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Enabling “Mad Men” — Part III: Salvatore Romano’s Complex Closet

August 24th, 2009 1 comment

In my first “Mad Men” post, I said that the women were generally the most interesting characters on the show. Given the repressive social and legal structures in place during the early 1960’s, their efforts at success, happiness, and simple self-esteem were a complex dance around the men who called the shots But the life of a gay man was, if anything, more difficult than the women’s: Gays weren’t allowed to exist, at least not in corporate society, so — they didn’t. As we can see from the increasingly interesting character of Salvatore Romano — played by Bryan Batt,  who is also gay — this negation was effective at driving some so far into the closet that they didn’t fully come to grips with their own sexual identity.

Sal is a particularly sad case. He rebuffs the advances of a client, even though the risk is negligible. He marries, and then spends an evening making goo-goo eyes at a colleague that the Romanos have invited to dinner. His wife, of course, is almost as much a victim of this sad trap as he is. For some, times haven’t changed. Here’s what one blogger had to say, to my semi-surprise:

The tension–and the torment–of homosexuals, especially married people, was the norm in 1962.  It is still very much the case today–a person who is sexually attracted or in love with a co-worker, a friend, a fellow student, a neighbor, a member of their religious community–but must refrain from saying or acting on their feelings, and can only communicate their interest and desire in very veiled ways.

In most cases, though, such feelings can’t be repressed forever. In one of my favorite plays, Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, the closeted A.E. Housman confesses to the outrageous, liberated, proto-queer Oscar Wilde: “My life was not short enough for me to not do the things I wanted to not do.” Even in Victorian times, self-abnegation was hard and often unsuccessful.

And Sal can’t do it. In this season’s first episode, Sal has a sexual encounter with the hotel bellhop. (It goes wrong, though, in two ways: A fire alarm in the hotel stops the music, and then Mad Man Don Draper sees the two men in a state of undress as he climbs past their room on the fire escape.) What’s he going to do next? How much will he risk?

In terms of gay rights and awareness, 1962 was the Stone Age. Sal could have been fired for his sexual orientation. Even today, substantially more than 1/2 the states don’t protect gay workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation — but New York State does, so he’d be better off in that way. But these laws don’t fully reflect a much deeper change that’s taken place; a change that led to my surprise at the quote above. Because while some gay men and lesbians are still fired (or not hired in the first place) because of who they happen to be, for the most part the country’s moved on. (Now if we could just pass the damned Employment Non-Discrimination Act at the federal level to reflect that reality….)

By 2003, even the U.S. Supreme Court was bound to acknowledge this reality, with a clear majority of the justices holding, in Lawrence v. Texas, that criminalizing sexual conduct between gays was a violation of fundamental rights of liberty and equality. A dissenting, fulminating Justice Scalia, longing for the good-old-days of the early 1960’s when gays and lesbians remained neatly tucked away, foresaw the end of all “morals legislation” in the Court’s decision. But what the Court saw was its fellow gay and lesbian citizens, whose presence by 2003 was widespread, mostly accepted, and even — a touch banal, perhaps. In every area except marriage equality, clear majorities of Americans are supportive of the rights of gays to live and work as they choose.

What are the chances that today’s Sal would be married to a woman? Not great. And isn’t that progress, for Sal, for any woman who might once have become his wife, and for society? Watch any episode featuring Sal and tell me his is the kind of life is one you’d wish on anyone you know.

Enabling “Mad Men” — Part II: Joan or Peggy?

August 16th, 2009 No comments

There’s a great scene in the final episode of Season 2 of Mad Men. Joan Holloway, the office manager who’s hit the glass ceiling within the secretarial ranks, sees Peggy Olson, who has, remarkably, become a copywriter, as Peggy is about to enter her new office. Joan, crushed when her foray into script reading was snatched away, nonetheless exchanges a warm moment with Peggy, noting her name on the door and congratulating her. Sisterhood trumps envy.

As I said in my previous post about this show, the women on the show are more interesting than the men: They bob and weave for advantage in a male-dominated domestic and business world. Peggy and Joan advance in quite different ways, though. Joan is almost a caricature of the voluptuous sex object, while Peggy tacks back and forth, uncertainly, between being “one of the boys” and creating a female identity for herself. Joan advises her to take the latter course.

Joan’s the more self-assured and confident of the two, but the writers provide constant reminders of the compromises, large and small, that she must make. In one poignant glimpse, we see her taking down the bra strap that holds so much weight, and wincing at the painful mark left on her skin. In another, much more troubling scene, she is raped —  there’s no other word to describe it — by her fiance in one of offices. She protests, but has neither physical nor, as a practical matter, legal, recourse. Worse, she stays with the guy — a successful MD who’s lauded by another cast member for his charity work with “Negro children.”

In the early 1960’s, marital rape was not a crime. It took the feminist movement to change that archaic rule, and even today, rape is treated less harshly by the criminal law when it occurs within a marriage. This law was a holdover from the much earlier rule, abolished in nineteenth century, that permitted men to “chastise” — beat — their wives for insubordination. That marital rape was protected for an additional century speaks to the lingering idea that rape within marriage was an oxymoron — marriage bestowed consent to sex, all the time.

