Here are two things I love: Mad Men and Mean Girls. It is permissible to love one of these things, but not the other, and I will let you guess which one is which. The thing is, I love both of them for the same reason, and that reason is that they are both about how we are robbed of ourselves when we agree to perform traditional gender. They just tell that story from two different perspectives.
OK, Mean Girls. I was watching this movie for perhaps the millionth time while cleaning my room yesterday, and it strikes me that when I see it now I see mostly the problems. This is a thing that happens to me when I look at something too much. Yes, it is dumb and formulaic in places, and painfully unfunny in others. But! Here, up front, is why it is just so good.
It is about a girl, Cady (as in, I think, Elizabeth Stanton) who was homeschooled (!) and is entering a real school for the first time and has basically no grasp of pop culture (!!) or performative femininity (!!!) and finds herself adopted by a girl named Janis Ian who dropped out of school briefly and came back as a foul-mouthed misfit rageball after having her social world wrecked by a rumor that she was in fact a lesbian (!!!!). So, like, already you could write this off as oh, Sara is going to have a Very Special Moment with this movie and have done with it, but that is not all.
You see, Cady is attractive, which means that she is quickly claimed by Regina George and her Plastics, a band of rich/hot/elite teen girls; these girls comprise the most powerful clique in school and are universally adored, in the way that people only ever adore someone who can destroy them. Cady agrees to act as a double agent for Janis, who is just never going to forgive Regina for her eighth-grade devastation, and together they scheme to infiltrate the Plastics and bring Regina down. So far, so formulaic, but this is merely a plot contrivance! For the real story is about how Cady learns to be a girl: how she learns to sexualize herself, to control while seeming to submit, to be smarter than everyone around her while seeming dumber, to handle rage and the lust for power by wrapping it all up in a little pink dress and some lip gloss, and how sooner or later she stops performing Mean Girl and starts being a Mean Girl, because it is the best way to get what she wants, and because beneath the "Diva"-printed tank top of every girl beats the heart of George Patton. That is the movie, and while it goes off in a lot of directions (this is a movie that will linger on a shot of a five-year-old girl watching a "Girls Gone Wild" commercial and lifting up her little nightie, that will let you think about how you learn what your body is worth and when you start to learn it) it is basically just that, femininity and aggression, how girls learn to look sexy and fun and lightweight and friendly while engaging in the most brutal forms of combat. Yeah, it's a by-the-numbers teen comedy, but it is a by-the-numbers teen comedy that is much, much smarter than it looks.
Also, Tina Fey is in it! She wrote it! So that's nice.
Then, there's Mad Men. It's often said that the women on this show are more interesting than the men, and I agree that they are easier to identify with, because they represent such an accessible range of archetypes. You can be the sexy girl who's starting to panic because sexiness loses its value at a certain age, or you can be the powerful girl who's starting to panic because she needs to negotiate her own autonomy in a world where autonomy isn't really an option, or you can be the girl who played by the rules her whole life and got the house and the kids and the husband and is starting to panic because that is all just so much more painful and lonely than they told her it would be, or you can be Peggy, and oh, how I love Peggy, the good Catholic girl from nowhere who is eternally confounded by her own body and her own desire and her own talent, which has gotten her somewhere, yes, but that somewhere is the break room behind the Xerox machine, and it's just not fair, is it, in fact she's starting to suspect that nothing is ever fair, and where she comes from people have manners, where she comes from you get rewarded for being good. These are all interesting characters. However, it's not true that they're more interesting than the men. They're certainly not more interesting than Dick Whitman.
I told you that this was the same story from two different perspectives, and it's true: if Mean Girls is about learning to perform "girl," as exemplified by Cady, then Mad Men is about learning to perform "man," as exemplified by Don Draper, who is not even Don, but Dick.
Everything about Don Draper is a lie: his name, his past, even the way he speaks and moves and inhabits his body. Watch Jon Hamm play Dick Whitman in Korea, and watch him play Don Draper in New York, and tell me those aren't two different people. The fascinating thing is how perfectly Don exemplifies everything that a "real man" is or was supposed to be. It's like he read a manual entitled "How To Construct Your American Masculinity" and just followed all of the instructions. You got your job, right, you're in charge there because real men are in charge, and you got your wife, your kids, your house in the suburbs, you got your mistresses on the side, you got your drinking (rye, it's good to have A Drink, a man's drink, rye is that), you got your cigs, your suits, your deep voice and manner of command, most of all you got your emotional impenetrability, your basic opacity, because that's the key thing there, you've got to be opaque, you've got to make sure no-one knows what's going on in there, because men don't open up or break down or confess or admit or cry out in pain, a man is a suit of armor worn by a suit of armor within which you find yet another suit of armor, because a man's never weak.
Don is the obvious construct, the conscious construct, and for that reason he is the most perfect. Yet all of the men around him are doing the same thing, on one level or another: hail-fellow-well-met Cosgrove, who got his instructions in the frat house, and Kinsey, who's repping the Bohemian model this year, and Roger, who is so used to getting everything he wants that he has to find new and impermissible things to want so he can remember what it's like, and Pete, whose problem is that he's trying so hard you can actually see him trying, and Sal, oh God, poor Sal, who knows what he wants and who he is and will deny or destroy all of it so that no-one else can find out, because what he wants is not what a man wants, which means that what he wants makes him less than a man. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? This is the question Mad Men asks every week, and it provides the answer: privilege, acceptance, profit in the most literal sense of the word.
On Mad Men, the women are clearly suffering, and they are clearly wrestling with gender constructs, and that may be why they are easier to like. Femininity was associated with artifice and deception long before feminism ever happened, and feminism took it one step further by suggesting that the artifice and deception were in fact socially imposed, tactics of survival which kept women relatively safe while estranging them from themselves. The funny thing is the obvious thing which is the thing that people rarely if ever point out: men are doing all of this too, and have been all along. Femininity may be about artifice, but it is far more transparent than masculinity, because at least people are willing to point out or admit that it's an act. Masculinity has long been founded on the idea that it is absolutely real - that men are in charge because men naturally take charge, and no they're not faking, no they're not panicking, yes they know exactly what to do, because that's what men are about. It is only when we start taking that act apart that we make possible the things we really need: things like empathy and change.
And, OK, I wanted to write more (shocker! I know) about the problems, about how the stories of people of color aren't really told in either Mad Men or Mean Girls, and about how they both have huge issues regarding queer men's masculinity, to the extent that the only gay male character in Mean Girls is essentially just presented as "one of the girls" and the only openly gay man on Mad Men actually comes over to Peggy's house and gives her a makeover, like despite his background in advertising all he really wants to do is embrace the destiny of gay men everywhere which is to tell straight women how to be fabulous. And is there any chance, even the tiniest chance, that you can tell the whole story of the fucked-upness of gender without discussing the ways in which it has been denied to or used to hurt queers and people of color? No. But I want to end here, with empathy.
People think of Mean Girls as a story about how stupid and shallow ultra-feminine women are; they think of Mad Men as "man porn," a story about how awesome it was to be a guy back in the golden years when men lived like men and women lived like whatever men wanted them to be. I can't help but think that those people are engaging in some Olympic-level Missing of the Point. The point, as I see it, is this: what if no-one is as dumb or as happy as they seem? What if those "golden years" never happened? What if we were never the girls or the men that we tried to be? What if we were something else, all along - something much stranger, much scarier, something we didn't know how to name or accept? What if that something else could save us?