Mad Men and Straight White Males

Mad Men and Straight White Males

WARNING: MAD MEN SPOILERS IN THIS POST. I will be discussing some plot points in a past episode.

I’m really not sure how I feel about Mad Men this season. I appreciate some of the more humorous moments but I miss angsty, tortured Don. This new Don, who seems to have everything going for him, is a lot less interesting.

I also miss Betty Draper. I can’t believe I’m typing that but it’s true. I miss that rather unpleasant woman quite a bit. Turns out that even when she was leaving a bad taste in my mouth I thought she was interesting. Some of my favorite episodes this season were the ones that centered around Betty.

And then there is Megan. I’m not quite sure what to think of Megan. I definitely don’t like her but I don’t dislike her either. I’m honestly not sure I’ve been given enough to form an opinion about her yet. It wasn’t until recently that we got much insight into her at all.

In the first episode really centering around Megan, she decides to quit her job at the ad agency to pursue her past dreams of becoming an actress. Evidently she has been auditioning for parts behind Don’s back. She views these casting attempts as such a betrayal that the audience is briefly made to believe she’s having an affair. When she finally admits to Don that she’s not happy at the ad firm–despite her recent successes and everyone’s assurances that she’s a natural–she’s sure he’ll flip his lid. When instead he is quietly perplexed but supportive, she decides to quit the very next day.

While I didn’t find the story line of her quitting to pursue acting very interesting or well put together, I did appreciate other characters’ responses to her leaving. Some (Peggy) called her brave for leaving a job she would so obviously excel at (whether by her own merits or under the protective wing of her doting husband) to attempt making it in a cut throat profession where the chance of success is arbitrary at best. Others (Joan) summed up my thoughts pretty accurately: “She’ll just be another failed actress with a rich husband.”

It got me thinking, what makes a person brave? Is it brave to leave a profession where you can assume you’ll do well–but probably be unhappy–to possibly flounder in one that speaks to your heart, but almost guarantees failure? And can that same decision still be considered brave if you have guaranteed financial security to fall back on?

Later in the episode Megan is helping her friend from acting class practice lines for an upcoming audition. When Megan dismisses the script as garbage, the struggling actress lays into her, asserting that Megan has no idea what it’s like when she enjoys such excessive financial support. In her swanky, sunken Manhattan living room Megan admits, with increasing frustration that yes, she is lucky. When the waitress/actress apologizes and leaves, Megan is left sulking on the couch, angry to be faced with the great fortune in her life.

I was struck by Megan’s response to the waitress calling her out for her relatively cushy situation. It’s a reaction I’ve seen people in real life give quite frequently, I’m guilty of it myself I’m sure. Generally we don’t appreciate people pointing out that we are luckier or more fortunate than others, especially if that fortune has nothing to do with our own hard work. It’s almost taboo to speak of others’ good fortune, even if you’re doing so objectively. I wonder sometimes why that is.

Maybe we don’t talk about these things because of the way it makes the “lucky” person feel. Pointing out someone’s good luck seems to make him or her feel two things, both negative. One is guilt for having more than someone else and the other is anger at the suggestion that their accomplishments–and their struggle–are less valid.

I saw this the other day on a post explaining white male privilege with a video game analogy. The post was called Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Level There Is and did an impressive job of outlining how straight white males experience the world (or at least the United States) in a fundamentally different way than women, minorities or LGBTs. The author explains the rules and settings for straight white males, in his role-playing game, The Real World:

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

Basically, if you are a straight white male, you play this game called Life at an easier difficulty setting than others do. As you can imagine there were many angry comments from straight white males who felt their situation was being misrepresented. They were upset that the post suggested they didn’t work as hard as others or didn’t deserve what they had achieved. Of course that was not the author’s (a straight white male himself) intent, he just wanted to explain how the hard work of straight white males opens different, or a greater number of, doors. That they achieve more for their work than others do for equal work. That they have more and better opportunities than others do. Because it’s true, they do. Just like my work achieves more for me than it would for other women.

The world we live in is not fair. Some people are born into situations that make their life much easier. I am one of them. Just being born in the United States means my life will probably be easier than the life of the majority of people on the planet. Why does it bother us so much to say that? It doesn’t make our struggles any less, it just puts them in a different perspective. Of course it’s hard for Megan to get passed up for a coveted role, but she only has to deal with her own personal disappointment, not questions about how she’ll pay her rent or put food on the table. Her life is inherently easier than her friend’s, just like my life is inherently easier than the life of a poverty stricken child in a remote village half way around the world (or in the economically disadvantaged part of my own city).

I wonder, if we talked more about the injustice of the world, if we openly considered how fortunate and lucky we are, would we feel better about our lives? Or would we just make others feel worse about theirs? If we can only appreciate what we have at the expense of someone else, someone with less, we risk propping ourselves up on the misfortune of others. Perhaps there is a way to talk about all this without the comparisons, a way to make it less taboo and more productive. Maybe if we could focus the conversation on gratitude for the good in our life instead of frustration about the bad, we’d be getting somewhere.

I mean, clearly Don Draper’s wife has a lot to be thankful for. And so do straight white males, whether they realize it or not.