Right before Father’s Day, The New Republic’s Marc Tracy published an argument that it’s time for the Daddy Wars, a reassessment of what work-life balance looks like for men, who have largely placed themselves — and in some cases, been placed outside — the conversation women have been having all along about how to triage their careers with their sense of obligations to build happy home lives and families. It was a sharp piece, and I was intrigued by it because I think Marc got at two things that have perturbed me about the “having-it-all” conversation: the fact that men, who have been expected to focus on work rather than home, have never had it all any more than women do, and that we’ve focused far too much on the having it half of the equation, and not nearly enough on what we mean when we talk about “it all.”
Marc and I got together to discuss the piece and the larger debate on my Bloggingheads show:
And our discussion turned to something I think is important: that pop culture has actually done a much better job of discussing work-life balance for men than it often gets credit for, and certainly that it’s done a better job of exploring these issues than men’s magazines, which can be dismissive about their readers’ needs even as they try to engage, have done. And in particular, Marc and I found ourselves talking about three characters: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Jack Donaghy.
One of the things that struck me as slyest about the end of 30 Rock’s run was the way it suggested that Liz Lemon, who started as Jack’s mentee, had achieved more professional and personal success than her mentor had, even if her road there involved a guy with a Segway, a stint as a television advice guru, and the world’s most dysfunctional writers’ room. But by the time TGS was cancelled, Liz had done successful work in enough genres of television to ensure she’d always be employable — and she went on to work on Grizz and Hers — she was married to a man who wanted to stay home while she worked, she’d adopted two children, and she was leaving the show that made her name on relatively good terms with everyone she’d worked with. Jack, on the other hand, was a single father whose daughter was being largely raised by her nanny, and whose efforts to climb the corporate ladder had gotten repeatedly derailed along the way. While Liz had gotten a fairly conventional version of it all and grown significantly throughout the series, Jack ends 30 Rock in a similar place to the one he started, hitting on attractive women and churning through the rat race.The Sopranos and Mad Men are similarly, if more quietly, engaged with questions of work-life balance for men. Tony was raised by absolutely horrendous parents, but he’s not without decent parental instincts, as when he recognizes that A.J. needs more discipline, or realizes that Meadow might actually benefit from some time in Europe without her parents’ money to bail her out. The problem is that he has no idea how to implement those ideas, or to provide any sort of consistency for his children, much less to bond with them in a way that involves an appropriate role for himself, in part because his own life is so divided and inconsistent. When he’s told by his lawyer to avoid the Bing and spend more time at his legitimate job, Tony doesn’t even appear to consider spending more time with his family, or helping Carmela more around the house, in part because he has no particular idea what he’d do there. The lack of an acceptably masculine role around the house that makes actual use of what might have been Tony’s strengths as a father is clearly a problem for him.
And similarly, Don Draper loves his children, but he doesn’t always know how to carve out an acceptable role in their lives. He’s more than willing to abdicate their care to Megan, who came into his and their lives as a secretary and nanny, rather than a peer. When Sally stays with him at his bachelor apartment in the city, he’s even ready to let his daughter take care of him, fixing drinks in a way that will get her points at Miss Porter’s later, and making him breakfast with rum she mistakes for syrup. He at least has the decent sense not to expose them to the whole truth of his childhood when he takes them to the brothel where he grew up, though Don’s sexual selfishness and compulsion accidentally exposed Sally to knowledge about sex and her father that she clearly wasn’t ready for earlier in the season. Don’s been very, very good at fitting the roles that have been clearly defined for him, whether he’s been performing as an effective man of business, sexually dominating either Bobbie Barrett or Sylvia, looking good by his wives’ sides, or relaxing with Anna. But when a situation requires emotional intelligence or finesse, whether Don’s managing Peggy rather than just paying her, or in handling his kids’ hurt and fear, Don’s at a loss. Thinking more carefully about what men want, and what the people in their lives want from him, might have given Don what is clearly some badly-needed guidance for managing his home life as well as he’s so often run his work.