Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Mad Men" Really Brings Home Patriarchal Sexism

If there is something that has dogged me about feminism in general, it has been the lack of precision about what feminists mean when they are criticizing patriarchy. In fact, I believe that equivocating on what 'patriarchy' means has been at the root of much of the vitriolic backlash against feminism. What often happens is that feminist will use 'sexism' and 'patriarchy' interchangeably and never define either terms.

A few weeks ago, I laid out what I thought was a helpful definition of patriarchy, put forth by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist/socio-biologist. Hrdy distinguishes between patrilines and patriarchies, both of which occur in animal nature as well as human nature. Patrilines reckon descent through the father. Patriarchies are kinship arrangements in patrilineal societies set up to guard against misattributed paternity. Patriarchies thereby "gain control over the resources that mothers need to survive and produce." In human societies, one tool that men employ to gain control over resources is to disseminate and perpetuate sexism. Sexism, therefore, is a worldview that considers women to be inferior to men. It should be clear that one can be sexist without being a patriarch or living in a patriarchal society. Sexism can linger long after kinship arrangements have changed, as they have in the United States at various points in history.

Having made this distinction, I think one era in U.S. history in which sexism was a part and parcel of patriarchal rule was post WWII. And, the fantastic TV series that has really brought home how bad things were for women, ethnic minorities, and racial minorities is AMC's Mad Men. I haven't watched the whole series (since I am downloading them from iTunes and watching when I can), but from what I have seen, I am convinced Matthew Weiner's fundamental motivation for producing this series is to remind the post-feminist/reverse discrimination era why exactly the women's movement and civil rights movements took place. While the cultural wars abound in print and the blogosphere--deriding feminists, gay rights activists, and civil rights groups fighting institutionalized racism (read: Jena 6), it seems that few of these pundits--particularly the women and racial/ethnic minorities-- have really taken stock of what their life chances would have been in the 50s. Would Ann Coulter exist in 1960? What about Condolezza Rice?

If you haven't seen Mad Men, I highly recommend that you download it soon. One of the important benefits of this show is to clarify what the nature of our feminist criticisms of sexism are now. We are not living in that era, but surely there are fringe right wingnut groups--the kind of folks that Amanda at Pandagon excels in taking on--that would love to return to those good old days. I think that any young women who have thrown their lot in with such fringe groups should watch Mad Men and ask themselves if that is the world to which they want to return. Some might. But, I bet the majority would not. We can also use Mad Men as a touchstone for making more nuanced arguments about persisting sexism, e.g. where it comes from and why it lingers, without mistakenly referring to our era as patriarchal (with the exception of some subcultures).

Who else is as addicted to Mad Men as I am?