Category Archives: Critical review

Review pieces written by MA students on the Contemporary American Literature and Culture module.

Masquerade and Myth: Examining the Authenticity of Selfhood in Mad Men, Housekeeping and Casino

by Sarah McCreedy

‘I like being bad and then going home and being good’. (S2, ep3). Mad Men’s Bobbie Barrett can scarcely be called a moral instructor, but her acknowledgement and acceptance of her masquerade can be called authentic. In the context of this critical review, authenticity cannot be discussed without reference to imitation. To clarify, Miles Orvell has considered the shift in cultural privilege from the latter to the former which emerged between 1880-1940 as, ‘an effort to get beyond mere imitation, beyond the manufacturing of illusions, to the creation of more ‘authentic’ works that were themselves real things’. (xv). Mad Men is this manufacturing of illusion in the form of an imitation of American life in the 1960s. Therefore, how can we expect Donald Draper, an occupant of this copy, to be anything close to the ‘real thing’? Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s Casino, ‘offers a mythologized version of the last days of the mob in 1970s Las Vegas’. (Rothman, 307). Before we can even interrogate the authenticity of selfhood depicted in the film, we are aware that the characters Sam Rothstein and Nicky Santoro are based on mob figures that can be situated in reality. Antithetically, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is located in Fingerbone; an imagined space authentic precisely because this novel marks its debut. I am not asserting that, because Fingerbone is ‘original’, every individual who occupies it is bursting with authenticity. Robinson needs to include characters such as the sheriff, offering his ultimate American symbol of apple pie, in order to represent the traditional hetero-normative American experience as the alternative for her female protagonists. All I propose is that Robinson privileges Sylvie and Ruthie in this space in which, because it is primarily original, and secondly new, their identities are permitted authenticity. To define what is meant by ‘myth’ in this context, Roland Barthes asserts that the, ‘function of myth is to empty reality’. (143). Whilst Housekeeping may not restore this reality, it attempts to negate myths.

Mad Men also challenges these myths surrounding the white, male, American elitist. R.W.B.  Lewis saw the ‘American Adam’ embodied in the characteristics of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ‘liberated, innocent, solitary, forward-thrusting’. (28). Mad Men supports the idea that this figure is indeed a myth. Gene Wise argues that, ‘Those who still envisioned themselves isolated “American Adams” by the 1950s and 60s were largely deceived’. (310). Authenticity, as I have already enforced, cannot exist in an inherently constructed environment, but Mad Men indulges in particular ironies which clarify this truth. To exemplify, Don’s creativity demonstrated in his various pitches for Sterling Cooper is precisely what acquires accounts. However, outside of this context, his creativity is absent. His only authenticity lies in the act of imitation. Like academies throughout America in the 1960s, Don can be accused of being a ‘bastion[s]of reaction’. (Wise, 311). Even in a seemingly authentic moment of realisation, in which Don reads Frank O’Hara poetry in an attempt to display spiritual or emotional depth, it is difficult to shake the imitative origins of this discovery.

Of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his iconic essay “Self-Reliance” states, ‘imitation is suicide’. (1164). In Housekeeping, the train that passes before Sylvie’s (debatable) suicide attempt embodies the order she wishes to escape from: ‘From such a distance it seemed a slight thing, but we all watched it, perhaps struck by the steady purpose with which it moved, as methodical as a caterpillar on a straw’. (80). Her largely unsuccessful masquerade of ‘steady purpose’ as a mother and as a socially accepted member of the community tortures her as it is indeed an imitation – Ruthie and Lucille are not her children, and she is a transient not wishing to reside for an extended period of time in Fingerbone. This denial of the authentic self is what inspires her depression and suicidal tendencies.

