Mad Men

People are talking about Mad Men, AMC’s new show and my new obsession. Mad Men takes place in early 1960’s New York City in a large, WASP-y advertising agency recognized as much for its creative output as for its swagger. The show has received quite a bit of critical praise, partly for its retro style and cinematography and partly for the compulsive habits of writer and creator Matt Weiner (of The Sopranos, which I also loved), garnering an obscene number of awards and nominations. I appreciate the show because it progresses like a serial novel and because it’s one of the only shows on basic cable television right now that is made for adults. But others in the femosphere have expressed concern with show, particularly with the misogyny and racism in the script.

SPOILERS BELOW

In Weiner’s own words, Mad Men is about the entitlement of the white American man in the 1960s and the people who paid the price for their entitlement. Post-McCarthy but pre-Civil Rights movement, and aiming to be true to the time and place of the show, there is a lot of racism and sexism in the script. And yet one notable thing about Mad Men is that so much is happening while nothing happens at all. None of the (all white, rich) characters are particularly likeable, and if Weiner’s careful style and attention to detail is removed, you’re left with a soap operatic mess. A woman gives birth without acknowledging she was even pregnant and continues along with her career as though nothing happened; a man steals the identity of a fallen soldier in the Korean War and nobody thinks to ask anything of it, and when one man does, he is the one that comes off looking like the bad guy; the most powerful woman in the show is a secretary loved more for her figure than her skill. Yet part of the show’s appeal is admittedly current – the backbiting coworkers looking to capitalize on your mistakes, unhappy marriages full of secrets only halfway revealed to one’s partner, the feeling that you’re always a day late and a dollar short.

Racism is a hard thing to analyze in Mad Men in part because there are so few people of color, and in fact I can recall only four black people present in the entire series so far, and only two had speaking lines. The only relatively meaty scene with a black person present is the party scene where a copywriter is made fun of because they take his pipe-smoking liberalism and black girlfriend (who is asked if she is the maid) as an attempt to look more bohemian than buttoned-up. Afterward, the copywriter has a run-in with his ex-girlfriend in the office:

Last weekend’s episode had a black woman serving coffee in the office, during which the other characters treated her like a piece of furniture. Like more cinematic fare, Weiner applies the gun rule: There’s no gun in the story unless it’s there for a reason. People of color are placed throughout the show to point out their inivisibility in the contexts on display, not only in the time and place of the show but today as well.

Antisemitism and anti-Italian sentiment played a part in last season’s story line, not so much this season so far, because the writers (half of whom are women) seem to be training their lenses to misogyny and homophobia.

Jennifer Kesler at The Hathor Legacy wrote about the first season of Mad Men, expressing annoyance with the female characters in the show and their “feminist allies.” Truth is, there aren’t any feminists on the show, and certainly no feminist allies, though all signs point to feminist ideas (and anti-racist ideas) progressing as the timeline of the show does.

Part of Kesler’s criticism, particularly with characters Betty and Peggy, is answered in the early portions of the second season (which I assume Kesler hasn’t been able to start yet — she watched the first season on DVD). This season sheds some light on the writers’ intentions when it comes to these women, particularly regarding Betty’s loneliness as a housewife and Peggy’s pregnancy and career ambition, in addition to revealing the impossible to navigate hypocrisies that women of the period – and of this period – were made to suffer. When secretaries fight about marital engagements and outfits and rank, for example, we know they’re fighting over scraps, and to some degree so do they. This is the period right before civil rights marches and the women’s liberation movement, and dissatisfaction is present on every face in every scene. Except perhaps for the highest-ranking of patriarchs, every character knows something is amiss.

So while the show isn’t full of feminists or feminist philosophy, it’s certainly suitable for a feminist eye. Take Betty, Don Draper’s wife and Bryn Mawr graduate, who commands more attention in Season Two. The former model and Grace Kelly wannabe is angry that she’s not enough for her philandering husband and unable to do anything about it. She can’t deal with being divorced or being single — remember divorce is for hussies, and Mad Men focuses deeply on a divorced woman in the neighborhood in the first season — and in her mind she can’t start over. She’s puritanical and sexually repressed, but she isn’t naïve either. She flirts with the idea of affairs over and over, with women and men alike, always stepping back because she doesn’t want to be improper. And then there’s Peggy Olson, Draper’s whip-smart secretary and probably my favorite character, who is the subject of the most controversy because of her unacknowledged and/or rejected pregnancy. In the linked article, Weiner says that Peggy “becomes fat” because “she couldn’t deal with being sexualized all the time,” and moreover that she knew she wouldn’t get anywhere as long as she remained a sexualized figure.

“In the midst of all the sexism,” Weiner said, “Peggy succeeds because the men will take a good idea from anywhere.”

Her success wasn’t about her skill and ambition, the men had to open the door for her.

