Why so sad Don?
A word that gets thrown around a lot, and incorrectly, is “deconstruction.” What began as a controversial philosophical mode out of France in the 1960s has become an indelible code word in modern cultural criticism. For example, The Hollywood Reporter‘s episode re-cap series for Mad Men is called “Mad Men Deconstruction.” This usage is wrong in a common way: it confuses the practices of close reading and analysis for the process of “deconstruction.” It also has certain political implications in the world of pop culture analysis that I also want to think about.
I suspect our popular usage of the word stems from a generation of cultural critics who received liberal-arts educations in the 1980s and 90s, and who often found some of the central terms and ideas of literary and cultural theory in philosophy, literature, and other disciplines. But if those critics were anything like me, they probably didn’t understand things too well, or perhaps lost some of the precision of those terms in the years following graduation. But those terms remain in our heads, and inform our thinking, however imprecise. So it’s worth going back to the origins of the term and to think about what it means, particularly in our current pop culture discussion of the “antihero.”
And what better place to turn than Wikipedia? The entry on “deconstruction” will serve nicely enough to get us through, and those who would rather go back to Derrida’s Of Grammatology or turn to a more thoughtful writer than me should do so. “Deconstruction” means first to disrupt the binary oppositions that overwhelmingly structure Western thinking, binaries such as male/female, reason/emotion, writing/speech. As Jacques Derrida (from whom the term comes) tells us, those oppositions are never between equals: one is always privileged over the other. The purpose of deconstruction is to dismantle those oppositions, to take away the privilege and power that always resides disproportionately on one side of the binary. In this regard deconstruction is an intensely political project, one that seeks to move beyond analysis of the binary to change the way we think about power in the world. This is why deconstruction has been a major weapon in the arsenal of late 20th century feminist thinkers like Judith Butler and others. The political implications of deconstruction are what make it so vital, vital enough to get many of us through the dense and sometimes turgid prose of writers like Derrida.
Shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and others rely on extreme portraits of male privilege–the Mafia, 1960s advertising, etc. They focus on white straight men with dubious morals who behave frequently and unapologetically in repulsive ways. But we are often told that these portraits are not celebrations of male power, but critical analyses of them, and that these alpha males are being “deconstructed” by their own narratives: by placing Tony Soprano on the therapist’s couch we have already dismantled the masculine power of the Mafia don. As I alluded to in a previous post, I’m suspicious of this logic and the way it seems to absolve viewers of the pleasure they take in watching such men flaunt their power. That post was spurred by the release of Showtime’s Ray Donovan, another criminal antihero with premium cable sheen. And this is where our popular usage of “deconstruction” gives me pause: when are we done “deconstructing” these men? Have they not been figured out yet? Are they really so complex?
I want to focus on Don Draper and Mad Men in particular. The show has an increasingly obvious but elegant arc, as the suave Don of season one sinks further into his own morass, as the world changes around him, his drinking consumes him, and his pathological lies catch up to his conscience. This is all very artful and perhaps he is being “deconstructed” by the show. But if we turn to one of Mad Men‘s touchstones, we will see that there’s not a whole lot that is new to this story. Show creator Matthew Weiner has cited writer John Cheever as a major influence on the show–the Drapers lived in Ossining (the adult home of Cheever), and I even saw Draper fill in his street address as “Shady Hill,” the name of a fictional suburb Cheever centered many of his stories. I love Cheever’s work and have reread all of his stories multiple times. Cheever is hailed (and occasionally bemoaned) as the preeminent chronicler of a particular type, a mid-century white community, orbiting around New York, affluent, and in the end, morally bankrupt. His stories reflect the very people who were reading them in The New Yorker in the 1960s–Cheever’s fiction is the Ur-text of Mad Men.
Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a well-circulated critique of the show, citing its high-handed relationship to the past, in which 21st century creators and audiences could look down on the benighted 1960s. Mendelsohn is on point, and I think Cheever’s fiction tells us even a bit more. Anyone who has read Cheever will note that his stories are filled with Don Drapers–affluent, adulterous, drunk, chain-smoking, and wallowing in a kind of comfortable existential malaise. This makes the “deconstruction” ostensibly on display in Mad Men then seem a bit odd–if Mad Men seeks to expose the failures of that generation what does it mean that authors and readers at the time were already quite aware of it? If they could acknowledge their own dissipation while thumbing through The New Yorker, what does Mad Men really contribute? Can you deconstruct what is already foregrounded? Does Mad Men dismantle the binaries of the 1960s beyond what was done at the time?
What Mad Men does pile up (as did The Sopranos) is the melancholia. When critics and creators think they are deconstructing these alpha males, what they actually mean is that, in their three-dimensional portraits of these men, they are so very sad. Tony is so distraught he turns to therapy; Don is so unhappy he turns to women and the bottle. But these dimensions don’t ultimately dismantle these men, they reify them. They produce sympathy for their dissipation and (especially in the case of Tony Soprano), their evil. But producing complexity isn’t deconstruction–men have always been unhappy, and powerful men have often been very unhappy. To truly “deconstruct”, to dismantle these archetypes and the power they have both in the media and in the real world, is to find new ways forward, new places to look at, and new ways of looking. But to follow The Sopranos with Mad Men, then Breaking Bad, then Sons of Anarchy, then Ray Donovan might take us through various levels of quality in television, but not much new in the ways of such men. And the endless iterations of this type prove that creators, networks, and audiences are in fact unreconstructed.
(My thanks to friend Justin Rogers-Cooper, from whom the ideas of this post were inspired. He can tell you a lot about the world through his blog.)