'Mad Men', Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s
Scholars across the humanities consider Mad Men from a fascinating array of perspectives, including fashion, history, civil rights, feminism, consumerism, and art, as well as through theoretical frames such as critical race theory, gender, queer theory, and psychoanalysis.
Masculinity as a Decorative Layer
Figures 12.6–12.8. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves
being looked at” (Berger) (“Maidenform,” 2.6)
An episode that opens with three women getting ready for their day ends with Don doing the same, and indeed the last shots recall the framing and doubling techniques that were used in the beginning for Betty and Joan. Like the Marilyn/Jackie campaign, this double image speaks to the performativity of gender identity, but now of masculinity as masquerade, of a put-on show that requires certain basic foundation garments, though these maybe more symbolic than actual. ( Jimmy Barrett recognizes both Don and Betty as “types” as soon as he meets them, quipping, “Are you two sold separately?”; he later calls Don “the man in the gray flannel suit,” and tells him he loved him in Gentleman’s Agreement. “I’m sorry, nobody wants to think they’re a type,” Dr. Faye Miller tells Don two seasons later, after suggesting he’ll be remarried at the end of the year.)
Masculinity may not be propped up by obvious foundation garments (though a quick look at men’s underwear in a Paris department store will tell you otherwise), but like femininity, it is altered and shaped to fit the cultural mold. Don’s crisis in front of the bathroom mirror has to do with moving from a position of the one who looks to one being looked at—finding himself, by the end of the episode, in what Mary Ann Doane refers to as the “feminine position”:
While the male is locked into sexual identity, the female can at least pretend that she is other—in fact, sexual mobility would seem to be a distinguishing feature of femininity in its cultural construction... The idea seems to be this: it is understandable that women would want to be men, for everyone wants to be elsewhere than in the feminine position. What is not understandable within the given terms is why a woman might flaunt her femininity, produce herself as an excess of femininity, in other words, foreground the masquerade. Masquerade is not as recuperable as transvestism precisely because it constitutes an acknowledgement that it is femininity itself which is constructed as a mask—as the decorative layer which conceals a non-identity. (“Film and Masquerade,” 81)
Like Peggy, Don occupies a distanced position vis-à-vis his assigned or assumed gender role, choosing to stay away from the strip clubs, uncomfortable (for good reason) with his status as “war hero,” refusing for the most part to prop up his masculinity with misogynous humor or male camaraderie. He tells Duck Phillips, who tries to win him over with a story of his army days, “Who am I in this story? What do you want me to say? That we’re on the same team? That I love being in your unit? Sarge, I’m scared?” (“Maidenform”). We come to believe that Don is more secure in his masculinity precisely because he is able to recognize it as a construction and a prop. As Don knows full well he is not the man he claims to be, his masculine identity is nothing but a series of performances meant to create an illusion of the ideal male subject. “Look at that man!” Betty’s neighbor Francine says, watching Don in the backyard. “I know!” Betty replies (“Marriage of Figaro,” 1.3).
Though he may not be interested in joining the junior executives for “a little extra hours after hours,” Don nonetheless has his own extracurricular activities, which in “Maidenform” involve a somewhat risqué hotel tryst with Bobbie Barrett, who just won’t stop talking. Shocked to discover that he has a “reputation,” and “fans,” and that women have been talking about him behind his back, Don abandons Bobbie Barrett tied to the bedpost in her hotel room, but not before she gets in the final word: “Oh stop, this is nobody’s maiden voyage.” Bobbie offers to have herself blindfolded, but it’s already too late, she has already seen and understood something about Don that he did not want (us) to see. The choice of “maiden” voyage is of course not accidental here and brings us back to the central conceit (and title) of the episode: the foundation garments by which femininity and masculinity are organized and kept in “shape.” A form of the subject that can only be called, recalling Lacan, “orthopedic.”
Figures 12.9–12.12. A different mirror scene: Sally and Don
Figures 12.13–12.14. Betty and Sally looking up at Don
While the male may be “locked into sexual identity,” masculinity too is a decorative layer that conceals a nonidentity, and this truth is signaled to us by the multiple mirror reflections that split the image of Don into fragments. We already know that Don Draper is not Don Draper, just as we know that he is neither the war hero, nor the good father, nor the good husband that the world takes him to be. But we also know that no matter how much Adam Whitman might want it to be the case, Don Draper is also not Dick Whitman. “What kind of a man are you?” asks Rachel Menken when Don proposes they drop everything and run away together. “I think I am only now beginning to see you clearly for the first time” (“Nixon vs. Kennedy,” 1.12).
Mad Men is not the only contemporary TV series to foreground masculinity as performance. The episode “Hello, Dexter Morgan” (4.11) of Dexter (Showtime, 2006–) shows us Dexter standing in front of a four-pane mirror, his reflection quadrupled. “You’re juggling too many people,” his ghostly father tells him. When Dexter misunderstands, he specifies: “I mean Dexter Morgan, blood tech, husband, father, serial killer... Which one are you?”—a question that echoes Mad Men’s often repeated “Who is Don Draper?” Like Don, Dexter has a secret identity, a “dark passenger” whose true nature he cannot reveal to friends or family. Dexter, as he repeatedly tells us, wears a “mask” in order to hide his real self. Yet what the series so clearly shows us is that the alienating armor of identity produced through identifications and misrecognitions is all the identity we have. “Which one are you?” asks the father. “All of them,” says Dexter.
