.27. I wouldn’t overthink that, except to point out that as the Baby Boomers grew to be teenagers and start drinking, this sort of thing was to be expected.

But her argument is grander than statistical realities!

Of course people still have hangovers and affairs, but what dominates the wholesome vista is a sense that everything we do should be productive, should be moving toward a sane and balanced end. The idea that you would do something just for the momentary blissful escape of it, for intensity, for strong feeling, is out of fashion.

When we talk about the three-martini lunch these days it is with contempt, with a pleasurable thrill of superiority. How much more sensible we are than them! How much healthier! How much more prolific! “How did anyone get any work done?” someone will invariably ask. But maybe that’s the wrong question, or maybe the kind of work they got done was a different kind of work, or maybe that’s not the highest and holiest standard to which we can hold the quality of human life.

Maybe it’s because they were in a culture that still had some relationship to the social contract, and subsequently people didn’t spend their every waking hour worrying and working to avoid being first in line during the inevitable layoffs. But sure, blame organic milk.

What made this article particularly funny was that it came out right before an episode of “Mad Men” that seemed particularly determined to disprove Roiphe’s hints that modern people are kind of pathetic compared to the days when people reacted to repression by accepting the rules and then drinking and cheating to escape their miserable fates. (Nowadays, we are so silly, thinking that if repression is what makes you sad, question the rules!) “Christmas Comes But Once A Year” was all about how Don’s drinking and philandering has moved from the column of habits he can control to habits he can’t control, making him a pathetic figure in the eyes of his younger colleagues. One thing in particular about Roiphe’s essay seems especially stupid, in light of this most recent episode:

[Gay Talese] also recalls copy girls slipping out in the middle of the day with more than one man to the surrounding hotels. “You didn’t have the word ‘exploitation’ then,” Mr. Talese said. “And mostly it wasn’t exploitation.”

The scene in “Christmas Comes But Once A Year” where Allison the secretary finds $100 cash in a card and stares in to space gives, I suspect, a more accurate explanation for why the word “exploitation” wasn’t used back then—because women hadn’t started to put their mouths around the word, but not because they didn’t feel that way. It’s easy for a man to praise a system where men were encouraged to think of themselves as swinging playboys, whether they were married or not, but women were still stuck with being considered washed-up and useless if they couldn’t get married by 30. It’s a fundamentally right wing argument to say that exploitation didn’t exist until some feminists made the word up. I wasn’t alive then, but I trust feminists who say that the word was created, as words usually are, to describe phenomenon that already existed.

Roiphe can’t see this, as she is congenitally incapable of empathizing with other women. (For once, she does mention a female writer of the era, instead of sticking to her usual male-centric literary name-dropping. But all she can glean from Mary McCarthy is that she drank a lot and slept around. Not a whiff of a mention of McCarthy’s penetrating insights into how badly women especially were served by 60s style repression/release.) This passage is exactly the sort of thing that reveals how much Roiphe misses with her knee-jerk anti-feminist inclinations:

I was also struck by how many of the parties she describes, on the beach, or on the Upper East Side, devolved into romantic chaos, how easily married men fell into bed with women who were not their wives.

Except they wouldn’t have called them “women”. In the 1960s, men were men and women were “girls”, as least if they were considered sexually attractive enough to commit adultery with. By skipping over this fact, Roiphe can comfortably pretend the main reason we recoil at the sexual politics on “Mad Men” is because we’ve grown sexually boring, despite having way more sexual partners on average, as well as legal sex toys, open homosexuality, and a sense that oral sex is perfectly normal, vanilla stuff.

The funny thing is that up until last night, you could, by squinting sideways and wishing really hard, imagine that the screwing around on “Mad Men” isn’t supposed to be a horror show. And that’s because Don has largely been attracted to women that are not beholden to him, that can walk away at any time. The characters that exploit women straight up aren’t Don. On the contrary—think of the scene where Don uncomfortably entertains one sister while his boss Roger gets drunk with another one and makes her carry him around on her back, half-dressed. At the most, we got a hint of how Don has an unfair amount of power over his lovers simply by being male when the schoolteacher asks sadly on the phone if she’s going to lose her job because she slept with him. Again, Don shows his noble side and lets her off the hook.

But now the notion that male power is offset by chivalry has fallen apart completely. A weak moment, and Don’s rule against shitting where he eats is thrown out the window. And the person paying the price is his secretary, someone the audience perceives as a woman, but who would have been assuredly called a “girl” by every man around her, including those younger than her.

I don’t know if it’s just because we finally get AMC in HD or not, but I was particularly struck by how the camera reveals that Allison, while still young, has teeny tiny wrinkles starting to form around her eyes. I’d like to think it was a deliberate choice to let her natural age shine through the make-up a little, letting us know that perhaps Allison is beginning to feel the pressure of approaching 30 while stuck in a career that has basically no ladder to climb. The boss coming on to you in her position would usually be something to turn down or, if you give in, to forget basically immediately. But Don is recently divorced, and has always kept a professional distance from her, unlike those other grabby men she’s had to put up with her entire adult life. So when he comes on to you, it surely can feel like it’s for real, because he’s not that guy, right? But, as she learns at the end of the episode, in a world where that guy faces no consequences for his disrespect for women, any man can slip into being that guy if he wants to.

It’s the ingredient that’s missing in Roiphe’s waxing nostalgic for a time she didn’t have to live through. Roiphe’s insinuations that our repressions are the same as they ever were, but we’re just less fun when we cope through escape, is missing the point in the ugliest way. Maybe our escapes are less dramatic because our repressions are so severe. Maybe it’s because you can be the 30-year-old secretary without having to convince yourself to give in to a dissatisfying sexual encounter with your drunk boss on the slim hope that he’ll up and marry you. Maybe it’s because we don’t get married at age 20 because someone got knocked up, only to find ourselves restless 10 years later because we never got a chance to experiment a little before settling down. Really, it’s sad that we even have to have this discussion, because frankly, it should be obvious.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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