With all the (deserved) hype over “Mad Men”, I guess it should be inevitable that bloggers are going to stake out a contrarian position. Still, I was disappointed to see Michelle at Bitch Blogs move in that direction, wringing her hands over the fact that, yes, “Mad Men” is good and illuminating and cutting, but what do you do about the fact that you can’t control the diversity of reactions to the show? To my mind, you do the same thing that Bitch magazine did when some feminists began to wring their hands and suggest that anything short of futilely trying to wipe the word “bitch” off the face of the planet was de facto sexism, because the stupid people won’t get that it’s ironic. What about the stupid people, and their stupid reactions? Finally, I think Bitch decided that feminists with a sense of humor deserve their own damn magazine, and you’re going to drive yourself crazy trying to control for what stupid people will think. And that, I think, is a sensible position. But Michelle falls into the trap again. First she worries about the people who don’t see the scene where Joan’s fiance rapes her as a rape. Then she worries that the women at Jezebel are being insufficiently disturbed at the scene where Don assaults a woman he’s having an affair with:
An even better example of cognitive dissonance in Mad Men’s audience happened in last season’s famous scene between Don Draper and Bobbie Barrett. In a stunningly physical display of male domination, Don grabbed Bobbie’s hair, inserted his hand into her vagina, and ordered her to compel her husband Jimmy to apologize to his clients. She complies.
When I watched the scene myself, though, I thought – how masterfully they’ve set this up! This is the dark underbelly of Don’s charm, revealed! And they’ve even set it up so that he’s using his sexual dominance of Bobbie to make her do something that will benefit him professionally! Oh I can’t wait to see what people have to say about this!
And the reaction at Jezebel was typical of what I heard in most corners of the internet: shocking – but sexxxaaaaay!
Michelle does acknowledge that the commenters and bloggers were cognizant of the fact that this kind of dominance has been eroticized in our culture, and it’s more than a little scary, and it allows rape denialists such as the ones that freak out actress Christina Hendricks. But the concern is still there: What about the stupid people? What about the people who watch “Mad Men” or read Jezebel and won’t admit that rape is rape? They don’t read the show right by any intelligent standard, and yet they’re out there, watching and reading, and we can’t stop them. What do we do?
I’m not trying to be mean, but this sort of discussion makes me as impatient as the conservative notion that all entertainment products should be appropriate for children. This sort of thing goes on at a lot of blogs, with Lisa at Sociological Images making a frequent amount of hay over her concerns at the very existence of satire. And lest you think I’m exaggerating, she doesn’t really hide this fact:
I know, it’s satire, and, if you’re a regular reader, you know how I worry about satire.
Click the link to read her frequent posts. I find it mildly interesting that satire will always face the stupid people problem, and conservatives will think that Stephen Colbert is one of them, and sitcom parodies will not really change the minds of the ignorant and hateful. But I fail to see what the point of worrying is. Just to worry? No one is going to be satisfied with that, so of course you get into this zone where Lisa veers very close to suggesting that satire should be avoided because cleverness excludes a great deal of the audience. And in Michelle’s case, she suggests that the cleverness of “Mad Men” is such that she thinks the stupid should be excluded.
And it’s something I can’t quit thinking about when a non-feminist acquaintance of mine asks me if they ought to be watching Mad Men.
The concern is way overrated with “Mad Men”, because their numbers are still low, and I imagine the density of the narrative runs most stupid people off. But this is always going to be a problem with any attempt to insert political and cultural musings into entertainment. You either make your intentions really obvious to calm concerns like the ones about, and say, when Don Draper does something sexist, bring the narrative to a screeching halt and use graphics to draw a big red circle around the offending behavior with flashing red letters that say, “Violence against women is rooted in sexism, and both are wrong.” And the second you do that, you give up on the smart audience, who goes off to find some entertainment that doesn’t treat them like they’re feeble-minded infants.
And that’s what I’m not getting from Michelle’s post or Lisa’s frequent concerns about satire—an acknowledgment that there is no such thing as the perfectly political statement made in art that is both entertaining and smart enough to bring in audience X, but pedantic enough so that audience Y gets it. Hell, you could be incredibly pedantic and I promise you, the stupid people won’t get it. You could have written “This man is raping Joan” all over the screen, and the audience that wants to call it a “kinda sorta rape” will continue to call it that. Because they believe rape is okay for their own reasons, and no single entertainment product is going to be the silver bullet that gets around their own strong need to believe that it’s okay to rape. People with conservative or anti-feminist attitudes who refuse to engage in critique of their attitudes cannot be controlled, and if you want to control their reaction to certain products, the only thing you can do is not make the products. Full stop. And then your ideas aren’t getting out there at all. Silence strikes me as a million times worse than being misunderstood. And being pedantic is a form of silencing yourself, because no one likes it. They want stories, not lectures.
If we can set aside our concerns about the willfully ignorant asshole population’s relentless inability to catch a hint, I would argue that “Mad Men” actually has done a remarkable job of getting its political points across in a way that could create profound change in some audience members. Certainly, I’ve heard plenty of people, men especially, talk about how much they feel their eyes are opened by the unvarnished portrayal of 60s sexism. And that really wakes people up to the way that sexism still works in our culture, because the show dispenses with the myth that it was one way before second wave feminism, and then everything completely changed. You see that women had jobs, and that women had a lot of rights and autonomy in the early 60s, but that didn’t mean that sexism was over by a long shot. You see that women in the early 60s had “choices”, but that wasn’t the end of the story, nor did it mean that men didn’t have power over them. And you can see how, if those narratives were stupid in the 60s, they’re stupid now.
And let’s face it—the only reason it feels subtle sometimes is because the dialogue is so rooted in character. Last night, the single male secretary in Sterling Cooper complained that he works in a “gynocracy”. What he means, of course, is that having female peers in the secretarial pool emasculates him, and unless he gets special privileges for being male, he’s being oppressed. It’s the same line sexists use now, pointing to places where they feel that men are getting unduly fair treatment, and suggesting that nothing less than being held above women means that men are being oppressed. I’d argue that what they were doing there wasn’t very subtle, and nor was it particularly subtle when Betty joked that her daughter Sally was acting like a lesbian because she likes to bang a hammer around.