Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mad Men are Coming

Summer is upon us, and that means the summer television season, which has quietly become the best television viewing season of the year.

Like a number of friends and colleagues I know, one of the key highlights of the summer is the return of Mad Men. In honor of that, is a little something I penned a while ago about why Mad Men appeals to men as it does.

My measure as a man was taken long ago, given to the tailor, and returned to me as a pastel pink long sleeve shirt, to be worn at the office, but only on Wednesdays.

Like many other Canadians with limited credentials, not much talent to speak of, and a poor sense of economics that lead to a mountain of school related debt, I found myself teaching English in Japan. The funny thing is, the world depicted in Mad Men is no fantasy down in the Nihon. There it’s the stuff of everyday life.

Workaholic men who drink and party with call girls after work? Why, every day, Kohei. It's what salariman culture is all about. The vast majority of women stay at home as "defenders of the home," and raise the kids almost as if they were single parents. Then, when the kids have moved on, and the men retire from work, a surprisingly large number of housewives find they miss the freedom they had when their husbands were away. Divorce, and English conversation classes quickly follow. It’s a twisted sort system, but it does have an equilibrium of sorts, which is why this system has withstood the onslaught of first, second, and third wave feminism.

For WASP North America, that equilibrium was never found. Instead the pendulum has shifted from one extreme, that of the Mad Men era, to the other extreme, that of the modern era. The WASP North America of the Mad Men era is almost a mirror image of Japanese society of today. The key, and crucial, exception being that divorce was verboten in 1960’s North America. We see that in the show itself, in the way the other women look on Helen like she is some sort of leper. Sure they envy her seeming fearlessness and competence, but they fear it as well. The women’s movement that later followed did away with this timid mindset. Women like Helen went from being a socially awkward minority, to being representative of a loud spoken and proud majority.

Of course women yearn for the same things that benighted throwbacks like myself yearn for. The difference is that for the modern, urban, North American man, the actions of a man like Don Draper, the good and the bad, are beyond the realm of possibility. That’s why we love watching him go about his manly affairs. Sure he makes a right cock up out of half the stuff thrown his way, but we wannabes know without a doubt that if we were Don, we’d live it up and avoid the nonsense. If we was Don, we’d do it right, jefe, no doubt. But the truth is that that sort of life is long past for the modern, urban, North American man. But not for women.

Sure men still leave their wives today, marry someone younger, or, like Woody Allen, decide they’ve found true love in the eyes of their daughter-in-law. But it’s just not socially acceptable anymore. The wink-wink, nudge-nudge is gone. It’s been replaced with cheery terms like alimony, Deadbeat Dad, and “I think we’ve grown apart, honey.” Men acting in the irresponsible manner they had in the past been accustomed to acting with impunity are today treated quite punitively, for the same behavior. For women, the opposite is true.

In Jane Green’s article “Marrying Mr. Wrong,” about her upcoming boom “The Beach House,” marrying a man, having four kids with him, and having him accommodate your wants and desires for decades is as nothing next to the quest for a soulmate, for fulfillment, for the breathtaking passion that is her undeniable right, because she deserves it. As the commentary on her Times article showed, response to Green’s point of view broke down into women who totally understood, and sexist pigs who want to subjugate women and stand in the way of a woman’s destiny.

Mad Men is Sex in the City for dudes. The difference being that the former represents a world long gone, and the latter is the world that is. Sex in the City tapped into the zeitgeist, while Mad Men taps into the bitter nostalgia of a lost age, an era unknown to the modern, urban, North American man, not because it is a soulless, superficial fantasy, but because us dudes can take it with us into our rooms, and for a short time, indulge in a consequence free fantasy that we love all the more because we know it’s not real and never will be.

Or do we?

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