port⋅ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. <Fr. portance < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor
(definition from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: College Edition. The World Publishing Company. Copyright 1955.)
So here it is, the first word for the dictionary project. I find it interesting that portance is our first word here given my recent obsession with the AMC show Mad Men. Everything about that show revolves around decorum, around the appropriate way to walk and dress, around what it means to be a gentleman or a lady. There are rules for how the advertising executives should conduct themselves with clients. There are rules about the ways wives should take care of their husbands, home and children. There are rules about how marriages should proceed, how wives should look the other way, how husbands should be discreet with their affairs outside the home. And there are judgments based on whether women and men fit into the molds predetermined for them, whether they come from good families.
But in addition to those preset rules and values, there are also excuses made for acting outside of them. Men should always be polite and respectful to women, but, you know, boys will be boys. Men should know how to hold their drink but they should not overdo it. There is a fine line between a good businessman and a lush. You want your wife to act like a lady, but certainly not your mistress. Single ladies should be pretty and proper to attract men, but everyone knows men love seductresses. There is a fine line between a sexy woman and a whore.
I think the most fascinating thing about the show for me is that these rules are so different than the ones we follow. Dress codes have changed. Gender dynamics have changed. The nuclear family has changed. And yet, even as so much has changed in almost a half a century, there is always the memory of this time. Its residue factors into every decision and interaction we have in our daily lives. I remember as I apply for jobs that I would not have been considered for these positions fifty years ago. I remember as I am questioned by family members about my love life that being thirty and single fifty years ago would have been even more of a stigma than it is today. I remember as I see women navigate their work and family lives that there was a time that they were expected to take care of their family and be contented with that. If they were not, they could be sent to an “analyst” to figure out what was wrong with them.
A friend of mine who also watches the show questioned her own fascination with the show and with a time period so many decades ago. She wondered if it meant she would have rather lived then or if it was because her parents had existed in that world and in a similar office environment. I think there was a certain safety in having clearer lines of conduct then, particularly in the distinctions between men and women. You knew how you were supposed to behave. The answers were clear and universal, and all you needed to do was follow the handbook already written for you.
There was safety and seeming ease, but with these strict guidelines came severe limitations. What happens when you are supposed to be one way but you find yourself more complicated as a person than those rules allow? What if you are a man who enjoys taking care of your children and home? What if you are a housewife who enjoys hunting and fishing? What if you have an inheritance but find yourself without purpose and with a desire to do something, to work somewhere?
I think we are a little bit slow to recognize how many rules of conduct are still in place in our daily lives. Everything has changed—it is true. However, it is dangerous for us to assume that these values do not linger on, especially as the show has gained a following of people nostalgic for that period in history. For the truth is as I watch the women secretaries be ogled by their bosses and cohorts, I think back to times when I have felt demeaned as a woman in the workplace. As I see the lead character Don Draper reckon with his past and with his predetermined role as breadwinner and strong husband, I think of all of the men I have known who have suffered intensely from trying to maintain their masculine role and having no one to share their trials with. We would do well to see this show not merely as a reminder of what was but as a clue into what expectations continue to exist. What is good and helpful about them? What harms us as individuals and communities? What rules of conduct exist because it contributes to us being good, kind human beings? And what obsessions with portance keep us and those around us bound?