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What do all my favorite tv shows have in common?

By May 6, 2012No Comments
The answer, my friends, is patriarchy.  This according to a piece in The New Yorker by Emily Nussbaum, and I can’t say she’s wrong.  In her review of Game of Thrones, Nussbaum points out that what this HBO drama based on the series of books by George R.R. Martin has in common with The Sopranos, Mad Men and Downtown Abbey is that the viewer gets to watch patriarchy gone amok.  I agree wholeheartedly and would only add that every television show is, in fact, about patriarchy.  All of them are produced in patriarchal cultures, because all the cultures I know of that produce television shows are patriarchal, including Hollywood.  The important difference with these four shows is that there appears to be the slightest bit of awareness that patriarchy exists and that it is always, in fact, going amok.

Nussbaum notes that many critics have thumbed their noses at Game of Thrones, but unlike the other three shows, Game of Thrones is a story which often puts at the center those who are most disadvantaged by patriarchy–women, children, bastards, eunuchs, and (my favorite) dwarves.  I just have to toot my own horn here, and point out that I said this in a blog post back in July of last year.  Here’s what I said, just in case you’re too lazy to read the whole post:

Having both read the book and watched the series now, there are some things that strike me as kind of interesting. In the book, most of the main characters are much younger than is suggested in the HBO series. Daenarys is 13, Robb Stark and Jon Snow are 15, and I believe Sansa is just 12. This makes the things that are happening to them much scarier, darker and creepier, so I’m glad the actor who plays Daenarys in the series does not actually look 13. But in essence, both the book and the series are about mostly children, teenagers, women and a dwarf (and one of the teenagers is also a bastard, just to make it interesting). The only main character who does not fit into any of these categories is Eddard Stark, who is perhaps just emotionally handicapped (and no spoilers, but if you watch the show or have read the books, you can see why he might be less of an outlier in this group). In essence, the story is told by an assemblage of people who are generally seen as less powerful, less capable, less at the center of stories. I don’t know if this was intentional on Martin’s part as an author, and it’s subtle. I didn’t really notice this about the characters or the story until several days after I’d finished the book. But I think it’s part of what gives this story such an original twist. The plot itself is not particularly novel, but the perspective is.

So, yay me.

Of these four shows, the one that is least comfortable for me to watch by far is Mad Men.  Why?  I think because it is very closest to my own life in terms of the culture (set in the United States and focused on middle class, WASPs) and time period.  It is the patriarchy with which I am most familiar.  And so watching Betty Draper makes my skin crawl.  This is, in fact, my parents’ generation.  It’s a very thin line of history and a legion of brave and defiant feminists who separate my life from Betty’s.  Or Joanie’s.  Or Peggy’s.  And there is always, always, always a crowd of folks chomping at the bit to move that line right back to where it was in 1965.  Witness the birth control debate.  Witness the fact that no one ever even talks about the gender wage gap any more.  Witness the fact that even in academia, where everyone is supposed to be a bleeding heart liberal, women still make less than men; this does not even account for the legions of missing women I have watched disappear from the ranks of academia over the course of my very short career.

In a patriarchal system, it’s all about power and who has it.  As Nussbaum points out, this is at the core of all four of these shows.  In Downton Abbey, who has the power to marry who they please, or to decide how dinner’s served?  In Game of Thrones, who gets to be king (or queen)?  In The Soprano’s, who gets to be the head of the family?  In Mad Men, who gets to have the office without the big pillar stuck in the middle of it?

Compared to all of the other shows, Mad Men is…boring.  Nothing much happens.  But after reading Nussbaum’s article, I think that’s part of the point.  How pathetic is the power struggle for the good office?  Or to be the one who brings in the Heinz account?  No wonder Don has that same constipated look on his face all the time.

Mad Men, oddly enough given that it’s set in the 60s, is about the evolution of the new patriarchy.  Aside from that fist fight between Peter and Lane, there’s no physical violence.   From our perspective as outsiders, there’s not much at stake.  It’s not like you get to rule the world.  Just Madison Avenue.  The good wars are over and working in an advertising firm is, quite frankly, emasculating.  It’s not like you’re John Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie.  No robber baron of industry here.  You’re not even making anything.  You’re not even selling anything.  You’re helping other people sell their stuff.  You are William H. Whyte’s Organization Man, and no amount of heavy drinking or screwing or commuting will make much difference.  It is, of course, amusing to watch the characters try.

The moments in Mad Men that are creepiest for me are the moments when I know that I’m supposed to be thinking how very different things are today, and they’re not.  Peggy feels like she has to act like a man in order to be successful.  Are there people out there who believe that’s really changed much in the last forty years or so?  Daenarys in Game of Thrones might have her own problems as a woman, but they don’t look particularly like my problems.  And whose to say if her problems are better or worse than Peggy’s?

There’s a story that tells us that it’s become increasingly easy to be a woman in the grand march of history up until the present.  Sometimes this feels more like a fairy tale than a truly accurate depiction of historical truth.  If I had to choose between 1965 and 2012, I would certainly pick 2012.  But the particular brand of insanity that seized the United States in the post-war years was a pretty big historical aberration, comparable probably only to the similar craziness of the Victorian era in terms of gender ideology.  And even in those periods, the idea that Betty should stay home and take care of the kids (and love it) was only ever possible for a small fragment of all the women in the United States, let alone the world.  Poor women and many women of color could not afford to be housewives.

This story of increasing liberalization of gender roles is an interesting one, but I’m not sure if I buy it.  Does sexism really fade away, or does it just morph and change?  Some scholars have argued that the standards we hold up for moms today are actually more demanding than those that Betty Draper faced in 1965.  In her 2010 lecture to the Sociologists for Women in Society, Paula England points to the number of gender-egalitarian trends that have stalled out in the 21st century.  The gender wage gap has been stuck at about 75% since about the mid-1990s.  A clever critic like Emily Nussbaum may notice that these four, very popular shows are about patriarchy, but does anyone else?  And does anyone much care?

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