Ultimately, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping presents the resurrection of Eve, privileging her over the American Adam. Maureen Ryan acknowledges this fact, ‘Marilynne Robinson revises the traditional American myth of freedom and transcience, endorsing not independence over commitment, autonomy over family, but both; affirming, finally, female difference’. (86). Ruthie notes, ‘Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection. Perhaps we expected a train to leap out of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward, and then to continue across the bridge’. (96). Sylvie and Ruthie are granted this resurrection in the act of leaving the house, and Fingerbone, the site of patriarchal tradition. Ryan states that, ‘The classic American experience is the rejection of the restrictive forces of civilization’. (81). On conclusion of the novel however, Ruthie informs us that she still works occasionally as a waitress. Housekeeping begs the question then: can the idle and the civilised coexist? For Emerson, ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members’. (1165). Arguably then, the restrictive forces of capitalist society will always undermine the authenticity of selfhood, and induce a form of masquerade.

Rather than rejecting these ‘restrictive forces’, Don and Ace Rothstein are captivated by them. Sylvie rejects the institution of marriage often entirely omitting her husband’s existence, and as a transient, never embarks upon a career. Don and Rothstein however, sell their souls to work, and with such a sacrifice they become their work. Rothstein’s marriage is indeed a gamble, ‘For a guy who likes sure things, I was about to bet my life on a real long shot’. Rothstein rejoices in his expertise as a bookmaker, and so, the authenticity of his selfhood is compromised with this knowingly impetuous decision. Mad Men’s Don inhabits a world of myth. According to Roland Barthes, advertising itself is a myth, ‘1) Myth, close to what Durkheimian sociology calls a ‘collective representation’, can be read in the anonymous utterances of the press, advertising, mass consumer goods; it is something socially determined, a ‘reflection’’. (165). Don mythologises his family by using their photographs in his pitch for Kodak (S1, ep13). The images are indeed a ‘collective representation’, in which even Don’s understanding of them as a fabrication becomes dangerously distorted.

Don’s truly American desire for innocence deemed, ‘part of the national character’, (O’Connor, 21) also aggravates his lack of awareness. Like Bobbie, he is ‘being bad’, but unlike Bobbie, he refuses to acknowledge that he enjoys it. In Scorsese’s Casino, Rothstein advocates that Las Vegas is a ‘Morality Carwash’ in which all sin can be swept aside. In his mind, Don Draper visits this car wash every day, wiping the dirt of his affairs off his pristine Cadillac in an attempt to preserve the sanctity of his family. He preaches such a philosophy of denial to Peggy Olsen after the birth of her son, ‘This never happened. It will shock you, how much this never happened’. (S2, ep 5). It is only when Bobbie points out Don’s promiscuous reputation (‘you have lots of fans’, S2 , ep 6) that his self-imagined identity is shattered, and he retaliates leaving her tied up in a hotel room. Only then, and of course, in the domestic sphere of the Draper residence, do we see the duplicity of Don’s selfhood as the camera zooms in on his reflection, finally abandoning his physical form.

mad men shaving
Still from Mad Men. Lionsgate.

Needless to say, the camera invents this separation. This is an example of an occasional visual ‘sign’ in Mad Men which instructs meaning, but predominantly, in visual terms, the stylisation of the show is prioritised, undermining the attempt to critique. Homogenously, the authenticity of selfhood in Casino is sabotaged by the grotesque nature of its characters (which develops as they further masquerade in their lives), with Santoro’s white stripe of hair, Rothstein’s array of vibrantly coloured suits and oversized sunglasses, and Ginger’s chinchilla coats and changing hairstyles, stereotypically representing the trends of the late 70s/early 80s.

de niro
Still from Casino, Universal Pictures

Jean Baudrillard states, ‘it is myth that invades cinema as imaginary content. It is the golden age of despotic and legendary resurrections. Myth, chased from the real by the violence of history, finds refuge in cinema’. (43). As with the function of the Barthes myth, reality is emptied in Mad Men and Casino. Barthes explains the limitations of visuality, ‘we find ourselves immediately at the heart of the most important problem facing the semiology of images: can analogical representations (the ‘copy’) produce true systems of signs and not merely simple agglutinations of symbols?’. (32). Put differently, is meaning lost in something which is firstly, a ‘copy’, and secondly, overloaded with images like some kind of visual explosion? Subsequently, do we begin to immerse ourselves in this visual world of escapism?