Of course, Joan was not yet married, so she could have reported a crime. But at that time, even more than today, Joan’s very sexuality, coupled with lingering ideas of male prerogative would have made prosecution unlikely, conviction less so. And Joan, as a wily  maneuverer within the constraints of her era, would perhaps not have seen reporting the crime as in her best interest. (At least not immediately — I have  some hope that the show will return to this issue, and show the psychological damage that must have been inflicted.)

Even today, many women put up with all sorts of crap in defense of the male prerogative that is so slow to die. That’s why I was heartened at the recent comments, and reaction, to Gov. Mark Sanford’s infidelity by his wife, Jenny. This former Wall Street big shot was not going to stand for it, nor stand by his side before the media when he “confessed.”  She told him to stop, and forbade him to see his Argentine lover again. (I can’t believe he even had the [fill-in-the-blank] to ask). And now she’s moved out of the Governor’s Mansion with the couple’s four sons.

Of course, not every woman is Jenny Sanford. Many are still in the powerless position of Joan, or the impossible one of Peggy, who hides her pregnancy and gives her child up for adoption (in a world where abortion was illegal) so that she can continue her career, which is the most important thing to her. Only in the last few episodes does she begin to realize the toll that her decisions have taken.

Season 3 starts tonight. I can’t wait.

Enabling “Mad Men” — Part I: The Betty Chronicles

August 12th, 2009 No comments

During a recent vacation in Maine, the four adults in the house gathered what was left of ourselves after our kids had finally gone to sleep, and plowed through the entire second season of Mad Men. (We’d done the same with the first season during last year’s vacation.) One week, thirteen episodes on DVD: now that’s the way to watch TV. By the end, we were all struck by the same thing:

The title and the show’s dead-on depiction of the dysfunctionally glamorous advertising world of the early 1960’s notwithstanding, most of the best-developed and consequently most interesting characters are the women: Betty Draper, wife of the show’s tortured protagonist, Don Draper; Joan Holloway, office manager for the ad agency; and Peggy Olson, secretary-turned-copywriter. All reflect the legal and social cages that helds women during that not-so-long ago time, as well as the various strategies women used to pick the locks.

From my perspective, the sometimes-unstated legal rules that enforced the social norms are especially interesting. In this first of three separate posts about these women, I’ll focus on Betty Draper. 

Don Draper is a beautiful, irresistible man with money and power. As was more common then than now, he sleeps around — often, and with different women. From season 1, it’s obvious that Betty knows about it, but her options are few. The neighborhood’s scorn for the one divorced women in their midst (before they know anything of the circumstances), reflects the high social cost borne by divorcees. When Betty finally takes a stand during season 2 — only after being publicly humiliated — Don denies everything. Despite excavating the house for clues, she unearths no proof of his infidelities. At the time, this meant that divorce would not have been a legal option for for her, or at least not one likely to succeed. There was still no such thing as “no fault” divorce, and most states required that adultery had to be proven by “clear and convincing evidence” — the legal term for evidence somewhere between the “more likely than not” standard used in civil cases, and the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal cases. Inasmuch as a adultery was then universally a crime (although seldom punished), this standard made sense. But the effect was to make exit from marriage almost impossible. In New York, where the show is of course set, this was especially true — adultery was the only ground for divorce until 1967!

Yet the show and the law actually reflect legal and social progress over an earlier era: For most of the season, Betty won’t allow Don into the home, and he accepts her decision (while not admitting anything until the season’s final episode, and then obliquely). And the law by this time had at least equalized the legal treatment of the spouses — for centuries, women could get their exit visas only by showing that their husbands had engaged in a “course” of marital infidelity, while men had but to prove a single instance. Even by the early 1960’s, though, I’d guess that someone has studied and shown that the almost exclusively male judges were more sympathetic to husbands than wives.

Betty’s options were further limited by her discovery that she’d become pregnant before kicking Don out of the house. Because of her wealth and station, it seemed that she did have the option of abortion (a friend tells her of “a doctor in Albany.”) What Mad Men doesn’t say is that abortion remained illegal (except in rare circumstances) in New York until 1970 (three years before Roe v. Wade).

The writers, wisely, left unclear whether she’d actually have gone through with the procedure;  before she takes any action, Don returns, hat in hand. In the season’s final scene, the two of them are sitting at a quiet kitchen table as she tells him of her pregnancy. It’s clear that her condition, and her limited options, contributed to her complex decision to take him back.

Like any well-written and thoughtful show, Mad Men isn’t preachy, or comfortably clear. Would a fuller range of legally available options have been better for everyone, including the couple’ s other two kids? Perhaps, but maybe not. It’s impossible to say, of course: We only see one course of possibilities played out. I usually — and here — come out on the side of choice, autonomy and dignity over enforced status.

But let’s not pretend that progress is an unmitigated good in every case. Law makes its decisions in bulk.