Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Seven Year Itch, Mad Men, Sex and the City [Media Notes 117]

I was, say, half a season in to re-watching Sex and the City, which originally aired from 1998 to 2004, when I watched The Seven Year Itch, a Billy Wilder romantic comedy from 1955. Remember that iconic shot of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate wearing a body-hugging white dress with the skirt billowing up around her? That’s from this film. Anyhow, “what an interesting juxtaposition,” thought I to myself, “both about sex in New York City, but separated by forty years.” Perhaps I should write something about that.

As I was thinking about that I thought that it would be interesting to throw Mad Men into the mix. It appeared in between 2007 and 2015, but is set mostly in New York City in the 1960s. That gives us a series set in time not long after The Seven Year Itch, but produced from a sensibility much closer to Sex and the City.

That would be a very interesting and, alas, complicated, three-way, certainly much more than I can mount in a single blog post. But then, merely suggesting the comparison is, say, and third of the job. And some broad comparisons are quickly sketched out.

We have to set aside the fact that Itch is a 105-minute movie depicting events that take place over two days while the other titles are multiple part series sunning for several years each and depicting several years of elapsed fictional time. But all three involve sex, and romance, though Mad Men is more broadly about American life and (upper) middle-class culture and business while Sex and the City is pretty much focused on the sexual lives of four single professional women.

The obvious contrasts: First, sexual mores were more open and freer in turn-of-the millennium New York City than they were in the mid-20th century, though that was beginning to change in the world depicted in Mad Men. Secondly, financially independent single professional women like the quartet in Sex and the City, were rare in mid-century American. Those stories couldn’t have happened back then. One of the major story lines in Mad Men centered on how Peggy Olson moved from the secretarial pool in the first season into copywriting and eventually into management. That is to say, she moves into the kind of positions all of the Sex and the City women have, but without the sexual latitude. They pretty-much assumed they belonged in such jobs.

Third: Contemporary mores allow for a much franker depiction of sexuality than was possible in 1955. It’s worth nothing that there was a one-night-stand in the play that The Seven Year Itch was derived from, but that was eliminated in the movie version. In both versions Tom Ewell plays Richard Sherman, a publishing executive in New York City. His wife and young son have left to spend the summer in Maine, where it’s much cooler. An un-named young woman, played by Marilyn Monroe, sublets the apartment above Ewell. He fantasizes about having an adulterous affair with her; they even go to see a movie (that’s when Monroe stands over a subway grate). Nothing comes of those fantasies (which are accompanied by Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, a very 1950s touch) in the movie. I assume that the difference between the play and the movie on this matter is the difference between a (somewhat sophisticated) New York audience and a national audience. By contrast, adultery was a central motif in the world of Mad Men, which was not very far removed from the world from the Seven Year world. But the 21st century story-telling conventions of Mad Men permitted, even required, a sexual frankness that had to be suppressed for national audiences in the mid-1950s. Adultery also shows up in the sexually freer world depicted in Sex and the City, though not so centrally as in Mad Men.

While there’s much more that could be said, I’ll content myself with two observations. The first is about how Marilyn Monroe was presented, much like Christina Hendrix was presented as Joan Holloway in Mad Men. Just as Monroe was the sex goddess of mid-century America, so Holloway was the sex goddess of Mad Men.

Second, and lastly, John Slattery, who played, Roger Sterling, one of the central characters in Mad Men, shows up in minor role in season three of Sex and the City. He’s one of the lovers of Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker). Episode 2, “Politically Erect,” of season three begins with this line in voice-over:

I had been dating a politician, Bill Kelley, for three weeks now. Since most of my time with him was spent on the campaign trail, I decided to dress the part. I found some vintage Halston and did a spin on Jackie Kennedy. The early years. [...] I figured we made a good match. I was adept at fashion. He was adept at politics.

Perfect. Fashion certainly existed in the 1950s, but I can’t imagine playing it front-and-center back then in the way that it is in Sex and the City

Addendum: See this post excerpting a NYTimes op-ed: Sex and the City Redux.

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