The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

Mad About Mad Men…or Maybe Mad *at* Mad Men February 10, 2010

(SPOILERS: Contains info from Mad Men Seasons 1 – 3 and chatter about Season 4)

The nominees for 21st annual GLAAD Awards were announced a few weeks back and AMC’s Mad Men is up for best drama series. Pre-Season 3 Finale, I would have been using this as just more proof of how smart and sexy and awesome this show really is, but now I’m not so sure.

If you haven’t heard of Mad Men yet, it’s your own darn fault. Set in the 1960s, the series revolves around Don Draper, an advertising executive for the big Madison Avenue firm, Sterling Cooper. The set design and wardrobe are gorgeous. The ensemble cast is dense with high-wattage talent. The story lines turn the heroes into villains and back again and weave through plot lines that make you think about racism, consumerism, feminism – all those big, heavy -isms – and makes it a blast.

One of the most beautifully constructed characters is that of Salvatore Romano, played by actor/designer Bryan Batt. As Sterling Cooper’s Art Director, Sal proved himself to be both capable and passionate about his work, which is probably why Sal’s Italian heritage doesn’t seem to be a major issue to the big wigs – he is very good at what he does. Something that would be a big deal to the Powers that Be at Sterling Cooper is that Sal is also a closeted homosexual.

The character is used throughout the show to illustrate the difficulty of leading an alternative lifestyle in post-Korean War, white picket fence America. This is to say, Sal isn’t allowed to lead an alternative lifestyle without destroying his career and social life. Instead he is forced to live a double life, marrying a wife he cares for, but isn’t physically attracted to and playing along with the WASPy Madison Avenue career men.

Sal does have a few romantic story lines. He is propositioned by a client, but turns him down. Later he develops a crush on a coworker. His first real romantic rendezvous is an interrupted make out session with a bell boy. Sadly, nothing really comes to fruition. He is paralyzed by the social climate, unable to create a romantic bond let alone build a functional relationship.

Sal is more the rule than the exception, because on Mad Men everyone is living a lie. Don, Pete, and Roger, also live double lives, playing the married family man, but always searching for a new thrill. Just like no woman can ever look like the pictures in magazines (even the actual women pictured!), no one can lead the life the Mad Men have carefully construct and sold in their advertisements.

Roger and Don’s infidelities are widely known and only served to enhance their reputation. Sal, on the other hand is utterly destroyed not by following his heart or giving in to lust, but because he turned down the aggressive advances of Lee Garner, Jr., heir to the Lucky Strike Cigarettes empire.

Lee Jr. decides to exact revenge and demands Sal be fired. Don obliges, ostensibly in order to save the account and protect the company.

It made complete sense. The Lucky Strike account was huge and losing it could ruin the firm. Don is not in the business of social causes. It’s this same tough-nosed pragmatism that allowed him to promote Peggy. Hiring a skillful woman copy writer would help the firm; firing a gay art director who offended a client would help the firm.

I’m sure you could argue that if Sal had not been a homosexual, Don might have backed him up, but I’m not sure that’s true. Don was pretty hardhearted about an array of personal issues displayed by numerous characters when they got in the way of his work.

When Sal didn’t reappear for a few episodes, I was bummed, but not too worried. Then the Season 3 Finale rolled around and the big hitters of Sterling Cooper peeled away into their own new company: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Our beloved Joan waltzed through the door after what felt like an age of exile. I thought that maybe, just maybe, Sal would be next.

Even after it was brought to my attention that fledgling SCDP hinged on Lucky Strike, I was sure they would find some other way for Sal to come back. Maybe he wouldn’t work for SCDP. Maybe he would be rehired at the old firm. Maybe he would start up that art-driven ad agency he talked about in an earlier season and compete with SCDP for clients.

It was not to be. Filming for Season 4 begins in March and Bryan Batt will not be on that set. And I am heartbroken all over again for Sal, who was not only shamed and punished for being the victim of sexual harassment, but is then required by our modern writers and producers to vanish into the night without a peep.

