Let's hear it for messy lives


First aired on Q (14/01/13)

For many of us, life in the 21st century is full of modern conveniences and medical advances, myriad ways to entertain oneself and connect with people around the world, and access to an incredible wealth of information and experiences. Compared to the early 1960s, our life expectancy is longer and important progress has been when it comes racial and gender equality. All these factors made the phenomenal success of AMC's period drama Mad Men so intriguing to writer and cultural critic Katie Roiphe.

Some time ago, she started working on a story about the show and, having never watched it, immersed herself in the boozy, sexist, racist, philandering world of Sterling-Cooper (later Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce).

What she found was interesting. Sure, the costume and set design was incredibly authentic, and the novelty of people discovering aerosol deodorant and driving Cadillacs around had a nostalgic appeal. But Roiphe couldn't help but wonder whether part of the attraction to this show was that viewers could escape to a time period that wasn't as tidy, regimented, and preoccupied with health and safety as ours has become. She says we're "obviously in a better place" than working in chain-smoking, openly misogynistic offices, but she feels there is now a kind of "essential, fundamental conservatism and lack of imagination when it comes to the way people live."

praise-messy-lives-110.jpgShe explores this idea in her new book of essays In Praise of Messy Lives, in which she laments how people who somehow have lifestyles that aren't considered "healthy" by wider society, are judged harshly for their choices. "I don't actually want to condemn someone who smokes, or someone who has a few too many drinks at a party," she says. 

"We've sort of taken out some of the surprise of life or craziness. I guess I don't think everyone should die of heart attacks at a very young age, [but] we use this idea of healthiness to escape the responsibility to live life fully at times. And we also use this ideal of 'health' to judge people who don't live 'healthy' lives, and by that, someone who lives slightly differently."

This idea of health and normality extends to how families are brought up, a topic close to Roiphe's heart, as she is a single mother of two. Her children have different fathers. She says she's encountered the stigma of being a single mother, and how individuals have made remarks suggesting that a child born to only one parent would be a kind of illegitimate child. Instead, Roiphe wants to celebrate the advantages a kid may have growing up in an "unhealthy" family, not a nuclear one.

"Kids of single mothers have an intensity, there's an intensity in a single mother household," she said, saying she and her children are quite attached. She doesn't think it's a better situation than a traditional home, but it's certainly not worse. Her unconventional family includes many people, like the father of her first child, whom her second child also adores. But instead of calling the man "my dad," he's often referred to as "my Harry."

"Part of this experience is about inventing a new life," she says. "You have to invent this new family out of nothing. You're making up words, practically, and there's something great about it."

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