For Doane, the masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. “Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed,” she writes, a “decorative layer” that conceals a nonidentity (“Film and Masquerade,” 81). Similarly, Mad Men returns us again and again to this problem of nonidentity: there is no Don Draper and there is no Dick Whitman. Pete has nothing on Don because Don himself is nothing—this is the frightening lack that Rachel sees in a flash, while it takes Betty a long time to face up to the fact that the image she has believed in is a construct that she herself helped to form. Betty is caught up in the lure of spatial identification (as Lacan would put it), and her worries are always cosmetic. “You’re painting a masterpiece,” she says, quoting her mother; “make sure to hide the brush strokes.” Betty’s disenchantment with Don has less to do with his marital infidelities, or even with the revelation of his “true” identity, than with the fact that in turning out to be different from what she believed, he spoils the perfect picture of suburban marital bliss. “I want to scream at you for ruining all this!” she tells him (“The Grown-Ups,” 3.12).
Throughout “Maidenform,” men have been imagining themselves in control of the “gaze”—an unquestioned phallic mastery over the spectacle of woman. Yet the distinction between the gaze and the “eye” (look) is similar to the distinction between the phallus and the penis. The gaze, in other words, is the transcendental ideal—omniscient, omnipotent—that the look can never achieve but to which it ceaselessly aspires. “The best the look can hope for,” writes Carol Clover, “is to pose and pass itself off as the gaze.” Clover goes on to suggest that (in horror films in particular, but for others as well), “whenever a man imagines himself as the controlling voyeur—imagines, in Lacanian terms, that his ‘look’ constitutes a ‘gaze’—some sort of humiliation is soon to follow, typically in the form of his being overwhelmed, in one form or another, by the sexuality of the very female he meant to master” (“Eye of Horror,” 206–7; see also Clover, Men).
“Maidenform” suggests precisely such a loss of control. Something in the way Sally looks at him—and what she sees—forces Don to confront his image in the mirror not through the lens of méconnaissance (and its accompanying “illusion of autonomy” [Lacan, 80]) but as a naked truth. The end of the mirror stage for Lacan “decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into being mediated by the other’s desire... and turns the I into an apparatus to which every instinctual pressure constitutes a danger, even if it corresponds to a natural maturation process” (79). The end of “Maidenform” produces a similar kind of maturation for Don, showing the ways in which his subjectivity is mediated through the desire of the other (whether that be Betty’s bourgeois dream of the perfect home, the predatory sexual appetites of Bobbie Barrett, or Sally’s strongly Oedipal admiration). As the camera slowly pulls back, we see Don, with one pink towel wrapped around him and another in his hands, seated with his head down. As usual, he is too big for the space he occupies inside Betty’s house—the pink towels, frilly curtains, and fuzzy bathroom rugs making no sense with his masculine frame (figs. 12.15–12.16).
Doane writes that “films play out scenarios of looking in order to outline the terms of their own understanding. And given the divergence between masculine and feminine scenarios, those terms would seem to be explicitly negotiated as markers of sexual difference” (“Film as Masquerade,” 87). Although Mad Men in general and “Maidenform” in particular may seem at first glance to be participating in a “classical” production of sexual difference, the episode actually erases the divergence between masculine and feminine scenarios, placing the hypermasculine Don Draper in the “feminine position” in order to demonstrate the convergence of the forms of masquerade. As Richard Dyer and others have shown, heteronormative structures of representation dictate the ways in which the male body can and cannot be shown, producing complicated negotiations between where and how a man must look while being looked at. The male pin-up, the hard body, the boxer (Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull ), and so on—the representation of all of these figures must chart the difficult path between action and passivity, between the quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness” and the power/pleasure of looking:
The idea of looking (staring) as power and being looked at as powerlessness overlaps with ideas of activity/passivity. Thus to look is thought of as active; whereas to be looked at is passive. In reality, this is not true. The model prepares her- or himself to be looked at, the artist or photographer constructs the image to be looked at; and, on the other hand, the image that the viewer looks at is not summoned up by his or her act of looking but in collaboration with those who have put the image there. Most of us probably experience looking and being looked at, in life as in art, somewhere among these shifting relations of activity and passivity. Yet it remains the case that images of men must disavow this element of passivity if they are to be kept in line with dominant ideas of masculinity-as-activity. (Dyer, “Don’t Look Now,” 66)
Figures 12.15–12.16. The body, in bits and pieces (“Maidenform,” 2.6)
One of the visual pleasures of Mad Men is looking at Don. This pleasure is explicitly problematized in “Maidenform,” an episode dedicated to understanding the power of the look/gaze. Our pleasure in looking comes at a price: we are repeatedly asked to admire and identify with a character who is, as Pete Campbell puts it, “a liar and a cheat and possibly worse” (“Nixon vs. Kennedy”). Mad Men, in fact, offers us three paths for identification in relation to its male star. The first comes at the credit sequence that shows us first, Don Draper falling out of a high-rise building, and then, with a sudden switch in perspective, ourselves falling. The second is identification through love: like Sally, we look up at Don with eyes full of love. He is, after all, the center of the spectatorial gaze, the fetish object of the show. But the third is the image we find at the end of “Maidenform”: the image of Don in bits in pieces, with the camera slowly pulling away.
Lauren M. E. Goodlad is University Scholar, Associate Professor of English, and Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience (forthcoming) and a coeditor of Goth: Undead Subculture, also published by Duke University Press.
Lilya Kaganovsky is Associate Professor of Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Media & Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of How the Soviet Man Was Unmade.
Robert A. Rushing is Associate Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Resisting Arrest: Detective Fiction and Popular Culture.