In “The Independent Woman,” the second episode in the PBS documentary America in Primetime, American actresses (almost entirely white) like Mary Tyler Moore, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Felicity Huffman are interviewed about their famous TV roles. Every single one of them, except for Roseanne Barr, who politcizes her role on television, her desire to be on television, and her relationship to race, class, gender, and body image) insist:
We weren’t trying to be political. We weren’t trying to be feminists. We weren’t trying to be subversive. We weren’t trying to stand on a soapbox. We weren’t trying to pave the way for other women. We weren’t trying to be strong, We weren’t trying to change anything. Women can’t do it all. Women can’t have it all. Women don’t want it all.
Don’t worry, these television icons assure us, we’re not feminists and we never were. This is the very soothing message being communicated to America 60+ years after the inception of television. It is hard to imagine a group of male actors saying the same thing about men on TV:
Men can’t have it all. Men can’t do it all. Men don’t want it all. We weren’t trying to be men. We weren’t trying to be strong. We weren’t trying to be outspoken or independent.
What women want, the women writers, directors, producers, and actors in America in Primetime, explain, is the right to be “flawed” and “imperfect.” To rebel against the sanitized representations of American womanhood in the 1950s. But when have women ever been treated as perfect in our society? Submissive and incompetent, yes. One-dimensional and marginal, yes. Perfect really means silent and secondary. It does not mean that women haven’t been put down and degraded for centuries for their so-callled imperfections. That is to say, for the way they don’t—as a sex, the lesser sex—measure up to men. Being put on a pedestal is simply less-than sublimated as higher-than. But is fighting for the right to be “just as fucked-up”— imperfect—as men what feminism has been reduced to? Is feminism about accessing dominant power or eschewing it? Is it about the right to be different or the right to be exactly the same? Is role reversal the best we can do in the year 2012?
When it comes to men, the construction is reversed from the start: men are allowed to have it all to the degree that they have never been required to make the distinction or calculation between something, nothing, and everything—let alone justify the desire for, or the right to, the total and the whole. It is because men are permitted to be and have everything (I am talking, of course, about the straight white male norm here. The norm we see and hear represented) that they complain when they are actually expected to be accountable to that totality and wholeness. The desire is to signify power and entitlement, but cut corners when it actually comes to being accountable and involved in everything (the monetary, emotional, sexual, domestic, and spiritual). And what is “having it all” or “doing it all” mean anyway? It seems that both the question and the answer have always been not just about the relation between genders, but the relation between the concept of gender and its relation to entitlement itself. Last spring, for example, a male Tarot card reader warned me that as a woman artist simply wanting anything other than a writing life was impossible and would lead to a lifetime of suffering. It wasn’t enough that I told him that I don’t want children, or even marriage necessarily, or that I “suffer” precisely from feeling like writing is all I am allowed to have. Being anything other than one thing as a woman (no male artist is told this, even though it is no secret that male artists have historically not been able to balance their art with their personal lives either. However, they continue to believe that they can have both, without actually having to attend to both, precisely because they are not expected to do both) is perceived as unrealistic and greedy—the source of all gender trouble. When I told the Tarot reader that in addition to my writing I also want true and lasting love, which is radically different from simply wanting a man or a relationship, he was dismissive. Real love as opposed to just being in a relationship means that no one gets to just be or have a man or just be or have a woman. Real love is about being radically opened up from the inside out, not enacting roles. If it were just about having a man, I would already have a man, as just having a man would reduce me to just being—playing— a woman.
When men work and have families is that considered having it all? Is it even a question that belongs to what it means to think of oneself as a man? If we apply this question to all men, it is the construct of masculinity that begins to crumble, and not whether men are allowed to have both a professional life and a personal life at the same time. At this point this is a given right for all men, regardless of race, class, and sexuality. Nor is it a problem (or it’s largely a problem when it is men of color) when men aren’t physically present as fathers and husbands. When male actors and rock stars are on the road 180 days out of the year, when they rarely see their kids, rarely see their wives, rarely participate in their domestic lives or responsibilities, does it make them feel guilty, the way women always lament that it makes them feel guilty when they go to work instead of staying home? The way that women always talk about how being working mothers goes hand in hand with shame and guilt. Do working husbands and fathers feel this much guilt? Do they work less? Do they stop being film stars and rock stars and businessmen? Are they pressured to choose between work and family? Between fame and family? Between artistic life and family life? Between their sexuality and their work? Do journalists and talk show hosts ask them these kinds of questions? Do they wonder if they should give up their work to stay at home? Do they tell themselves they can’t have it all? That they have too much? Do they ask themselves if they give enough? Love enough? Are they made to wonder why most men are still allowed to be absent in some way—to merely signify presence?
