Monday, August 4, 2008

Understandable madness

I don't watch much TV (in fact I think this is the first time I'm discussing it on my blog) but on Sunday nights I make an exception for Mad Men. People wearing clothes more fabulous than I will ever wear, dealing with more guilt, secrets, and prejudice than I hope I shall ever have to bear! Oh how I love it.

When I watch Mad Men with my mom, that means I'm sitting next to someone who lived in the NY metro area at the time the show takes place. In fact, my mom grew up in Montclair, NJ, so we were excited when last night's episode began with a party at Paul's new house in Montclair. Paul, one of the younger admen, is affecting a "hip" lifestyle--he's moved to Montclair because Greenwich Village is already too passé for him. He has also started dating Sheila, an African-American woman who works at a supermarket. I'll be interested to see if their relationship gains more of a presence on the show as the Civil Rights movement heats up...

Sheila says that she is from South Orange and works at Food Fair--two details that my mom considered spot-on, because South Orange was a predominantly black town and Food Fair a major NJ supermarket chain. And the show also referenced the fact that Montclair is famous for a collection of George Innes paintings--though why did Paul say "Montclair Art Gallery" instead of the correct "Montclair Art Museum"? Perhaps this is just supposed to be one more (very subtle) hint that he is a poser, I said to Mom.

My parents were children at the time Mad Men takes place, and they were a few socioeconomic rungs below Don Draper's family--yet the show helps me to understand the world they came from. Last night's episode ended with a Mass in Latin. This is what my parents grew up hearing, but even though I was raised Catholic, I had never heard a Latin Mass. Strange and wonderful all at once.

Mad Men
also appeals to my sense of historical imagination. I often ask myself what I would have done had I lived in a time or place that is less accepting of women's rights--and wonder if my gay and lesbian friends ask themselves what they would have done if they, too, lived in a less tolerant culture. We, we good 21st-century feminists and gay-rights activists, all like to think that we would have spoken out against injustice and prejudice at every turn. We would have had the common sense and the belief in human dignity that people in the olden days lacked! We would have been different! And there is a trend in middlebrow historical novels and such to portray heroines as "feisty" or "liberated" or "modern" beyond all reasonable probability.

But in reality, you know, most of us would have accepted the norms and values of our culture, not fought against them--just as most of us don't fight wholesale against the culture we live in today, even if we recognize its flaws. Instead, we pick our battles, we avoid causing a ruckus, we use more subtle tactics, and we realize that compromise is often necessary.

And so, had we lived in 1962, many of us wouldn't even have been discontented (I read an essay last semester about how bourgeois women in 1800s France weren't a bunch of frustrated Emma Bovarys--they were perfectly happy raising their children, going to church, upholding strict moral standards). And if we were discontented, we might've had Betty's very Feminine Mystique-y malaise: a secret despair whose root cause we could not identify. We wouldn't have been able to see the forces that hemmed us in. Or maybe, if we were more ambitious, we would have worked within the established system to get ahead--becoming manipulative and foxy like Joan. Very, very few of us would have been like Peggy--breaking into traditionally male professions and wanting respect on our own terms.

And Peggy could so easily have become one of those irritatingly modern-seeming female characters--the "secretly brilliant woman whom everyone else underestimates." Well, yes, that's a part of who she is, but Mad Men never hesitates to show that a woman in her position is still defined by her compromises and sacrifices. Last night's episode showed her kissing a cute guy at Paul's party then turning him down--because she has learned the hard way that she cannot afford love (or even, it seems, friendship). The show pays similar attention to the sacrifices made by Salvatore, the closeted gay art director who has a new wife. When I watch Mad Men, I think about what I would have done if I were in Peggy's or Salvatore's position--and though it is easy for us modern viewers to disagree with the choices they make, can any of us really say that we would have been able to do better?

Photo 1: Paul, Sheila and Joan. Photo 2: Salvatore and Peggy. Images from


VP81955 said...

I used to live in New Jersey (not in the early sixties, mind you), and I don't believe South Orange had, or has had, a reputation as a "black" area; it's probably best known as the home of Seton Hall University. In contrast, East Orange now has a largely black population (perhaps that wasn't the case in 1962).

TheJersey said...

Agreed with VP81955. I was born and raised in South Orange (80s-90s)and it has never been a predominantly black town and today it remains an upper middle class, though diverse town. Orange and East Orange at that time possibly. I thought it was interesting that the writers chose that as her hometown because a black family there at the time would have to be doing well financially.

sbn28806 said...

I grew up next to South Orange in the sixties. There was black elementary school-- First Street School (at Church & Academy St). There weren't segregated schools-- it's, um, just that the school boundaries coincided w/ black population.

In October 1964, a group of citizens collected 1,200 signatures calling for housing to be sold independent of "race, color or creed". The Fair Housing movement existed in many towns.

Only in 1968 did the realtors, ever so slowly start selling houses to African-Americans outside the First St and a few other districts.

Sadly, I don't think a grocery store in South Orange would have had an African-American manager in 1961, though it might have by the late sixties.

Today Maplewood/South Orange is 1/3 African-American, as opposed to ~5% back then.