Feminist Friday on Mad Men Monday: The Time We Went To Rome
“Well you know, when you don’t have any power you have to delay things.”
Apologies, but I nearly forgot all about that contractual clause where, if you’re an American blogger talking about feminist issues at all, you have to talk about Mad Men. Now I do love me some Mad Men – it’s a fantastic show that deserves every Emmy it’s ever received – but there’s not much that I can really add to the varied subtexts of the show that hasn’t already been said (and probably better) by these fine people.
But I’m mainly interested at the places in the show where feminism and urbanism are intersectional – and there’s a number of interesting angles on how utterly alienating suburban life has been for Betty Draper, wife of the show’s main character, Don Draper. Betty is a cosmopolitan child of Manhattan, having been a model to Versace in what amounts to a previous life, before she married and was effectively whisked an hour away to the farthest ends of Westchester.
Populated as it is by small children, the hired help, philandering husbands and other nattering creatures she doesn’t quite relate to, Betty’s ability to affect the world around her has suddenly become very small. The political interests of her fellow housewives are necessarily as petty as the environment in which they live (with streets named after things that have been erased, as they are), focusing on the kabuki of political celebrity and how they can influence aesthetic issues of scenery that primarily impact their land values. Reservoirs and things.
Betty was largely liberated from this in an opportunity to return to Rome with Don. There, she dramatically reimagined herself with Italian fashion and (to some extent) explored or returned to different concepts of sexual identity. She was, to a small degree, more empowered to deal with men on her own terms. More importantly, she gained a large degree of autonomy that she had lost in the atomization of suburbia. And most importantly of all, when she returned, she realized that suburban modalities and identities were limiting her personal growth.
My deep opposition to sprawl isn’t in that it’s simply inefficient and ugly (though it is). I oppose sprawl because sprawl is actually oppressive. By the virtue of its layout and logistics, it presumes privilege on the part of landholding classes and destroys opportunities for autonomy and development for entire classes of people – women, people of color, young people – and ultimately for anyone with unreliable access to automobiles. The deconstruction and atomization of organic, emergent community models has led not only to environmental destruction, but subtle inequality and not-so-subtle alienation.
Whatever replaces sprawl – be it a return to previous modes, the creation of a wholly new and organic land-use model, or some combination of both – cannot be as atomizing and oppressive. And if it takes an award-winning show on basic cable to illustrate this, then I’ll definitely keep watching.
“I hate this place. I hate our friends. I hate this town.”
“Then I can have something to look at when I tell the story about the time we went to Rome.”