The joy of political incorrectness

Thanks to my Avatar post, I guess I’m officially a part of “a bizarre cast of characters”. Then again, what else would you expect from a math professor.

James Cameron might be laughing all the way to the bank, but his record-setting 3-D film, Avatar, is receiving criticism from a bizarre cast of characters, who accuse it of being everything from a racist throwback to the source of their overwhelming depression.

The accusations range from the comical to the militantly politically correct, with voices on both sides of the right-left political divide weighing in on the blockbuster, which has earned more than $1.1-billion around the world since its release last month.

The problem with Avatar isn’t political incorrectness – it’s the shallow, schematic thinking propped up by every possible cliché. But I’ve spent enough time on that already, so instead I’m going to write about a TV series that I’m enjoying immensely even though it’s not politically correct in any conventional sense.

That would be Mad Men, of course. The male characters are all incredibly sexist, in ways that wouldn’t even be possible today; but Mad Men counters that with two basic things. First, the sexism is not romanticized or excused: it’s just there, and it’s shown for what it is. And second, the series is just so darn well written. (Warning: mild spoilers follow.)

It would have been very easy to fill Sterling Cooper with caricatures, to play the sexism for cheap laughs. But that never happens. Instead we get a full cast of complex, nuanced, three-dimensional characters operating in a world where men and women know their respective places and struggling to adjust as these places slowly begin to shift. And it’s never just about sexism – it’s also about ambition, creativity, family relations, office politics, and so much more.

Don Draper can be as misogynist as anyone – this is established right away in the first episode, in a particularly cringeworthy meeting with a client, then reiterated any number of times – but he nonetheless helps Peggy in her efforts to break through as a copywriter. We are appalled by the way he treats his wife, but can’t take our eyes away from the screen as he juggles his past and present multiple identities. We might even feel sorry for him as he seems stuck in a time warp, becoming more and more obsolete by the minute. He may have been an advertising genius in the past, and still has the occasional flash of brilliance, but for all his supposed understanding of the mass market he’s absolutely clueless about the mass appeal of an Elvis Presley or a John Kennedy.

The female characters are drawn just as carefully. Peggy is more than a little bit naive when we first meet her, then awkward in trying to navigate the conventions that she can’t quite figure out. It’s almost painful to watch. However, once her knack for words is discovered (“it was like watching a dog play the piano”, a male colleague helpfully suggests) she finds her groove and starts to come into her own, slowly but surely, so much so that her ambition starts to border on ruthlessness. She’s unable to follow the so-called normal career path for women, not because she’s a militant feminist – she isn’t – but because it just doesn’t fit her and she can’t help it.

That’s just scratching the surface; and then there’s Betty, and Pete, and Joan, and the various supporting characters. You can’t think of any of them as cardboard cutouts. They’re perpetrators or targets of sexism and a thousand other prejudices, but they’re also fully fleshed out human beings, with distinct personalities, back stories, secrets and ambitions. The misogynists in Mad Men do not set out on some sort of a purposeful crusade against women. It’s just that the characters – both men and women – expect the world to work in certain ways. It’s in the air they breathe as they focus on going about other business.

If political correctness is measured by the avoidance of designated words or behaviour patterns, or the inclusion of standard positive role models, then Mad Men is not politically correct at all. What it does instead is much, much better: it inverts stereotypes and challenges lazy thinking. It might even inspire us to take a look in the mirror and give a moment’s thought to what assumptions we might be harbouring and how obsolete they might be 50 years from now. What more could I want in that regard.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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