Masculinity and its Discontents

Image Credit: AMC
Image Credit: AMC

Mad Men has now firmly entered the America of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, a time when masculinity moved from grey-suited respectability to youthfulness, danger, and overt sexuality. Pete Campbell is pretty much the opposite of all these things. I suppose he’s still young, but his youth has always seemed less a marker of coolness and more symptomatic of his sniveling entitlement. Even though he is the only true WASP at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, this privilege only makes him squarer and less sexually appealing in the world of 1966. When Trudy—not Pete—is able to get Don to come to the country for a dinner party, Pete is embarrassingly excited as though the high school quarterback deigned to come to his thirteenth birthday party. He may believe this makes him cool by association. But it does not. He’s playing classical music at a party in Connecticut and bragging about it. We are a long, long way from Don’s white-carpeted loft and “Zou Bisou Bisou.”

The party further reinforces the distinctly physical allure of Don Draper—a raw sexuality characteristic of Mick Jagger, the Brit who was always more akin to the American Brando than the British Bond. Even though Don is older than Pete, he still appears more culturally relevant and thus more masculine simply because he looks so damn good with his shirt off. It’s not just that he is able to fix the faucet that Pete could only fiddle with (read: obvious sexual metaphor); it’s that all the women are clearly aroused just by his mere physicality. Pete will always be a blue blood, and Don’s identity will always be a lie. But in America, in 1966, this doesn’t matter. Masculinity has been severed from heredity, and sexuality is much less about class and more about primal sensuality and physical power.This point is reiterated in Pete’s unsuccessful flirtation with a teenager at driving school. The very fact that he’s attending driving school, wearing a suit, in his early thirties does not aid his campaign to appear hip. His desire for this pretty young girl is clearly more than a standard Lolita fantasy because of the way it’s mirrored in his later encounter with a prostitute. As the prostitute goes through various feminine roles like the world’s most apathetic shape shifter, we expect that Pete will select the shy virgin, but he quickly moves past this option, only getting aroused when the whore says “You’re my king.” He’s excited because she is offering him a type of masculine power that he feels slipping away at work (e.g., his temper tantrum about getting a bigger office), at home with Trudy who seems to have more sway with Don and more interest in her baby, and finally in society at large where his parents’ money no longer causes women to pull up their skirts like it did in earlier seasons.

What attracted him to the teenager was how he thought he looked in her eyes (his family funded much of the New York Botanical Garden, didn’t you know?), but the girl is clearly not as excited by this waspy clout as she is by Handsome—the attractive teenager whose very name is both a joke and a metonym for his physical sexuality. Pete may be a successful career man from a good family, but those things don’t matter so much anymore, so he has to pay a whore to pretend they do.

If the British invasion has shifted what it means to be a sexually attractive man, where does this leave our lovable yet sometimes creepy CFO Lane? Lane is not the oldest man at the firm, but he often appears so due to his stodgy Britishness and his simultaneous desire to be American. He’s the middle-aged man trying to hang out with the teenagers at the party and seeming all the older as a result. Lane longs, in typical Freudian fashion, to move out of the shadow of his father, but his father is not only the crusty, cruel man who knocked him out with a cane but also England itself.  Despite the fact that Britain also won the war (and gave the world much of the music that defined this new American generation), the mid-century decades of energy, innovation, and uproar belonged to America.

When Lane finds himself in a British football bar for expats—which shows English men establishing masculinity in a more traditionally American, raucous fashion—he looks even more out of place than normal until he encounters a former friend who gives him the opportunity to earn the Jaguar account for SCDP and thereby prove himself to be, like his American counterparts, someone who doesn’t just count money but earns it. Nevertheless, the fact that he needs to ask Roger (the symbol of the dying old guard) to teach him how to close the deal, shows how tenuous his grasp on mid-century masculinity truly is. Ultimately, he can’t gain the account because his fellow Brit doesn’t respond to his old-fashioned respectability and instead views it as a code for effeminacy. Lane’s brilliantly funny fight with Pete followed by his kiss with Joan further signify his longing for masculine relevancy. Like Pete, he feels as though his old tricks aren’t working so well anymore, so he needs to revert to brute strength. He wins the fight (like Roger, my money was on him), but the fact that he needs Joan to reassure him that he is not superfluous shows that even old-timey fisticuffs will not cure what ails him.

Roger’s tricks don’t work for Lane because Lane is incapable of playing the America good ol’ boy—an identity that itself was clearly becoming, well, old. This Jaguar representative wants the deal completed in an American whorehouse, which apparently you could find just around the corner in 1960s Midtown. Masculinity becomes one more commodity these aging men are willing to pay for because they cannot naturally inhabit visceral sexuality in the way Don still can. In the whorehouse, Don quite surprisingly does not partake in the festivities and tells the madam he was born in a similar establishment, which is significant because during the dinner party he also references his real childhood on a farm. The real, dirtier Don is simmering to the surface, which both reinforces his ties to physical masculinity while also reminding the audience once again that the Don Draper we have been watching for years is an illusion. What we are literally responding to—beyond all the self-invention—is his mere body.

The Beatles and the Stones may have been British, but they, like Elvis, changed how masculine sexuality was coded in American pop culture. This is not to say that the male body was not previously important or that money no longer mattered (this is still America after all), but the 1960s killed the allure of the Pete Campbells of the world. We began to like our men in wet T-shirts.

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