“Mad Men”: Megan Draper On The “Emptiness Of Consumerism”
I’ve written previously on this blog that one way to deal with the bourgeois guilt, even to the point of moral superiority, is to like a Charles Dickens novel. If you enjoy sipping champagne made from the tears of Tiny Tim, being socially conscious about all the evils in the world except your own role in them makes it that much easier to feel good about yourself.
Which brings me to Mad Men and last week’s episode, “A Christmas Waltz”. There is a scene in the episode where Megan takes her husband Don to a play entitled “America Hurrah”, which apparently contains numerous jabs at advertising. Later, when he expresses his bitterness, Megan tells him that this is a play about the “emptiness of consumerism”.
One of the most remarkable things about Mad Men is its ability to explore the culture of consumerism from nuanced, interesting angles, beyond the usual mantra that advertising is evil. Narcissism can take many forms, including forms that imitate virtue, however clumsily. After this episode, I was curious what people thought about that scene and was stunned to discover that no one seems to pick up on the most obvious incongruity in it: Megan’s outrageous outfit. It is her most ostentatious ensemble, in a season in which she has worn one glamorous outfit after another — and there she stands, in the middle of a luxurious Manhattan apartment, in a bejeweled designer smock, with diamonds practically cascading off her earlobes, talking about the “emptiness of consumerism”. That’s the kind of chutzpah only the clueless possess.
(How do I know it’s a designer dress? It’s gaudy, slightly weird-looking and impractical — three characteristics that are de rigeur in haute couture. You don’t mind me speaking français, do you?)
To be clear, I am not one of those Megan-haters. I think she is one of the more likeable characters on the show, and she is often unfairly maligned by viewers and critics. But, she is not without her flaws, and her insight, while remarkable at times, occasionally fails her. We got a taste of it the previous week, when Megan made an insensitive comment to her friend, provoking justified outrage: only the rich can wonder why anyone would audition for a part in a shitty play; to those who need acting gigs to keep a roof over their heads and put food in their mouths, the reason is obvious. For all that Megan frets about her career and snaps at Don for standing in the way of her dreams, her struggle is entirely existential — and it’s now gotten to the point where she cannot even comprehend that this is a kind of refined angst that only Don’s wealth allows her to afford.
And now, we have the pep talk about the emptiness of consumerism.
I went to college at one of “those” schools, and I’ve lived in New York for many years, so I’ve gotten to know the quasi-leftist sanctimony of well-meaning-yet-clueless rich people pretty well. The most remarkable thing I’ve noticed is that such people can rail about the evils of consumerism in between buying race horses and Rolexes and Prada clothes, while being utterly convinced they are not consuming. It’s been explained to me (in all seriousness and sincerity) that when a rich person buys, say, an outrageously expensive dress, it is her way of expressing her fine taste, not an act of crass consumerism that you or I commit when we buy inferior schmattes at Anne Taylor Loft.
I know from personal experience — but more than that, I think it’s a matter of common knowledge — that the price of most luxury goods has no relationship whatsoever to their quality, uniqueness, or what it cost the manufacturer to produce them. Contrary to popular belief, however, people who consume luxury goods on a regular basis are not fools. They know exactly what they are paying for: exclusivity. A mark of status. The opportunity to signal with your handbag, your shoes, your clothes, your car, that you are to be fawned over and treated with extra respect, because, in Thackeray’s timeless words, you are one of the “best people”. It matters not that I can spot a Diane Von Furstenberg dress a mile away because of how unsalvageably awful it is; it only matters that I can spot a Diane Von Furstenberg dress a mile away. Luxury goods today have a function that’s similar to the role that noble crests played five hundred years ago — which is why owners of luxury brands fight so ferociously against the most ephemeral danger of imitation or dilution. Without being reliable markers of class, their goods are worthless.
All of this is to say that conspicuous consumption of luxury goods — in which Megan is clearly engaged — is a particularly offensive kind, because it is both classist and blissfully oblivious, one that rests on a notion of moral and cultural superiority. Since Megan’s parents are old-time communists, they’ve probably visited the Soviet Union, heard of the Purges, seen the privation of the absolute majority of Soviet citizens, and applauded it as one nation’s triumph over “the emptiness of consumerism” — even though like most Western communists, they would sooner gnaw their own limbs off than live in a kolkhoz or in a communal apartment. This is why I’ve always, since my childhood in the last waning days of the USSR, sensed that the upper-level bourgeoisie who promoted communism acted on the notion that no one should live as enjoyably as they had — and this is something very similar to what George Orwell satirized in The Animal Farm. Why people like Megan feel that way, however, remains a mystery to me.
I don’t think consumption is bad in and of itself anymore than I think it is possible to determine what is or isn’t “necessary” for any of us to own. With a few caveats, I adhere to the notion that if you want something, then you need it, and it is the route you take towards the eventual acquisition that determines your value as a human being, not the desire itself. Thus, consumption is bad when its benefits to consumers are outweighed by the damage — to the environment, to public health, to the individual’s loved ones, to democracy, to the economy — and this is quite often a subjective issue.
But what is clear, is that the greater your power to consume, the easier it is to lecture the person who supports you in a life of luxury on the evils of comsumption. After all, one of the many, many neat things lots of money can buy is the ability to be virtuous and principled without denying yourself a goddamned thing.