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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Death of great patriarch is frequent in American television

    A few months from now, the final half-season of “Mad Men” will premiere. It’s widely speculated that the series will culminate in the death of its main character, Don Draper. With this likely end of the series would come another iteration of the new, yet frequent, situation in American television — the death of the great, and usually white, patriarch.

    This trend favors the dissipation of the traditional structure of the American family as led by a stodgy, old white man. TV, the medium that has defined culture more than any other art form of the past 20 years, becomes a venue to explore societal evolution as it strays from that old canon.

    A.O. Scott, a film critic for The New York Times, has also noticed a pattern in the lives and deaths of these men.

    “It is the era not just of ‘Mad Men,’ but also of sad men,” Scott writes about how these characters are sad products of a bygone era formerly dedicated to oppressing already marginalized groups. “[Draper] is at once the heir and precursor to Tony Soprano, that avatar of masculine entitlement who fended off threats to the alpha-dog status he had inherited and worked hard to maintain.”

    Continuing to broadcast this alpha status is an affront to our attempts at evolution: Toward the acceptance of women, people of color and other marginalized groups as suitable heads of business and, subsequently, families.

    The idea, or idealization, of the white patriarch stems from a lack of imagination: A product of the captains of industry being white men. As in much of American history, marginalized groups were not considered as strong or as interesting characters and were written out of the leads in television.

    What we’re starting to see is the disintegration of this figure as the ideal of American masculinity in favor of more progressive family units that value all participants rather than just a patriarch.

    That the hubris and pride these men exhibit is often their downfall also shows a shift. With Don Draper, his pride never falters while his vision withers; with Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” pride transforms into something far more selfish.

    For example, White, a seemingly innocuous character at the start, rapidly devolves into an insane caricature of a man, hell-bent on reclaiming a shred of his masculinity.

    In arguably the most intense fictional mid-life crisis documented on television, White ignore his duties as father, husband and educator. His wife, Skyler, portrayed by the inimitable Anna Gunn, is a character so honest and right that everyone labels her as a bitch. But it is in Walter’s quest for remasculinization over Skyler that the faults in Walter’s old sense of masculinity are exposed.

    Skyler is undoubtedly a strong character, albeit demoralized by her characterization and the intense loathing that “Breaking Bad” director Vince Gilligan spins around her. She is steadfast in her beliefs, never faltering when confronted by her psychotic drug kingpin of a husband. She refuses to be put into a box labeled “weak female character,” and in this, we see a foil to Walt’s insane quest for patriarchally derived purpose.

    These characters show the problems in this hyper-masculinized white-man family-leading persona that has been part of our culture for so long. Walter White and Don Draper both try to hold on to their societally-dictated roles: managing their families no matter what the consequences.

    But in the end the consequences are rarely, if ever, pleasant.

    TV writers should continue to write these anti-masculine roles in order to push this evolution toward families that don’t center around white males who single-handedly run and support their entire families and the lives of each person in them, with their wives pushed into the background. These masculine roles are unrealistic and oppressive and highlight only one archaic and rapidly fading version of manhood.

    So good for the writers of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” and let’s hope there are more diverse characters in the future without a patriarchial figure having to bite the dust first.

    Nick Havey is a junior studying Spanish and Physiology. Follow him on Twitter @NiHavey

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