Friday, August 27, 2010

Mad Men: The shame and the guilt

"Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?" asks Roger Sterling, the only veteran of the Pacific Theater, indeed of WWII, in the office.

Cultural psychology underlies this week's episode of "Mad Men" with the title "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" based a on book by the same name, a 1946 study of Japan by American cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict written at the invitation of the U.S. Office of War Information in order to understand and predict the behavior of the Japanese in World War II.

According to Benedict, shame is a violation of cultural or social values while guilt feelings arise from violations of one's internal values. Psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis in her 1971 book Shame and guilt in neurosis explained that "The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus."

In other words, a good person can do a bad thing in secret and feel guilty about it. On the other hand, by failing to meet societal expectations one experiences the shame of being a bad person without having committed any bad acts.

"Forgiveness" versus "revenge." "Guilt" versus "shame." These differences are critical to the understanding of ourselves as a culture and ourselves as individuals.

If you watched the HBO mini-series "The Pacific" you learned just how difficult it was for soldiers from the U.S. to understand the Japanese. Simply put, in 1942 Americans were at war with a nationalistic, well-trained, initially well-equipped, war machine that had been at war more or less continuously for nearly 50 years.  Japan was a country of extremely xenophobic, culturally isolated people, dominated by a military caste and a state sponsored religion.

"Shame" at having failed was a much emphasized value and "guilt" for having harmed a person of "the others" was not even acknowledged as a possibility. But by 1965 the Japanese had effectively started the process of "rethinking" and "restructuring" their society.

Roger looked at the old men from Honda with their bowing and saw what he experienced in his Pacific war. He hadn't moved on and he suspected that these old Japanese men hadn't either. Maybe it is possible to truly move beyond "the sins of the fathers" through the changing of the guard to a new generation.

This focus on cultural differences facilitated the episode's portrayal of the effects of shame and guilt as different experiences. To do this, we get back some characters more or less missing from prior episodes this season, Betty, Sally, and Henry.

Betty, who we already know is a mess psychologically, punishes Sally for bringing shame upon her, telling her if she "touches herself" (one of those euphemisms of neurotic America) again she'd "cut off her hands." Henry sees Betty's response as damaging and Sally ends up seeing the school's psychologist four days a week. Of course, poor Sally is delivered there by Carla the housekeeper.

In one interview the psychologist, Dr. Edna, already sees Betty's problems as creating Sally's problems.  "Maytag Betty" (you remember the washing machine incident?) tells her "I was private and mostly outgrew it."

Back to Roger, who's always enough inebriated to be missing any inhibitions, almost blows the future for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with his hate - the big marketing future for the next 20+ years is going to become very Japanese - think Sony, as well as Honda and Toyota. But this episode allows Don to redeem himself.

The writers provide Don with a foil in the form of a competing small agency,  C.G.C., whose chief creative executive is named Ted, that has some of his former clients and is a former associate. Through deceitful manipulation Don gets Ted to buy into a need to spend too much money in the Honda competition in violation of Honda's rules, a contest which neither was ever going to win now anyway. Don wins points with Honda using ceremonious courtesy by citing the rule violation as a basis for withdrawing his firm from the contest.

As usual, there was much in this episode I'm not writing about. I do have to note that the best scene in the show was Peggy by herself riding a Honda (50?) around and around in a room to make Ted think SCDP was spending loads of money making a TV commercial. The second best scene was when Peggy was excited about the drinking bird toy.

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