Footnotes of Mad Men: Your Prison, Your School, Your Hospital

The Foucauldian adage goes something like: prisons, hospitals, and schools have the same architecture because they are all centers of confinement. (But is there anything more confining than the suburban nuclear family? Not according to John Cheever or Matthew Weiner!) In Mad Men episode 305, “The Fog,” we got a field trip to all three institutions! A sexy school teacher, a surly prison guard and a McMurphy-hating maternity nurse all served as uniformed ambassadors. So how much has changed and how much has stayed the same inside these linoleum-plastered hallways?

§ Sally Draper is acting out and her teacher is concerned. A teacher discussing a student’s ‘feelings’ with parents would be flouting classroom management conventions, and would be part of a progressive new school of teaching. Behaviorial studies of the 50s suggested teachers assume a role of strict authority; if a student was misbehaving, then they were expected to be disciplined, not “counseled,” the way Sally’s teacher (clumsily) attempted to do. This 1963 guide to the role of a teacher in the classroom is a fine of example of changing attitudes: it encourages teachers to shed their roles as petty despots and “synthesizers of information” and assume a looser, more maternal role.

The ideology in transition recalled this passage about teaching, from Zoe Heller’s book on stuffy old teachers and drippy new do-gooders:

Many younger teachers harbour secret hopes of “making a difference”… They, too, want to want conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion. When I was at teacher training college, there was none of this sort of thing. My fellow students and I never thought of raising self-esteem or making dreams come true. Our expectation did not go beyond the three R’s and providing them with some pointers on personal hygiene. Perhaps we were lacking in idealism… We might not have fretted about our children’s souls in the old days, but we did send them into the world knowing how to do long division.”

There was that lovely contrast of touchy-feelyness with the cold columns of long division on the chalkboard in the background.

§ Speaking of being maternal, Betts has endured a nightmare; meanwhile, Don had his feet up in the cozy solarium. It wasn’t until the late 70s that men were regularly allowed in the delivery room. Until then, men’s role in a pregnancy, as far the medical establishment was concerned, ended at conception. Before then it was argued in the pages of women’s magazines and medical journals that men would “contaminate” the delivery room, both physically and psychologically. Doctors didn’t want to encourage the “prurient interests of men.” Surprisingly, according to obstetrics historian Judith Walzer Leavitt, the consensus of most men was that they did want to be in the delivery room. In one waiting room guest book, a kind of semi-public library that was kept in expectant father’s waiting rooms, one man wrote he wanted to “grab hatchets and chop through the partition” separating him from his laboring wife.
§ Which brings us to the anxious Sing Sing prison guard. Besides being holed up in waiting room, didn’t the guy strike you as a bit unstable? Too agitated and erratic even for a papa-to-be. Weird? Actually, no!

From a 1967 study of prison guards:

When the recruit arrives he is plunged into an alien environment, and is enveloped in the situation 24 hours a day without relief. He is stunned, dazed, and frightened. The severity of shock is reflected in 17-hydroxycorticosteriod levels comparable to those in schizophrenic patents in incipient psychosis, which exceeds levels in other stressful situations. The recruit receives little, or erroneous, information about what to expect, which tends to maintain his anxiety.

And then there is our hero/antihero. Though Don’s appeal, throughout the show, has been his effortless masculine attitude, he also always is extremely reluctant to engage with other men in the rituals of manhood. We all pace those cold floors alone, I guess.