It’s the Breed of the Beast

I’m biased, I admit – Mad Men is my favorite TV show.  The costumes, the set design, Don Draper… just, all of it.  But one of the most appealing aspects of the show is its representation of 1960s social issues, including sexuality, and how the characters create their own identities.

In class last week, we talked about the prevalent idea that the Stonewall riots brought an almost dormant gay culture “out of the closet,” so to speak, and how George Chauncey’s Gay New York counters by saying that this culture existed all along.  Mad Men‘s portrayal of homosexuality in 1960s New York City agrees with Chauncey.

A short scene (from “The Jet Set,” Season 2, Episode 11) shows one of the ad men, Kurt, revealing his sexual preference for men.
  A group of people (mostly main characters) have gathered in the office to celebrate landing a new account, and Kurt talks to Peggy about the two of them going to a concert that night.  When everyone confuses that for an actual date, Kurt openly declares that he “makes love with the men, not the women” [1:03-1:06], and everyone else in the room is left in stunned silence to process and reconcile their image of Kurt with their own opinions.  Sal, who is shown in previous episodes to hide and deny his own attraction to men, just stands and watches with his eyebrow raised.

Kurt’s open sexuality acts a foil to the repressed Sal.  Neither man’s homosexuality is assumed by the other ad men, and they react in shock and disgust when they learn about Kurt, showing Sal the reaction he might receive if he admitted his.  Sal’s flamboyant character is attributed not to his sexuality but instead to his creative and artistic background – an interesting contrast to our interpretations of flamboyancy today.

Both characters are distinctly European.  Kurt is Eastern European, and as his friend Smitty defends him later in the scene, saying sexuality is “different in Europe.”  Sal is Italian (his full name is Salvatore Romano).

Clearly the former significance of the red tie is lost on Sal (left), although maybe not on the show's writers.

Their generational differences do provide a stark contrast, as Sal is older and perhaps responding to the homophobia of McCarthyism and the American dream of a house in the suburbs with a perfect family, while Kurt is younger and more liberated.  Their social differences also define them: Sal is newly married and entrenched in the womanizing and materialism of corporate America culture, while Kurt attends Bob Dylan concerts.  As one blog says, Kurt’s “openness about his sexuality marks an enormous gap between his and Sal’s generations, and serves to further accentuate the chasm between Sal’s internal reality and one he has constructed and projected externally.” [1]

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