September 23, 2019

Mad Women: 1950s Hollywood gets it better than today

It’s difficult to know whether to be thrilled or disheartened that a film from the 1950s understands women better than most entertainment today. And yet, that simultaneous delight and despair at apprehending the social and cultural phenomena of a bygone era, as it plays out in its own time, was what struck me most while watching the 1959 film “The Best of Everything”, a tableau of New York’s mid-20th century working-girl culture.

What is on display – both stylistically and dramatically – are women whose ambitions extend beyond the bifurcated work-or-family stereotype and exemplify, at least in fantasy, what gender equality might look like if it weren’t so intimidating to men. Here, women do not passively accept their fates or the limits of the culture, but dare to want more – much more – the ascending career, the financial independence, the whirl of romantic love and the security of marriage all at once. And though they demand and pursue the ideals they hold, many still become casualties of their out-sized dreams, in a world that wants them to settle for less.

“Everything” offers, by many accounts, the vision of women “Mad Men” would like you to see but falls short of in substance. Stylistically, they are the same. In fact, the lushness of style – the fashions, the furniture, the promising bustle of Manhattan on the cusp of its international prominence – are similarly on display in both canvases, but whereas “Mad Men” is stylistically darker, “The Best of Everything” evokes a certain social darkness that bursts open the seams of sexism, misogyny and feminine ambition in ways “Mad Men” reduces to self-serving clichés.

For instance, in “Mad Men” the turmoil of Betty, an unhappy housewife is resolved when she finds a new husband. In “Everything” the beautiful typist Greg is spurned by her lover and in despair, falls to her death. The idea being that in “Mad Men” women are rescued, and in “Everything” they must rescue themselves – or die. In “Mad Men” playing mistress to a powerful man is sexy and glamorous; in “Everything” only a proper marriage will do. When one female executive, played by Joan Crawford, leaves her job to pursue an elusive relationship, rather than settle for less than what she wants, she returns to the office.

In his essay “The Mad Men Account” published in the New York Review of Books, the critic Daniel Mendelsohn impugns the show’s overall treatment of social issues, suggesting that where complexity is needed, superficiality suffices.

“[The show] proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.

When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today.”

The irony here is that “Everything” isn’t reimagining a historical perspective, it is a document of one. And rather than that particular reality provoking outrage, despite the social norms of the time, it presents something aspirational; the focus of the film, versus the TV show, is not misogyny but female ambition (Misogyny, at least in the film, is a byproduct of feminine ambition and talent, not a reason for precluding it).

There is nothing more “uncomfortable” about the world the film depicts than the world as it exists today. For women, much is still the same. It is still necessary to be fierce in the fight for it all, for the right to craft a professional and personal reality beyond what is common or acceptable. The uncomfortable thing is that the women in “Everything” do not resign themselves to their fates the way the women of “Mad Men” do, which speaks to either a gross misunderstanding of mid-century women or our need to retroactively judge them as less enlightened.

The women of “Mad Men” and the women of “Everything” suffer the same injustices of social imprisonment. But while the “Mad Men” gals resolve to daintily traipse around in their cages, the “Everything” women are clawing their way out, so indomitable are their spirits, their urge to have everything they desire.

(I also want to write on the film’s ideas about love but I have to finish a column on Tom Cruise!)