Judging by conservative family-values Reality TV shows like Super Nanny, the majority of men, whether working class or upper class, white men, or men of color (although people of color are almost never featured on the show), are still only expected to be breadwinners. If men are asked to do more, they feel they are being put upon, stretched beyond their limits, feminized, sent “mixed signals”—required to be “everything”—by the castrating side-effects of the women’s movement. It’s no longer enough, men complain, to be a “Man” with a capital M.
The very notion of having it all has only ever been applicable to women, for whom the public and the private, the personal and the political, the inner and the outer, are to this day still fundamentally irreconcilable. In post-20th century America you can’t even want everything, much less have everything. Women themselves are quick to point out that mixing both the professional and personal is an impossible ideal, one that they are giving up on. In America in Primetime, Shonda Rhimes, a black woman and the creator and writer of Grey’s Anatomy, states that for female surgeons like Meredith Grey (white) and Cristina Yang (Korean), “love is elusive” and the “fairytale impossible.” Yet is the source of Don Draper’s anguish on Mad Men the fact that he has an ambitious career and a family? Or is the shame all his own; so self-oriented and lawless it gives him a constant out: to have, but not want, everything. To possess everything, while also living with the option of having more of whatever and whomever else he wants, whenever he wants it. Is Draper’s self-loathing and self-destructiveness simultaneously a foil and a vehicle for all of his transgressions and faults? That is, we need the faults for the transgressions and the transgressions for the faults. Is Draper’s real torment and appeal having to answer for things men didn’t have to answer for in the past? That is, the reality of the man who has to be accountable (in 2012) with the reality of the man who didn’t have to (in the 1960s).
Of course Draper’s retro-chauvinistic inner anguish (though with all those ridiculous and smug facial expressions Draper/Hamm makes, it is hard to imagine there is anything inside other than self-satisfaction), the glamor of having it all and the tragedy of fucking it up—a very old story— would have no cultural validity if it weren’t coming from the current imagination and anxieties of contemporary American life, as it continues to lick its wounds from feminism and laments the loss of real American manhood, economic prosperity, and traditional family values. Mourning the men America has lost to feminism, immigration, and global capitalism—the men who have been wounded, crippled, displaced, and disoriented by social change—Don Draper is a man from the future (from today) sent back to the past. And, conversely, a man from the past sent to the future. The two men meet in the present—ours—in order to bond over their recontextualized, or more precisely, de-temporalized panic, and as an excuse to luxuriate in the nostalgic time-travel of a regressive gender and national politics.
In the retro-enthused (retro diners, retro cars) web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld and Joel Hodgson confirm the deep-seated nostalgia for the unrestricted retro-masculinity that is at play in Mad Men while driving to a New Jersey diner in a 1963 Sea Blue VW Karmann-Ghia.
Joel Hodgson: Mad Men is so great, still. I’m still in the middle of it.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yeah, I love it. We were on to that in the 80s.
Joel Hodgson: That’s all we wanted. That was all we wanted—to be advertising guys in the 60s.
Jerry Seinfeld: That’s right.
Joel Hodgson: We used to talk about that all the time (Hodgson and Seinfeld say “all the time” at the exact same time. That’s apparently how deep the Mad Men fantasy goes for men of all generations, but particularly Baby Boomers).
Joel Hodgson: Drinkin’ at lunch.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yup.
Joel Hodgson: Having a bar in your office.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yup.
Joel Hodgson: Is that like a shared dream of all guys our age? (both Hodgson and Seinfeld are in their fifties).
Jerry Seinfeld: Of course it is.
Joel Hodgson: And the sexual revolution was all tied up in that.
Jerry Seinfeld: Yup. I mean, that’s what the sports cars were all about. Women will give this to you (presumably “this” is sex?) if you have the right accessories.
Seinfeld and Hodgson arrive at a 1950s diner in New Jersey for coffee and breakfast.
