At one level, these emerging shows seem only to take advantage of the Mad Men fad to do what television and entertainment at their worst have never ceased doing to women. Objectification runs absolutely rampant. It’s not enough for Kate Beckett (from Castle) to be a strong, smart detective; it’s necessary every so often to show her in her underwear or emerging from a swimming pool in a bikini. Grey’s Anatomy features strong, smart women as well, but clothes fly off on that show as often as commercial breaks. (To be fair, they’re equal-opportunity exploiters of both men and women.) Even Bones, a show loosely based on the work of brilliant forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, manages to find opportunities to get their scientists naked.
Far worse is the world of so-called “reality” TV. Is anything more objectifying and exploitative than the likes of The Bachelor, The Real World, The Girls Next Door, Jersey Shore, and anything with any of the Kardashians?
What sets apart the objectification at work in Mad Men and these new series is an air of conservatism. They play on a broad sense of cultural emasculation, offering an escape fantasy into a world where men had more power.
It creates a subtle temptation for those who believe in a biblical complementarian understanding of gender. Our current sense of discontent can lead us to imagine that the past had it right. But while the sexual revolution and radical feminism have eroded much from the home and the family, the cure is not to applaud a return to the values of the 50s and 60s. We watch these shows, where power is centered around men and where women are eager to please, and we laugh along like we’re in on the joke. Such conservatism is no solution to the gender problems that plague us.
I have a long essay in me, I think, on this and related issues someday. But for now, let me simply echo Mike’s point about objectification. As an avid watcher of Castle, the insertions of skin are both obviously artificial, and undermine the otherwise interesting possibilities of showing the sexual dimension of life in other ways, as the folks on Friday Night Lights have managed to do with Tami Taylor. Skin is the storyteller’s easy route to reminding us of sexuality’s role in a relationship. A better storyteller might leave room for mystery.
But I wonder about Cosper’s description of Mad Men as a sort of ‘conservatism.’ The notion entails history, and I wonder about whether the show accurately depicts gender relations. I presume the broad strokes are accurate enough, but these things are matters of tone and emphasis, two subtleties which are very easily distorted.*
Lest you accuse me of being overly sanguine and affirming an idyllic period of harmony for the American family, let me simply put out there that I think the veneer of perfection carried with it a pernicious underbelly. There never was an American Eden.
But my concern is that in our hangover from the sexual revolution we distort the vices of the generation that preceded it. It’s easy to make the actors sound like the playwrite, especially in a period piece. The danger of treating Mad Men as a piece of conservative nostalgia is that it may not be conserving anything at all, but rather offering a early twenty-first century projection backward on to an aesthetic that we now welcome again. It’s a case on which only the historians can play judge.
Of course, if the show’s emphases are right, then the problem with the sexual revolution is that it was not revolutionary enough. Like many attempted coups, it preserved in its tapestry the most dominant thread from the previous era: men getting everything they want, while women pay the higher price.
*Full disclosure: I’m leaning on Mike’s account of the show here, as I watched the first season and then stopped, which is an essay in itself. However, I don’t think any of the above requires anything more than Mike’s description and a basic familiarity with the question of history’s relationship to myth.