Tuesday, May 21, 2013

If You Can Dish It...

Comments on Emily Nussbaum’s “Faking It” Article in the May 20, 2013 issue of The New Yorker

By Karen Field Bolek

Emily Nussbaum’s May 20, 2013 New Yorker article, “Faking It,” is largely a critique of Mad Men’s Don Draper character as developed by Matt Weiner. While Nussbaum’s writing style is witty and often insightful, her content is debatable. I would caution that she who accuses others of faking it and featuring more style than substance in their writing should try to avoid those same faults.

I was surprised to read that Nussbaum perceived as “clunky” the scene in episode 6-6 in which Peggy imagined she was kissing Ted rather than Abe. Why, Emily? Is Peggy’s fantasy life too much information for you because she’s not a glamorous enough character? If so, your remark devalues the fantasies of average-looking women, which is most of us. Imagine that same scene, but with Don kissing Megan while fantasizing that she was some other outstandingly beautiful woman – is that still TMI? Personally, I identify with Peggy and find her character to be just as interesting as Don’s even though her appearance and her personal life aren’t as glamorous, so I appreciated the window into her romantic fantasy.    

Nussbaum states that the audience fell for Don Draper in the early seasons. That sounds right – at least among female viewers – but since I never felt that way, I don’t have the heavy expectations of him now that she has. I guess Nussbaum must have fallen hard, because the tone of her article is a bit like a lover whose overoptimistic expectations of her partner have been shaken. In addition to expecting Don’s character to conform to a certain character arc rather than just being what he is and trying to find his way from year to year, as we do in real life, Nussbaum expects Don not to be “a drag.” But why not? We’re all pretty draggy sometimes, aren’t we? Don is currently at a critical point of growth, faced with needing to reinvent himself, not because he chooses to, but because times are changing and forcing him to do so, and he finds himself resisting core aspects of that change. Really, criticizing Don for being a drag because he desperately wants to cling to his old self-and-worldview is like criticizing anybody out there for having to confront a major life challenge, such as aging, and having trouble dealing with it. Not cool. And I disagree that we’re watching the “downfall of the man in the suit” at this point in Season 6. It might go that way, but maybe not – or at least not yet. Don is at a point of deciding whether he will take that dive off the building by clinging to his old attitudes, or whether he will continue to allow people like Megan and Peggy and others to influence him to keep growing, adjusting his views and behavior accordingly.

Another feature of recent episodes that Nussbaum criticizes is the increasing number of Don Draper flashbacks. However, I believe Don’s many flashbacks are a sign of his increasing efforts at self-understanding, not a flaw on the part of the writers. Don’s character is working hard to understand himself by reflecting on his childhood, little by little, and since people often think about childhood experiences in an effort to integrate them with their current lives, the flashbacks make sense.

Nussbaum’s comment that Don’s character is over-determined, unlike the other characters, might be attributable to her unwillingness to grant creative license to the writers who may be telescoping Don’s experiences to tell his story in just seven seasons. But another possibility is that she doesn’t find that kind of intensity of events believable. Yet I’ve known people who’ve been through a lot more drama in life and many more unusual events than the average person, people whose life stories are way “too much” for typical fiction, and stranger as well. Don’s story may sound improbable in an outline form, but seeing it unfold is still riveting.

Finally, Nussbaum claims that Don has become more of a symbol than a realistic character. Maybe the writers are using Don’s character to symbolize overarching thesis topics, maybe not. But who cares? As postmodern observers, we can simply use an unassuming approach and try to walk a mile in the shoes of Don, Peggy, and each of the other characters as presented, framed by a blending of their worlds and our own. This makes for entertaining exercises in socio-spiritual development rather than intellectual exercises in literary analysis. 

Personally, I like the life-as-odyssey flow of Don’s character development. He seems more like a real person, and therefore more interesting, because of it. The only recurring character that doesn’t make sense to me is Bobby Draper (see my comments at the end of my Mad Men Themes blog post for episode 6-5: The Flood).

Perhaps Nussbaum is faking a deeper understanding of the art of storytelling and character development than she really has. To me, the question is whether Matt Weiner’s storytelling skills ought to meet a traditionally educated audience’s expectations for a well-told, compelling story with a hero who never disappoints romance-hungry female viewers but yet seems like a real man (as if that’s possible), or whether our expectations need to be ditched in favor of following each character’s growth process while bearing witness to the unusual storytelling gifts of someone who continues to engage and fascinate a worldwide audience by trusting his own unique writing talents. I vote for the latter.

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