July is the month when fans of the award-winning series Mad Men, which follows the lives of 1960s Madison Avenue executives, eagerly await a new serving of high drama and retro-chic fashion. But since the fifth season has been postponed to next year, Maddicts will have to content themselves with revisiting already-released episodes. One of these, the episode “Maidenform” from season two, is especially worth a second look, for it is a curious window into the truth of Catholic teaching on human sexuality.
Not that that was anyone’s goal. Mark Greif is too harsh, but he has a point when he accuses the show of essentially “congratulat[ing] the present.” The series’ explorations—often through graphic scenes—of sexism, racism, “homophobia,” etc., often seem designed to confirm some viewers in their self-satisfaction.
Still, Mad Men’s carefully crafted plots, well-developed characters, and sharp cinematography somehow manage to rise above propaganda. The program reaches the realm of true art, insofar as the television medium can, and true art has a curious knack of transcending its authors’ intentions.
The interweaving storylines of “Maidenform,” for instance, dramatize one of the cornerstones of Catholic sexual ethics, namely, that the recreative and procreative dimensions of sexual activity should never be divorced. Usually, this principle is invoked during discussions on artificial contraception, but as a fundamental truth concerning our embodied natures, its relevance is far wider. Pleasure that is self-enclosed, that is not subsumed into a higher nobility (and here I take the raising of children with one’s spouse to be a noble thing), ends up being unsatisfying.
In the episode, Mrs. Betty Draper bumps into Arthur, a younger man whose advances she has previously rebuffed. Although Betty is faithful to her husband, she enjoys the would-be paramour’s attention. But as the two of them are flirting, Betty’s children run to her side. Both Betty and Arthur become visibly uneasy and soon part.
Why? Because they’ve been thinking of sex, but not the honorable kind that is open to the natural and noble end of offspring and is thereby sanctioned by Church and state alike. Betty’s children are a visible reminder of the procreative purpose of sexuality, and that reminder shames the pleasure-fixated pair. Without the ultimately self-transcending intention of legitimate descendants to dignify it, their jockeying for bodily bliss is selfish and base, and they know it.
Don Draper, the tortured protagonist of the series, is also concerned about honor in his own signature, train-wreck way. Hoping to escape from reality, he seeks out the adulterous company of Bobbie Barrett, but when Bobbie mentions that she must visit her son, who is an astonishing eighteen years old, Don registers a note of discomfort. That note continues to sound when, during their next liaison, Bobbie says she must leave to attend her daughter’s play. The last thing Don has had on his mind is his mistress’ maternity, and the reminder momentarily dampens his ardor for the affair. But the coup de grace comes when Bobbie later tells Don that he has an outstanding reputation as a lover, and that she sought him out for that very reason. To her shock, Don refuses to make love to her and leaves.
Two things have turned him off. The first is that others know about his flings. His reaction is not one of fear that such rumors will reach his wife, but oddly, a revulsion to the explicitly sordid. Don experiences outrage at the publicizing of his lust because deep down he recognizes something shameful in it. Despite it all, he wants to be something more than a vacuous playboy.
Second, Don needs silence in order to project his delusions of honor onto his actions, or at least not to think about them. “Stop talking,” he repeatedly orders her; her chatter is “spoiling the mood.” Bobbie’s prattle unveils the possibility that he is no better than she, a possibility he cannot abide.
The character of Bobbie Barrett also highlights an interesting paradox, one alluded to in St. Augustine’s Confessions when he speaks of God “besprinkling all [his] illicit pleasures with certain elements of bitterness, to draw [him] on to seek for pleasures in which no bitterness should be.”
Bobbie’s relishing of venereal delights, loosed from its moorings, has turned into a sadomasochistic fetish. Her life epitomizes the emptiness of pleasure when not subordinated to a higher aim. As every happily-married couple knows, in choosing honor over pleasure, one obtains not only honor but pleasure as well; but in choosing pleasure over honor, one ultimately gains neither. In Bobbie’s case, to experience pleasure, she now needs pain.
The hollowness of pursuing sexual pleasure inordinately is also revealed from the opposite perspective: that is, not from progeny but from progenitors. When the cocky Pete Campbell seduces a model and is brought to her apartment, the erotic tension is suddenly broken by the appearance of her mother. Pete is nonplussed, but his date laughs it off. “What? You didn’t think I had a mother?” she giggles, and adds soothingly, “It’s okay.” But it’s not, and the audience is repulsed as the two proceed, separated from the mother by only thin accordion doors. With a sinister smile Campbell later shows that he is pleased with his tryst; we are not.
The final scene of the episode shows Don shaving in the morning. As his young daughter Sally watches him adoringly, she says, “I’m not going to talk. I don’t want you to cut yourself.” Sally’s remark about not talking, which reminds him of what he had told Bobbie, cuts him more than any blade, filling him with self-disgust. Just as he was unable to finish making love to Bobbie, he is now unable to continue shaving in front of Sally. He asks his daughter to leave and sits alone, desolate.
Commenting on “Maidenform,” Mad Men’s Janie Bryant concluded: “There’s so many meanings in this episode, there’s so many layers. And it’s like the more times you see it… the onion starts to be peeled.” What a surprise to find near the center of that onion a fairly decent theology of eros.
Michael P. Foley, an associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University, is author of Wedding Rites (Eerdmans) and Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? (Palgrave Macmillan).
Mark Greif, You’ll Love the Way It Makes You Feel
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