This brings me back to the GLAAD awards. These are meant to “recognize and honor media for their fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the issues that affect their lives”. I would have been rooting Mad Men for the win…Until now.

Sure the writers deserve recognition for giving us a gay character that hasn’t internalized homophobic rhetoric that all gays are sex fiends or have no character attributes beyond their orientation and fab fashion sense. Sal isn’t feminized, flamboyant, or flighty. He is a guy with dreams and thoughts and motivations that hinge on life issues including, but also beyond, his sexual orientation.

And they dumped him!

I’ll freely admit that Sal could never have a happy ending. He’s a gay man in the 60’s, after all, and Mad Men is not in the business of happy endings. One might say that’s kind of the point. Happy endings are sold to us like Lucky Strike cigarettes – they’re toasted…with a side of lung cancer.

But can GLAAD really reward Mad Men after they let Sal drift into oblivion? I wouldn’t.

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Why Fantasy Matters January 29, 2010

As a geeky, bespectacled, and isolated 11-year-old, I was swept off my feet by a guy named Harry Potter and plunged into a lifelong love affair with the fantasy genre. I ripped through Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards Series, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books and Sherwood Smith’s Court Duel Duet. I read the Christianity-centric Lord of the Rings, Narnia Chronicles, and His Dark Materials Series, though with less enthusiasm.

Even after most of my peers had moved on to more adult reading material (or no reading material at all), I came to regard these books as old friends and read them over and over all through junior high, high school, college, and the present, seamlessly moving between books about the philosophical roots of Islamic terror and magic spells.

It was Buffy the Vampire Slayer that bridged the gap between my childhood experience with fantasy and my adult worldview. I was late to the party, having been too young to watch during the original broadcast in the late 90’s and the out of sequence syndicated episodes were only peripherally on my radar in the early Aughts (the end of my high school career). All of Buffy and Angel were out on DVD when I bought BtvS Season 1 to prevent myself from falling asleep before finishing my crushing load of Arabic homework and/or going crazy in student housing.

A miniscule and diffuse number of friends have shared in my love affair with Harry, Buffy, and the rest, but most of them lost interest over time. By and large, fantasy isn’t something consumed proudly and publicly by the bulk of my acquaintance. I can count the number of people I talked to about Harry Potter in college on one hand – and my email was lumos@blahblahu.edu.

In the past I considered this a good thing, because I couldn’t explain why it affected me so deeply. Had it become a widely known facet of my personality, it probably would have been grounds for classification as, at the very least, someone who couldn’t be taken seriously – which is ironic, because the fantasy realm is where it’s imminently possible to hash out the most serious thoughts about life/death, good/evil, and the pursuit of the good life.

Fiction in general invites the reader (or watcher, depending on the delivery mechanism) to interpret elements of a story metaphorically and/or allegorically in order to find deeper meanings within the text. Fantasy is especially rich source material because it eschews not only historical fact, but also what is known to be possible in the real world as well. Not only did this story not happen, it couldn’t ever happen in this reality. Conflicts are magnified to epic proportions, allowing for easy access to each facet of an issue. Your high school boyfriend doesn’t just turn into a jerk after you sleep with him, he actually loses his soul and tries to suck the world into Hell (BtvS Season 2, natch). Now, what have we learned?

Fantasy invites us to explore different dimensions of meaning on a larger than life scale in a universe unbounded by what Buffy might call “our Earth logic”.

So, why does this matter when we actually do live in a universe bounded by Earth logic? It matters, because fiction suggests hypothetical structures for our worldview and thus shapes the way in which we perceive and interact with reality. It is important that the drafting board upon which we test the bounds of our Earth logic be big enough for them to stretch until they break. So that when our fantasies stop being reflections of reality and come to create realities of their own, they are worthy.