[Note: So many Mad Men spoilers.]
Last month, a friend sent me this open letter to men from Christina Hendricks. I’ve written about Ms. Hendricks before but I have to admit I’m endlessly fascinated by her and our cultures reactions to her and the show she now stars in, AMC’s retroporn Emmy winner Mad Men.
The first thing Hendricks offers us in this open letter is this little gem:
We love your body. If we’re in love with you, we love your body. Your potbelly, everything. Even if you’re insecure about something, we love your body. You feel like you’re not this or that? We love your body. We embrace everything. Because it’s you.
If that’s not real love, I don’t know what is. And let me be clear: I’m not discounting Dan Savage’s “you have the right to demand body maintenance.” mantra. But I do believe that when you’re with the right person, it’s their mind and personality that also turns you on, so that helps you love everything about them. Even what they don’t love about themselves. It’s also refreshing to hear a sex icon address male body issues so directly.
It’s funny, but there’s begun to be a backlash against Mad Men in papers like The New York Times and sites like Salon. The Times article justified the show’s success by the new Puritan and yuppie-ism of the upper class which distances the über rich from the messiness glamorized on Mad Men, a place they’d like to get back to. Salon explained that Mad Men was bad for women because “the women not only suffer but also do so with the clear message that the fault lies not in society, but in themselves.”
The argument of whether the men in Mad Men are acting as a result of societal pressures or personal flaws is a complex one, and you could really argue it both ways. But I must make the point that Mad Men‘s complicated feminism is actually a great guide for third and neo-second wavers because it illustrates a few complex but important maxims.
Maxim #1: Very few of us get to “have it all.” But you have the right to try. On the most recent episode of Mad Men, we saw Joan at the gynecologist, checking if she’d be able to have children with her husband (who raped her at one point. There I said it. It sucks and it’s sullied him as a character forever.) Later, she tries to get Lane to give her a few days off to spend with her husband because he has to work during the holidays. He denies her. Joan then surprises Dr. McRapey (see, sullied!) with dinner, cuts herself, and he fixes it. “I can’t fix everything, but I can fix this.” he says.
We can only really try to have it all. Life gets in the way.
Maxim #2: “All” is different for everyone. Peggy’s “all” didn’t include having a child with Pete, and Betty’s probably didn’t even include kids in general. Don’s “all” is finding and keeping somebody who knows everything about him and still loves him. Pete’s “all” was doing something that made his father proud. All of those are okay. You don’t have to want what society tells you to want, just as you don’t have to say you’re happy when your spouse asks you. (Oh Betty. Poor poor Betty.)
Maxim #3: Someone thinks you’re pretty. They might hate themselves for thinking so, but they do. Peggy and Pete’s relationship is a weird one. Love-hate, love-ignore. (And that goes both ways.) But despite Peggy’s “plain jane” status (which isn’t entirely fair to Elisabeth Moss) she gets plenty of offers she doesn’t even want.
Peggy’s struggle to just “come to work and do her job” in the face of all the attention she gets attests to both the sexism of the time period and the attraction of competency. (This is also true in Joan’s case.) The bodies help, but the common factor between the women of Sterling Cooper [Draper Pryce] isn’t a common body type or fashion style, it’s that they’re good at their jobs. (Even Allison. Go Allison!)
Maxim #4: People are flawed. They do not always behave well. Get over it. The biggest issue I have with the Salon article is that it wants the women to somehow make better choices because they’re women in a public forum, or that somehow the bad choices must be illustrated as society’s fault. Well, sorry. We don’t live in a fair feminist dream world where bad actions are swiftly punished and all women are powerful, beautiful, and never make bad choices. And we don’t write worlds that look like that either. They aren’t dramatically interesting. Realistic conflict stems from how we react to others disappointing us. I love comics as much as the next girl but even Superman acts like a jerk sometimes.
One last thing from Ms. Hendricks:
There are better words than beautiful. Radiant, for instance. It’s an underused word. It’s a very special word. “You are radiant.” Also, enchanting, smoldering, intoxicating, charming, fetching.
Maxim #5: Every woman (and man) is radiant in her (or his) own way. For Peggy, it’s the moment when she thinks of exactly the right thing to say. For Joan, it’s when she schools Roger. For Betty, it’s when she gives into her child-like self. In retrospect, we often look at the fifties and early sixties as a time of homogenization: cookie cutter suburban families. Even all the Beatniks look the same. But Mad Men demonstrates that though these people’s struggles are universal, their troubles are their own. They are tragic because they are individuals, not just ciphers for social commentary.
Learn to see the different kinds of beauty and ugliness in everyone and you’ll be a lot better at describing it. Which is a lot sexier. You know how Mark Twain said the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug? Well the right word is the difference between going upstairs and being left in the car. Or the perfect ad and being kicked to the curb for a newer, hipper ad agency. Like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Afterword: I’m glad to get back to real posts as I begin to wrap up the dramaturgical work I’ve been doing on Euripides. (I really have been posting, just only at the top of the page rather than here!) Head on over to the Hippolytus page to learn about bestiality, Amazons, and how much of a jerk Theseus is.