Criticism of recent events on Mad Men, especially the Season 4 finale, have started me on a series of posts on Mad Men as a whole. Future posts will be on Matt Weiner’s intentions for the series and how I see it, and I have one on the subject of metatextuality and metanarrative that will be presented in the form of an email correspondence. Stick around. O, the places we’ll go.
Anyway, I wanted to start here, because this is the shot fired at Mad Men even before Tomorrowland‘s final song began to play. ‘The hell with this show,’ a large number of fans said, ‘it’s just a soap opera.’ A search in the comments (you can’t do that, but I can) gives me 7 pages of comments with the phrase “soap opera,” including a dozen on Tomorrowland threads (and I didn’t search for “soap” or “soapy” or “melodrama”). Three of four Mad Men season have ended with the unexpected revelation of a pregnancy, and all of those revelations brought some soap opera accusations. This year, with pregnancy, a marriage proposal, and an abortion appointment fake-out, there was really a clamor.
So objectively, is Mad Men a soap opera? A soap opera is: A drama…characterized by stock characters and situations, sentimentality, and melodrama or: a serial drama…chiefly characterized by tangled interpersonal situations and melodramatic or sentimental treatment. Since two definitions give me “melodrama,” I looked that up as well: A drama…characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.
Okay, so let me get this straight. There are people who think Mad Men is chiefly characterized by stock, stereotypical characters and situations, sentimentality, exaggerated emotions, and tangled interpersonal relationships?
Look, that’s obviously false. That’s just…false. We can fairly say that some complaints are rooted in the notion that unwanted pregnancy is a “stock situation” and that the relationships between Roger, Joan, and Greg are “tangled.” But the show always aims for a larger meaning, the characters are far from stereotypes, and their emotions are not exaggerated. Most of the time, in fact, they’re all fairly understated in response to difficult events, despite occasional bouts of puking. Additionally, a soap opera is a series of disconnected (yet “tangled”) melodramatic events. On All My Children, Erica’s story doesn’t inherently have anything to do with Greenlee’s story, and neither necessarily connects to Scott’s story. But each Mad Men episode aims for thematic cohesion, so that in Chinese Wall, Trudy’s impending delivery, Ken’s dinner with his fiance, and Don’s argument with Faye are all connected by the theme of the bleeding of work into one’s personal life.
I believe the “soap opera” accusation is rooted in something else: Sexism. Now, if you follow my writing you know that when I say something is sexist I am not calling a person sexist. “Sexist” (like “racist”) is a word I use only as an adjective, not a noun. We are all the products of a sexist culture, and are therefore capable of sexist thoughts and behaviors, no matter how much we may consciously choose to be and do otherwise.
There are only so many situations. Stock situations become stock in part because we recognize them so well. Some stock situations are fantasies (rags to riches), some are fears (home invasion), and some are day-to-day comedies and tragedies familiar from our own lives and the lives of those we know (unwanted pregnancy, heart attacks, annoying coworkers). I don’t think anyone can fairly criticize Mad Men for showing us unrealistic or ridiculous situations (except in the sense of “goofs,” like having the New York Times run your ad the morning after you write it).
Dramas get called soaps, though, not when their situations are “stock,” but when their situations are female. Losing a big client, blowing it in a presentation, or winning a coveted award are just as melodramatic as unwanted pregnancy, unexpected proposals, or backing out of an abortion, but only the latter group gets called soapy, because only the latter group is about women’s lives. Workplace drama doesn’t get called soapy. Army flashbacks don’t get called soapy. The fact is, we still consider the day-to-day drama of men’s lives more meaningful or important or worthy of dramatic consideration than the day-to-day drama of women’s lives. Don’t be fooled by the fact that there are women at the office, or by the fact that the men also have home lives; home is the traditional realm of women and gets coded in our minds as female, just as work gets coded as male.
Fun fact: Of the past ten Best Picture Oscar winners, six were about men almost exclusively, three were about men and women, and only one—Chicago—was about women and women’s lives. Prior to Chicago in 2002, you have to go all the way back to 1989 to find another Best Picture primarily about a woman’s life. “Chick flicks” are stupid but action films are cool, war movies are Important but family dramas are maudlin, and these gender stereotype divides permeate our understanding of movies, TV, and other art forms.
I think it’s legitimate to criticize all kinds of things about Mad Men, and that’s a lot of what we do here. We praise the show because we love it, but we also slam it when warranted. I think it really behooves us, though, to reexamine this as individuals; what do we consider a soap opera, and why? Often, our (and by “our” I mean me, you, and maybe my kitten) gendered thinking feels so “natural” that we don’t even consider that it might be gendered. We don’t necessarily recognize a thought as coming from a sexist place. I’m pretty sure the Oscar voters, for example, aren’t consciously saying to themselves that women’s movies are soapy, but men at war is real drama. It just “happens” to turn out that way. Unexamined assumptions are still assumptions, though, and this one is worth rethinking.