Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gender Expectations for The Hardest Job In the World

If you haven't watched this week's Mad Men or the movie Woman Under the Influence .... there are a lot of spoilers.

After this Sunday's Mad Men episode "The Beautiful Girls", I couldn't help thinking a whole lot about the parallels with John Cassavetes' Woman Under The Influence. Both deal so much with the differing expectations that are doled out to men and women when they become parents.

I don't know if you know the song but Le Tigre had a song called Whats Your Take On Cassavetes?, and the lyrics are something like "misogynist?, genius?, misogynist?, genius?". I'll say up front that I haven't seen all of his work so I don't really know but when I watched Woman Under The Influence last winter I actually felt like it was one of the most feminist movies I'd ever seen. This was totally backed up when I looked up info about the movie online and saw that Cassavetes actually saw himself as the mother in the film and identified with her stronger than any of the other characters. For some background information Woman Under The Influence is about a working class family with a loud hard working Dad and a Mom who starts to seem increasingly loopy as time goes on. Many of the parts when Mabel the mom is hanging out waiting for the kids to get home remind me a lot of Betty on Mad Men. The long hours drinking and looking at the floorboards or your split ends. And the occasional hook up at the bar with a stranger. Both things Betty has done. Though Mabel as a mother is a lot more fun and has a lot of twitches and quirks that endear her far more than Betty. However, she seems to be doing an increasingly shitty job taking care of the kids, (though I sort of felt like anyone whose been a stay at home mom can probably identify with a lot of it).

Mabel doesn't know when to shut off the enthusiasm or put on a more straight laced appearance for visitors. Her and her husband Nick start to fight a lot more and Mabel's sanity is questioned. This movie is a prime example of the concept of femaleness as synonymous with hysteria and insanity. Being female is to be "the second sex" and therefore considered other. Being other is to be mentally unsound. A doctor is called and Mabel is hauled off to a mental institution.

With Mabel hidden away you get to see what a fine job of parenting her husband Nick does. This is sort of like when everyone thought Britney Spears' kids should be taken away from her and given to Kevin Federline. Clearly K-Fed is the perfect specimen of fatherhood. So Nick takes his and Mabel's little kids to his very unsafe workplace, they ride around in the back of a pickup truck, and drink beer. Basically he sucks just as much if not more than Mabel.
When the time comes for Mabel to come back from the institution, Nick has the terrible idea of throwing her a surprise party - having her come home to a house full of friends and acquaintances and oh yea the woman he's subtly shtupping on the side. Oh and everyone is waiting to see if Mabel will "act crazy" by which I mean maybe cry, get emotional, or act overly enthusiastic about seeing her family again. I really liked the end though, Nick decides that this quiet demure woman Mabel is trying to be is not the one he fell in love with and he begs her to just act like herself. "Normal" domestic life resumes with the final acceptance that Nick and Mabel have their own special brand of normal and it might get crazy sometimes but they'll work it out.
On an unrelated side note - Gena Rowlands' performance as Mabel is epic. I think its one of the best performances of all times. She walks the perfect line between nuts and normal with ticks and gestures and voices I've never seen an actress pull off before. When you think about the stiff as a board acting by everyone in the early 70s Gena Rowlands' acting in this movie puts Woman Under the Influence light years ahead of its time.

So anyhow, with Mad Men this past week, Sally Draper ran away and showed up at her dad Don's work. Instead of wanting to know what would drive her to such unsafe behavior Don got pissed off and threw a fit. He flipped out at the woman who found her on the train and got her there safely, flipped out on Sally's mom on the phone in front of her, and then passed her off on his new lady friend instructing her to take Sally back to his place. Later he enjoys the rum pancakes Sally made him, still doesn't talk to her about her problems and home life, and takes her in to work again. At the office they get in a terrible fight about how Sally doesn't want to go home with her mom. He drags the ladyfriend into it again, grabbing her out of the hall in a "you have a vagina- now mother my child" kind of way. Things go terribly and Sally tries to run away and falls badly in the hall. All of this should be red flags to any parent that she is very disturbed in her present living situation and needs help and acknowledgement.

As the cold and frustrated mother Betty ranks quite possibly the "most hated" of all Mad Men characters. Maybe Pete Campbell is equal in the most hated category. But lets think about it - Betty is cold and uptight and she slapped Sally once and also told her not to masturbate - two things that were par for the course in 60s parenting. And well, among other horrible indiscretions Pete Campbell screws over everyone and raped the nanny who lives down the hall. So why is Betty so hated. And I'm not saying I like her but really she's followed all the rules and gotten nothing in return.

So yea we'd all want to live with Don more..... but imagine that scene for his young daughter. You have no idea when Don will be home but you can count on him being blindingly drunk and at all hours and almost constantly bringing home a wide assortment of society girls, secretaries, prostitutes, waitresses, and co-workers to shag all over the apartment. You can depend on him for nothing and he will never tell you his real name. However, you will probably get to go to the zoo on Saturday and he doesn't care if you can't cook. So yea, dads like Don can look like a ton of fun but as with Mabel and Nick the reality of the situation is that living with Dad is not going to be much better than living with Mom for little Sally Draper. Good thing her generation has disco right? Geez!
The version of fatherhood that is proliferated by television these days is not a whole lot better.

On last season's Modern Family ( a show I mostly like ) one of the final morals of one episode was "90% of being a dad is just showing up". A better phrasing of that might have been "showing up is better than not showing up". Because really that "just showing up" crap does a terrible dis-service to all the fully present dads out there. The awesome dads like mine who do laundry, meals, car rides to and from, conversations, encouragement, homework help and everything else. That stuff has to be a lot more than 10%. If the tables were turned would anyone be satisfied with Mom's who "just showed up". In many cases a mother who "just showed up" would be considered unfit and either ostracized, charged with negligence, or sent to a therapist.

I believe in making the unconventional work like Mabel and Nick, they may not have been awesome parents on their own but with determination and love they were going to work through it. Yet, this idea that Fatherhood is pass/fail based on attendance is dishonorable to both Dads and Moms and I hope Mad Men will continue to expose the inequality that is still shown so much on television.

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