MAD WORLD: "Looking at Gender, Antonioni, and the Soviet Sixties"
Guest Writer: Andrea Ferber

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

posted under , , , , , , by Unit for Criticism


[The last in our series of posts from the Unit's 2/19 symposium, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, describes a panel that featured papers by Lilya Kaganovsky, Robert A. Rushing, and Diane P. Koenker.]

“Looking at Gender, Antonioni, and the Soviet Sixties”

Written by Andrea Ferber (Art History)

Though Roger Sterling, speaking from Mad Men's vision of the early 1960s, firmly believes that “psychiatry is just this year’s candy pink stove,” every presentation in last month's MAD WORLD symposium focused heavily on psychology in relation to both sides of the screen—from fictional characters to the appeal for audiences. The second panel, which included talks by Lilya Kaganovsky, Robert A. Rushing, and Diane P. Koenker, addressed character development through analysis of cinematic techniques, style, spectatorship, and sexuality.


Lilya Kaganovsky discussed the gendered gaze and the spectacle of masquerade รก la Berger and Mulvey, focusing especially on season two’s “Maidenform” episode of Mad Men in which Sterling Cooper is approached to rethink advertising for feminine undergarments. While arguably most shows (and any media, for that matter) display sexualized bodies for the pleasure of consumers, this episode seems tied together by a web of gazes. In addition to Don, the three main female characters Betty, Joan, and Peggy flaunt themselves for their own gratification and ours; the men at Sterling Cooper categorize each female employee as either a “Jackie” or a “Marilyn”; and the episode ends with a striptease—during which the gaze with the most tension is not the audience's ogling the showgirls but Pete’s mean stare toward Peggy.


Comparing Don to other male characters, Kaganovsky argued that Don may be more comfortable in his masculinity because he recognizes it as a construct to be performed. Don’s character is the epitome of smoothness—he can save the otherwise-bombed business meeting with Lucky Strike with a catchy sales pitch (“It’s Toasted”) and always has a suave reply to his woman-of-the-hour. Yet it is his innocent, doe-eyed daughter Sally who most unnerves him. Don finds Sally’s loving, admiring gaze extremely disconcerting because he knows that she sees him as something he is not: a virtuous man of integrity worthy of respect. Pulling all these gazes together, Kaganovsky argued that even beyond this episode, Mad Men questions the meanings and effects of looking.

Borrowing from the season two episode “The New Girl,” in his title, Rob Rushing presented “It Will Shock You How Much This Never Happened: Antonioni and Mad Men” drawing numerous parallels between the AMC television show and the work of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni.


Both Matthew Weiner and Antonioni emphasize visuals or surface appearances, especially that of people, and the fragility of identity. Just as Antonioni’s characters have little or no interiority, so Mad Men encourages us to read superficially, based on clothes and body language. Furthermore, Rushing asserted, both Weiner's show and Antonioni's films reveal an interest in watching things disappear. Citing the interchangability and shallow subjectivity of characters such as Claudia and Anna (L’avventura, 1960, image right), Locke and Robertson (The Passenger, 1975), and Dick and Don in Mad Men, Rushing persuasively made comparisons beyond obviously similar sixties chic. Overall, “[Mad Men’s] larger project is tracing the disappearance of a set of economic, sexual, and racial relations that seem unimaginable to many of today’s spectators. Don knows that the first thing that people want is to forget,” Rushing stated.

Maintaining the focus on cinema, Diane Koenker aligned early sixties youth culture in the Soviet Union as depicted in films of the era: in particular, Nine Days of One Year (1961) by Mikhail Romm, and I Am Twenty Years Old (1965) and July Rain (1966, image below), both by Marlen Khutsiyev.




The young protagonists, not unlike the American counterparts depicted in Mad Men, are decidedly hip with thick eyeliner, bouffant hairdos, skinny neckties and grey suits. Likewise they share an addiction to chain smoking and concern themselves with pursuing romantic relationships. On the other hand, according to Koenker, sex and sexuality was depicted far less openly in the media of the Soviet sixties than in the United States and Western Europe.



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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great Piece! -The concluding point is that ‘sex and sexuality was depicted far less openly in the media of the Soviet sixties than in the United States and Western Europe’ --Zizek suggests there is a price to pay –generally- in the open portrayal of sexuality. For example, even the most graphic pornography has a self-mocking aspect that diminishes emotional involvement. This got me thinking about Mad Men, because ‘graphic’ sexuality seems to occur without our emotional investment in the character, and cut where there is. I’m curious if this is true in the difference between Soviet films (with maybe even a subversive cinematography) and the US. General Thought?

David said...

Great Piece! -The concluding point is that ‘sex and sexuality was depicted far less openly in the media of the Soviet sixties than in the United States and Western Europe’ --Zizek suggests there is a price to pay –generally- in the open portrayal of sexuality. For example, even the most graphic pornography has a self-mocking aspect that diminishes emotional involvement. This got me thinking about Mad Men, because ‘graphic’ sexuality seems to occur without our emotional investment in the character, and cut where there is. I’m curious if this is true in the difference between Soviet films (with maybe even a subversive cinematography) and the US. General Thoughts?

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