Monday, December 25, 2017
The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 18: Karen Heuler
The Year 2017, and the Madness of Men
by Karen Heuler
It’s a strange coincidence that this was the year I watched Mad Men. I didn’t see the show when it first aired, and to be honest, I watched the first couple of episodes a few years ago and decided I didn’t want to live through that crap again. That hungry, leering, supercilious, offensive era.
But I went back and tried again, and I’m glad I did. I started every day by reading about what rights had been removed/were about to be removed by the current administration and what fights were going on over things that were—flip side—starting to be covered in the background in Mad Men. Most of my watching coincided with the #MeToo movement, which also prompted mixed reactions in me. Was there a danger that the accounts of (relatively) minor infractions would dilute the awful experiences so many of us dealt with –mostly silently, mostly with an eye to survival? I finally gave in and did my own #MeToo, and while I don’t regret it, I’m not sure it will matter long-term. I’m not great at reading social media or movements, but almost everything I’ve lived through has its own backlash waiting to be born. And I think it may be starting off by creating the wrong casualties. Roy Moore almost got elected because it doesn’t matter to that kind of men what other men do. I think offending women did matter to Al Franken, and I regret his loss.
So Mad Men and #MeToo had my attention together. Don Draper is a horn dog, but the men around him, especially in the beginning, are caricatures of men, the ogling, tongue-hanging-out, despicable men. These are the ones I recognize, the ones I’ve worked with in various guises. I love, with all my heart, Joan and Peggy for fighting through these men and past these men and creating their own lives, their own integrity, because in fact the integrity of women has largely been the province of men.
In watching Mad Men, it’s obvious that men have only ever had their eyes on other men. All that office camaraderie, the drinking, boasting, evaluating, choosing, picking up “dates”—all of that was measured in the eyes of the other men. Of course we know that value has nothing to do with women, but what seemed obvious to me (and is reflected in today's vile things) is how the men determine value by anticipating what the other men will see as value.
But Don Draper has an appeal—not necessarily the bad boy aura, but the wounded hero aura. He’s searching for something, and he’s recovering from something. He can’t be satisfied even as he tries to be satisfied. He has a completely selfish quest to find the woman he needs, who will fulfill him, and it’s all wrapped up in a story. He’s good at stories. In fact, all of Mad Men is about story—about finding the story that sells, about finding a woman whose story supports you, about always searching for the story that absolves you of all the misery you’ve inflicted on just about every woman who’s comes your way.
I like that this is all about story; I don’t like that the stories exist to excuse men and their actions. The male world is cars and tobacco and whiskey and whores—sensation without depth or meaning. The female world—bras, hosiery, feminine cigarettes—is laughable, dismissable, and not worthy of having a place on a man’s resume.
So much of what I read this year was all about politics, about the politics of men like Trump and Moore and Weinstein. That’s one story line. There’s another about #MeToo, about accountability, and I have no faith that this story line will prevail. Mad Men covered the 1960s to the 70s. There isn’t that much difference between that era and our era, not deep down. All final decisions are still male decisions, as far as I can see. The distance we’ve come since then is significant, but it’s still revocable. I fear for Roe v. Wade.
Karen Heuler’s stories have appeared in over 100 literary and speculative journals and anthologies, from Alaska Quarterly Review to Weird Tales. She’s won an O. Henry award, is frequently nominated for Pushcart and Best American Short Story awards, and has been a finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction award, the Bellwether Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award. Aqueduct Press has published her novella, In Search of Lost Time, and her collection, Other Places.