Jerry Seinfeld: It’s another 50s diner. Why are we looking back all the time? This diner is about looking backward, right? So why are we looking back?
Hodgson’s admission that he’s “still in the middle of Mad Men” is indicative of what is morally and ideologically at stake for both of these men, which is not simply a favorite TV show, or entertainment, but a relationship to male authority, permissiveness, and an American past that precedes the social reforms of feminism. As young men coming up in the entertainment industry in the 1980s, Hodgson and Seinfeld—both white male Baby Boomers—longed to be mad men themselves: powerful, rich, and totally unrestricted.
For women the myth and rhetoric of everything isn’t simply or specifically about being at home and being at work, but rather: and instead of either/or. Plurality vs. singularity. Even the binary itself is homogenized, as choosing work over and in addition to being a wife and mother is morally always the lesser choice. So while The Good Wife is about a working woman—a litigator played by Julianna Margulies—its title is haunted by the specter of the either/or binary and impossible female ideal. On TV men want to be free to be juvenile and ambivalent—partially absent, partially present, neither here nor there. However, when they are treated that way (Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons, Family Guy,Married With Children, The Honeymooners, The King of Queens), they feel as though they have been emasculated and ball-busted by their castrating, ungrateful, disapproving, “macho” wives (see also the movie Falling Down, 1993). This of course becomes a vicious cycle, as this gives men comedic and dramatic license—“relief”—to act even more juvenile, incompetent, and ambivalent. Since you treat me like a baby, I act like a baby. Instead of: because I act like a baby, you treat me like one, and can’t rely on me as a human being, much less a husband or father.
On TV, men want to be authority figures without being in control, or to be in control without being responsible or accountable. To be men while acting like boys, to be in power without doing anything to command it, other than simply and emptily signifying it. The flip-side of “women having it all,” the so-called mixed signals of feminism and 21st century life in general, is the “burdensome” and “conflicting” (rather than thinking of it as expansive and integrated, it is treated as contradictory) things that men “have” to be now as a result of those advancements—the “everything” (plurality) that men have to now live up to, which is what Big Love was actually about. On Big Love, the multiple wives were less about Mormonism or polygamy and more about the supposedly impossible demands and appetites of modern women. Polygamy was merely a cover for a much more reactionary sentiment: the varied pressures that women put on men in contemporary life.
Just as Sex and the City’s so-called smorgasbord of men was merely foil for the one man (Mr. Big. Can you get more Freudian?) Carrie Bradshaw not only wanted (a man who was such a Big Bad Daddy, silent-type throwback of a man, he wouldn’t even tell Carrie his name), but who invalidated any of the supposed sexual liberation Carrie was indulging in, as well as the reformed modern men she was dating and having sex with (recall the show’s Aidan vs. Mr. Big plotline). Mr. Big, it can be argued, was Carrie’s narrative punishment—the shadow on her consumer-based, have-it-all freedom. He is, the show tells us, the man women really want, the man women truly deserve, the man women always go back to and leave the Nice Guy for. The man who will not be changed, who won’t give you what you want, who will not bend to your or feminism’s will—he’s that strong—so you will have to change (back) for him. You will have to retro-reform.
While women are apparently still battling—in others and in themselves (as they’ve thoroughly internalized the binary. The broken record of everything rhetoric)—to acquire the permission to even imagine themselves as sexual beings, mothers, and working women (though as bell hooks has pointed out, women of color have historically always worked) all at the same time, let alone anything other than or alternative to a white heteronormative ideal, men cannot part with the split-legacy of signifying multi-dimensionality while actually only living and practicing one-dimensionality. While women have had to evolve not only their conceptions of themselves, but also their conceptions of men (men can be aggressive and sensitive, weak and strong, providers and caretakers), according to America in Primetime, the majority of American men are still lamenting the “good old days” of the 1950s and the paradigm of “father knows best” (the first series in the PBS documentary happens to be called “Man of the House”). One could make the argument that everything on TV, with the exception of some of the long-lost class, race, and gender consciousness of American TV in the 70s, has always been possessed by some specter of this supposed loss and ideal (see Six Feet Under. Despite being dead at the onset of the show, the father literally haunted the Fisher family as the ghost of the Father). If, as it is touted, television is now more in touch with real American life than ever, we are really in trouble.