These men don’t take no for an answer, they build these big businesses, these empires, but really it’s all based on failure, insecurity, and an identity modeled on some abstract ideal of white power. I’ve always said this is a show about becoming white. That’s the definition of success in America—becoming a WASP. A WASP male. The driving question for the series is, Who are we? When we talk about “we,” who is that? In the pilot, Pete Campbell has this line, “Adding money and education doesn’t take the rude edge out of people.” Sophisticated anti-Semitism. I overheard that line when I was a schoolteacher. The person, of course, didn’t know they were in the presence of a Jew. I was a ghost.A newspaper article from when Weiner was a student at Harvard-Westlake in 1981 estimates its student body was 40% Jewish, although in his earlier interview with David Samuels, Weiner insists Jews were much more of a minority at Harvard-Westlake. These implausible memories of his being oppressed for being Jewish in the heart of the second biggest concentration of Jewish wealth and power in the world at the time are incredibly important to Weiner’s sense of himself.
But the Weiners were, presumably, not invited to join the Wilshire Country Club in Hancock Park, and the Los Angeles Country Club on Wilshire Blvd. loomed like an enemy outpost. Sure, they could have joined Hillcrest, Brentwood, or El Caballero while their gentile neighbors could not, but that’s not the point, the point is that Matthew Weiner is a victim.
Certain male artists like to show that they’re feminists as a way to get girls. That’s always seemed pimpy to me. I sympathize with feminism the same way I identify with gay people and with people of color, because I know what it’s like to look over the side of the fence and then to climb over the fence and to feel like you don’t belong, or be reminded at the worst moment that you don’t belong.Like Johnny Rotten said, “Anger is an energy.” It doesn’t really matter if the reasons for your ethnic animus are obviously absurd, ugly, and self-serving. As long as your culture validates your feelings, you can gain a major career boost from the motivation they provide.
Take Rachel Menken, the department-store heiress in the first season of Mad Men. She’s part of what I call the nose-job generation. She’s assimilated. She probably doesn’t observe the Sabbath or any of these other things that her parents did. That generation had a hard time because they were trying desperately to be buttoned-down and preppy and—this is my parent’s generation—white as could be. They were embarrassed by their parents. This is the story of America, this assimilation. Because guess what, this guy Don has the same problems. He’s hiding his identity, too. That’s why Rachel Menken understands Don, because they’re both trying desperately to be white American males.
Of all of them, Peggy is my favorite. I identify with her struggle. She is so earnest and self-righteous and talented and smart, but dumb about personal things. She thinks she’s living the life of “we.” But she’s not. And every time she turns a corner, someone says, “You’re not part of ‘we.’ ” “But you all said ‘we’ the other day.” “Yes, we meant, ‘we white men.’”
On the other hand, if your ethnic resentments are not validated by your culture, you had better learn to put a lid on your feelings. Watch your step. Check your privilege.