On Mad Men and the modern masculine Madonna/whore complex

by Josh Kimball

Like a lot of people I know, I’ve watched Mad Men this season with increasing pleasure and increasing expectation. While the first season seemed notable primarily as an aesthetic statement – fashioning the finely tuned otherworld of the 60s, while simultaneously barfing up unfortunately clumsy stumbles in plot and pacing – season two clicked into place for me. And as season three opened, I found myself anticipating the series much as I have previous favorites such as Deadwood and The Wire.

One of the most interesting threads of the series – a thread that’s been touched upon in the first couple of seasons, but was driven home especially powerfully in episode two of this third season – is what I call (mostly for lack of a better term, but also because it sounds kind of awesome) the modern masculine Madonna/whore complex.

Whaaa? Frequently, the divide between Men and Boys on the show is stark, sometimes to the point of absurdity. The Men (capped here for your pleasure) populating the show are rare. Don embodies Mad Men‘s Man – decisive, no-nonsense, deep and dark. But most of all, he’s a creature whose motivations are informed by forces outside our lines of sight. He’s the ur-dad coming home reeking of scotch and God-knows-what, his mood unpredictable, though obviously of an origin intuitively understood to spring from experiences of exhilarating strangeness.

Other Men pop in and out – in episode 3, Draper meets Conrad Hilton, and one commenter on the NYT‘s ArtsBeat blog makes remarks in accord with the sentiments above: “Gives us some real men to challenge Don and give him a run for his money… 60s NYC was not all lily livered wonder-bread boys…there were dark brooding sharks lurking at every turn….”

The Men (there are others in addition to Draper, but they flicker in and out of our view) are backdropped by a sea of Boys, none so indicative – perfectly cast and executed – as Peggy’s french fry–chowing bar-side pickup from episode 3 this season. A facsimile of Pete Campbell, the dude is no Pops and all pest. He’s your little brother: uncouth, unprepared, and he doesn’t even know what half the words you say mean. In the Sterling-Cooper office, the Boys are a pack of puppies. They pal around, eat the clients’ sandwiches, blow deadlines and smoke weed when they should be on duty.

Their worst sin, though, that which makes them dismissible – and therefore ultimately contemptible – in the eyes of the series? They’re open books.

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