I’ve always hated the movie Top Gun. It is true that it espouses a vision of American masculinity I could do without, and I have been accused of having negative feelings towards the movie because of my disagreement with the film’s values. But I think the key concept here is “espouses”. There is a difference between presenting a perspective, and espousing it. The preening that Top Gun indulges in isn’t offered with a critical eye; instead, it is given as a promotion of the ideas in the film. Top Gun is a commercial.
Too many people automatically assume that everything they see is espousing the perspective that is being offered. This has recently come up once again with the debut of Girls on HBO. Girls is a series about white, middle-class women in their early 20s, living in New York City. The auteur is Lena Dunham (she created the show, writes the show, stars in the show, and directs episodes of the show), who is herself a white, middle-class woman in her 20s. The semi-autobiographical nature of Girls leads some to criticize the show because they assume it espouses the perspective of the women who make up most of the cast. Why would they want to watch a show that promotes such a narrow, even despicable way of life?
But the characters in Girls are far from happy, they are not presented in a particularly positive light, and the main character (played by Dunham) is the recipient of the most barbed criticisms. She is self-absorbed and privileged. But this is not shown as a good thing. She is at her best when she steps outside of her self-absorption. Girls is not a commercial for the life style of its characters, the way Top Gun is a commercial for American ass-kicking via bad-mother flyboys. Girls walks a thin tightrope, to be sure, and it may turn out to be a commercial, but it’s not there yet.
I was talking with a couple of my siblings recently about Mad Men. A general complaint was that they saw no reason to watch a show about advertising executives from the sexist 60s. (I’m not sure either of them have actually seen the show, since they already know what it’s about.) If Mad Men were created by Tony Scott, it might work as a commercial in the Top Gun mode. But it’s not. Few, if any, of the characters on Mad Men are happy with their lives. None of the male characters are role models. Don Draper is a commitment-fearing philanderer with a big, existential secret … Roger Sterling has smoked and drank himself into numerous heart attacks … Pete Campbell flounders because he can’t meet the standards he thinks Don and Roger have set for him. And while they may not be aware of it, we in the audience know that they are entering a period in American life when their male privileges are being contested. In short, while something like Top Gun promotes the life it puts on the screen, Mad Men critiques the life and times of its characters.
There was a crucial scene in Mad Men a few weeks ago. A bunch of the ad execs take a potential client out on the town for booze and whores. At the brothel, Don sits at the bar, drinking, while the others get what they came for (Don is at present too enraptured with his new wife to join the men, and his opinion of whorehouses is affected by the fact that his mother was a prostitute). Afterwards, Pete and Don are alone in the back of a cab, and Pete drunkenly accuses Don of disapproving of Pete’s visit with the prostitute, finding Don to be a hypocrite, given his own history of philandering. Even Roger joined in the fun at the brothel. Don looks at Pete with surprise and notes, “Roger is miserable.”
I’m reminded of a point in our sibling conversation when my brother asked if the men on the show cheated on their wives, this being behavior he didn’t much approve of. I’m not disagreeing with him … I’ve been married to the same woman for almost 39 years myself. But his question missed the point. Yes, they cheat on their wives. And they are miserable. Mad Men isn’t a blueprint for cheating husbands, unless your idea of a good life is to feel miserable.
There are many reasons why we might decide to spend time with one television series over another. It may be on a topic that doesn’t interest you, it may be that you don’t have the time to devote an hour a week, it may be that you watched it once and thought it stunk. And it may be that the values the series espouses are ones you don’t like. But it is stupid to assume that just because a series (or movie, or book, or play, or song) presents a perspective you disagree with, it must be promoting the values of that point of view. Girls doesn’t make you want to be a 24-year-old middle-class white girl in NYC, The Godfather Part II doesn’t make you want to be Michael Corleone, and Mad Men doesn’t make you want to be Don Draper. You’re confusing these works of art with commercials like Top Gun, which exist solely to make you want to be like Tom Cruise.