‘…whatever in the past happens to have been of significance or value ought to be held in memory, insofar as that is possible, so that it can give us guidance. Then, too, nostalgia, reaction, and denial, all of which assume a meaningful sense of the past, are potent energies in any civilization at any time.’ (1998: Robinson, 5-6).

This escapism then, in Mad Men at least, becomes a nostalgia for something we never had in the first place. Robinson’s three components of the past are important as they all intertwine. This nostalgia for the 1960s is a reaction to the show, and also, a denial of who we are, and where we have come from. Life was not better then. For Baudrillard, ‘When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning’. (6). The real is resculpted, masquerading in the form of glorious myth. Emerson considers such glorification, ‘Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and majesty of the soul’. (1171). Why do we doubt ourselves and glorify our predecessors? Baudrillard answers, ‘We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end. Because finally we have never believed in them’. (10).

Such senseless and desperate nostalgia is even exhibited by the house itself whenever Ruthie sees her grandfather’s paintings on furniture in Housekeeping, ‘over the years the white paints had absorbed them, floated them up just beneath the surface’. (90). Additionally, they provoke a reaction from Ruth and Lucille, ‘the two cherubs who swam in ether’ (90). Will they embrace the hunting scene, or become the symbol of renewal, the peacock? The peacock cannot fly, limiting Ruthie’s evasion of ‘restrictive forces’, which prompt the masquerade. Throughout Casino, ‘back home’ is consistently referred to as some sort of parallel universe which Rothstein and Santoro have departed from. Santoro refers to ‘back home’ before he has even left, showing a denial of not only the past, but the present. Miles Orvell views our approach to authenticity in contemporary life thus, ‘We have a hunger for something like authenticity, but we are easily satisfied by an ersatz facsimile’. (xviii). Suddenly, ‘it is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real’. (Baudrillard, 2). We become the advert; we become the reflection. We are the masquerade; we are the myth, and unless we abandon civilisation, and its  ‘culture of the factitious’ (Orvell, xviii), there is nothing we can do about it. Emerson believes that, ‘Society never advances’. (1178). He describes it as a wave, which, ‘moves onward, but the water of which it is composed, does not’. (1178). Society cannot advance because no matter how much she masquerades or mythologises herself, America cannot escape her past, and notably this denies the American Adam. To conclude, Emerson states,

But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time. (1172).

The future is anticipated, or even feared. The past is worshipped through television shows like Mad Men. Whilst these two distractions dominate, the present suffers, and the impulse to seize the day is lost. The self cannot be found in the past. If the authentic stage we occupy (the present) cannot be embraced, the authentic self is surely obsolete.

 

 

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1977.

—. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Jonathan Cape, 1993.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Casino. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Universal, 1995. DVD.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance”.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol B. Ed. Nina Baym & Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. 270.

Lewis, R.W.B. The American Adam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Mad Men: Seasons 1&2. Created by Matthew Weiner. Perf. John Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser. Lionsgate, 2008. DVD.

O’Connor, William Van. The Grotesque: An American Genre and Other Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.

Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940. 1989.  North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Robinson, Marilynne. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

—. Housekeeping. London: Faber & Faber, 1981.

Rothman, Hal K. “Colony, Capital, and Casino; Money in the Real Las Vegas.” The Grit beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas, ed. Hal K. Rothman & Mike Davis. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002. 307.

Ryan, Maureen. “Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: The Subversive Narrative and the American Eye.” South Atlantic Review. Vol. 56, No.1 (January 1991): 79-86.

Wise, Gene. “”Paradigm Dramas” In American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement.” American Quarterly. Vol. 31, No.3 (1979) 310-312.

 

Photo credits:

1. Photo by Alan Sepinwall, ‘Mad Men, “Maidenform”: Reflections of the love you took from me’, www.nj.com.

2. Photo by luckystrike721, bamfstyle.wordpress.com.