The Fragile Bodies of Mad Men

Posted on August 16, 2011 by

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I’ve gone a month without health insurance. With every ache and pain I worry about what it could mean, projecting the cost of a hospital visit, wondering about how other uninsured people handle the anxiety. My body feels more fragile than it ever has because I know that one mistake while chopping vegetables or crossing the street could land me in debt over my head.

In contrast, the characters of Mad Men behave as if they are unbreakable. Mad Men seems to glorify the brash behavior of the early sixties: smoking, drinking, and casual sex. This nostalgia for a sexier more stylish era is what motivates many superficial readings of the program. Readers of women’s magazines coo over Joan Holloway’s’ in-your-face curves while bros envy the way Don Draper’s tailored suits make him look invincible. In short, viewers love Mad Men because its characters seem socially and physically infallible. Yet the program repeatedly and explicitly includes depictions of fragile, deteriorating bodies, detailing the daily experience of being a breakable human. The characters of Mad Men are constantly confronted by their own fragility. They get high and drunk, they hallucinate, vomit, bleed, lactate, sweat, piss themselves, forget things, run out of breath on the stairs, burp into their dictaphones, and have to clear the smoking-induced phlegm from their lungs when they wake up in the morning.

The drama of Mad Men comes in its characters’ reactions to this fragility. The men try to escape and forget it by drinking, philandering, and reveling in masculine pursuits. Meanwhile, the women try to cover it up and make it go away. In fact, Peggy’s entire career revolves around trying to market new ways to cover up ugliness and physical fragility to women. Yet when ugliness appears in her own life in the form of an unwelcome pregnancy, Don encourages her to behave like a man – move past it and act as if nothing has happened. This is similar to Don’s entire way of life, which is based upon running away from his previous identity as Dick Whitman. Even Joan, the character who seems to have it together physically, has her own powerful sexuality used as a weapon upon her when her fiance rapes her in the office, the very place where Joan is the most powerful. I see this as a pretty clear critique of the beauty industry and workplace sexism, both important and daring statements to make for a popular television show. However, I find the male response to physical fragility more interesting, complex, and powerful.

The male response to the fragile body is more powerful because physical fallibility is more of a threat to the Mad Men’s way of life. Masculinity and career ability are located in the body, even though the work of ad men does not require any physical labor. The physical labor of being an ad man lies in maintaining the facade of masculinity. Disability complicates this facade. A disability is too conspicuous, has too obvious an effect on the ability of a man to make money to be left in the dust. To be more specific, a disability is too conspicuous to those without disabilities. It is assumed that a disability automatically disqualifies a man from working, as when Guy MacKendrick’s foot is shredded by a lawn mower in 3.6 “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency”. Powell and Ford, his bosses, immediately dismiss him when they learn that he has lost his foot in the accident. When their judgment is questioned, they respond, “He’ll never play golf again.” Certainly Guy can do the day-to-day work of a sedentary office job; it’s the male bonding outside the office that he can no longer participate in. And so his career is ended. Unable to participate in the escape of masculine pursuits, Guy is only fit for the lowest echelon of work frequented by men like Danny Farrell, whose epilepsy has him bouncing from job to job, often cleaning toilets and performing other menial labor. Paradoxically, though men are expected to be physically able to fix things around the house or play golf, actually working with one’s hands for money is cause for shame. The ideal man should be like Don, capable of working with his hands but not needing to do so to get by. Disability automatically disqualifies a man from such a lifestyle. It incontrovertibly marks a man for life, and no amount of bootstrap-pulling, can reverse it. As Danny Farrell says of his epilepsy in 3.10 “The Color Blue”, “I am afflicted. It’s not a question of will. I can’t change that.”

The threat of such a permanent kibosh on one’s masculinity constantly hangs over the heads of the Mad Men. When Lane’s job is threatened by Guy’s losing his foot, Lane remarks, “I feel like I just went to my own funeral. And I didn’t like the eulogy.” This quote is explicitly in reference to the near miss Lane has just had regarding his job. However, it also suggests the close-call sensation all Mad Men experience when they see how quickly and easily a man can be demoted simply through disability. The destruction of even part of one’s body means the destruction of one’s livelihood and thus one’s masculinity. Ironically, this constant threat of physical destruction makes the Mad Men even more fragile than if they acknowledged their fallibility head on. Yet evading the threat simply becomes part of the facade of masculinity. Mad Men calls attention to the evasion of that threat, pointing out the cracks in the facade. Whether with fragile, human bodies or with the threat of lost masculinity, the Mad Men are afflicted.

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Posted in: Television