A Dark Permanence (Mad Men Men)

Lane says, about the Allies’ campaign against Axis powers in North Africa, “I’ve heard men talk with dark permanence about those years.” What a delightful phrase from stodgy old Lane! It got me wondering about how many dark permanences might lurk in Lane’s world, in the world of Mad Men and women.

Last week’s episode was a horrorfest about the spectacle of violence against women. A spectacle that, at least for that episode, defines what it means to be a women. This week we got the dudefest: male characters’ anguished quest for a more authentic masculinity. For me, these episodes were equally difficult to watch. And I’m not talking about this:

Aw, these guys can’t hurt you! Plaid makes them so cuddly!

That plaid hides the dark permanence of masculinity, which is what haunts the men of the series.

First, a word about Pete. I wish that the writers would make him less of a schmuck. So maybe he’s like 85% schmuck. Can I see the 15% again? It peered out briefly, off and on, last episode. And another thing. The Salon recapper believes that Pete is destined to die. I would be surprised if this were the case. Mad Men is a show of subtle drama: drama of colors, and eyebrow lifts, and a forehead wrinkle. It’s a drama in which Betty reveals herself to have known of Don’s cheating by discussing it calmly with her analyst. Pete falling out the window, or shooting himself with the gun he comically traded a wedding gift in for? I believe there would be a different consequence for his failure to assimilate the dark permanence of masculinity. Pete’s too tenacious for that kind of move–and Lane and Roger are just as miserable. Why wouldn’t they shuffle off this mortal coil?

But I could be wrong. For one thing, it would make dramatic sense if the gunshots and riots of the outside world made its way inside. A gunshot in the office would be over the top, but the times were over the top.

Anyway, I think it’s pretty obvious that Lane and Pete were engaged in tortured struggles with the dark permanence of masculine norms. Neither did very well, though Lane is certainly more sympathetic. I want to point out a few other things:

1. The dark permanence always has a female audience. Every mini-crisis of masculinity was performed in front of the female gaze–the wives at the dinner party, Joan and Peggy listening to the fistfight, the prostitutes and their madam. So while women last week were largely victims of extreme masculine traits (and of the spectacle of them on TV and in print news), women here were a different kind of audience for the performance of masculinity. In the front row, rather than on the stage. But no less passive.

2. Don and Ken won the masculinity contest here. They seem to have made their peace with the dark permanence and found more authentic ways to perform masculinity. However, this apparent authenticity is, in both cases, subject to women:

Ken’s “authentic” quest to be a writer–and please his wife–must take place in secret, in defiance of his boss. This defiance, of course, makes him a proper rebel against the strictures of the grey flannel suit. So his protests that he does it only to impress his wife ring hollow. Still, the secrecy belies a true authentic masculine ideal of proudly dominating public space. Here is a beautiful discussion of Ken’s writing career, along with a proposal that Ken is the secret narrator of the whole series.

And Don. Really? Don? That jacket? Because your wife asked? Megan OWNS him.

My current theory is that Megan’s acting skills are so ninja that she has created the perfect concoction of wifeliness to win her full control over Don. In which case they are a good match. And this is a somewhat incomprehensible state for the show. Don in a happy marriage? Hubbba-waaaaaaa?? So we’ll see how that goes.

But meanwhile, Don performed masculinity so well that he was master of the brothel. He grew up in one! He gave advice to the madam! He got his drinks for free! And he was master of suburbia. He fixed Pete’s plumbing without anything from the awesomely clanky tool box! And even in a plaid coat, he was the king of Trudy’s dinner party.

In this case, it seems that women have significant power over the dark permanence of male norms. But this conclusion doesn’t seem right, given how little power women have in this world. And projecting this logic back to the last episode, it suggests that those nurses somehow had control over Speck’s violent masculinity.

What is the difference between sitting in the front row seats (Trudy, Megan, Peggy) or being on the stage (those nurses, Joan, and Pete’s rape victim) during the dude play?

I think that those two types of audience are not that different. Masculinity needs an other to define itself against. Women gazing at or listening to all that johnson-swinging is a symbolic representation that femininity is necessary for masculinity to exist and make sense. Whether women are watching with distance or victimized is mostly arbitrary, the cruel serendipity of luck. As Sally is starting to understand.

This is basic deconstruction stuff, so academics out there will just nod and move on. But one of my purposes in blogging is to use an accessible version of humanities high theory to better understand current affairs and pop culture. However, this analysis also reveals a major problem with deconstruction-informed high theory: while in theory there’s no difference between a woman’s level of participation/implication in the performance of masculinity, there is a huge difference between being raped and laughing when the sink explodes.

In both cases, the men involved are experiencing the perversions of normative masculinity. But the women?

As the feminists will soon make clear to some of these characters, women must reject the whole premise of masculine and feminine norms to establish a saner way of living. Neither audience to the performance of masculinity, nor performers themselves of an odious, oppressive femininity (like Betty’s failed housewife performance). And men will benefit from this rejection as well, as Don and Ken may be realizing.

But since we’re talking about a permanence, there may be no way to reject it.

Reader survey: What was harder to watch? Last week’s episode, with women so scared that they were sleeping with butcher knives under their beds? Or this week’s, with Lane’s forced enthusiasm at the football match and Pete’s conniveling (conniving+ sniveling)? Which terrifying depiction of gender norms? Leave your answers in the comments!

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