In Season Two, Peggy is often put in situations with her son, the result of the secret pregnancy who is now being raised by her mother and sister, and you get the feeling that Peggy knows she’s gotten away from something bad. She got pregnant just as her career was taking off, and it’s revealed that after the birth of the baby Draper reserved her place for her as a copywriter even though he knows her secret. He encourages her to set it behind her, pretend that nothing happened. Her sister in particular wants everyone to know about Peggy’s secret motherhood; she wants her sister to suffer as she has as a wife and mother, trapped by biology and duty. Everyone else, meanwhile, assume Peggy has just been to “fat camp.”

Yet one of the most brilliant moments of this season happened in last week’s episode, brilliant partially because the scene was so unexpectedly shocking. Most of the drama of this show is relatively subtle, almost always the dark indoors, in the smoky halls of the office or the claustrophobia of the kitchen. But in this scene, the Drapers loll about a hillside after a picnic, listening to the music waft from Don’s brand new Cadillac. Their young daughter Sally asks whether they are rich, and, put off by the social tackiness of the question, Don and Betty decide to leave. Don finishes his beer and throws the empty can into the wilderness. Betty picks up the picnic blanket and shakes off all the debris, leaving napkins and paper plates to waft about in the wind as the family finishes packing up the car. I gasped. OMG THEY LITTERED. I genuinely gasped aloud in my living room, horrified at the shamelessness of the scene and amused at my own astonishment.

How could I watch week after week with an ironic smug plastered on my face at enactment after reenactment of brutal workaday sexism and racism, and lose my breath at this? That’s the point, and the creators know it. It’s the same technique of poking at the expectations and morals of the audience that made The Sopranos so great.

The show is a prism, criticizing the past while reflecting on the present. It’s about our perception of ourselves as opposed to who we really are. We are no less secretive and repressive about our personal and social shortfalls – our secrecy and repression today merely know new and different limitations. In that sense Mad Men is a Rorschach test for the watcher: Are we complicit with the conspiracy of silence? Are we more shocked by the interpersonal disregard and naked ambition, more shocked by the drinking and smoking at the office than we are by the blatant sexism and racism lauded when we harken back to the so-called good ol’ days? Do we identify with the bullies or do we see them for what they are?

The key to Mad Men, what makes it so big when the stories in it are small, is that its makers are always whispering through the fourth wall: These are not the good ol’ days. We aren’t that different now than we were then. We haven’t come as far as we think we have.


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29 Responses to Mad Men

  1. Terri says:

    Very interesting analysis. I’ve only seen parts of one or two episodes, but have liked what I’ve seen, and intend to rent it one of these days.

    Also just wanted to say how much I’ve really enjoyed all the guest bloggers lately. Haven’t had the time to comment in each post.

  2. Abby says:

    YES. Love Mad Men!

  3. trishka says:

    i’m watching season 1 on dvd and i have to say that it’s been my impression all along that, like anything “historical” in nature, it’s more about our time than the time period that it is supposedly about.

    it shows us how important seatbelts have become to us, for example, by demonstrating betty getting in a fender bender while her kids are crawling all around the car unrestrained.

    and, in that light, it’s absolutely a feminist show in that it shows how far we’ve come and how far we have to go, in so many ways.

  4. Donna says:

    The show makes an effective political statement about the need for continued progressive affirmative action. The Sterling Cooper agency is the epitome of what affirmative action used to be: A 100% white male quota for the good positions. Not just any white man, either. The kind with the right connections. Had Dick Whitman not stolen Don Draper’s identity he wouldn’t have had much of a chance there.

    And you’re right, we have a long way to go.

  5. Deborah says:

    I totally need to whore my Mad Men blog, Basket of Kisses. We are all about understanding Mad Men as feminist and radical. Portraying sexism and being sexist? Very different. Same with racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia (poor Sal! poor Kitty!). By looking at the past, we see our present so clearly.

  6. Lauren says:

    I second the pain for Sal and Kitty. That was damned heartbreaking. And is it just me, or was “The Gold Violin” the best episode yet?

  7. B. Dagger Lee says:

    Nice post, Lauren. I’m a Mad Men fan, and you put into words some of what I like about the program.

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  9. JamesJustin says:

    I am reminded of the scene in Season 1 where the Draper daughter walks into the kitchen covered from head to toe with a cellophane dry-cleaning bag. As we sit, waiting for Betty to flip out about her daughter’s safety and the danger of suffocation, we are shocked when she instead chooses to chastise her daughter about leaving the dry-cleaning strewn on her bed, ignorant of the real danger present.

    In every episode there are accidents, firings and lawsuits just waiting to happen if this happened today. I agree that, while we scoff at the blatant references to a simpler time when parents entrusted other parents to physically discipline their unruly children, we are complicit in other references that act less as a lens into 1960’s American suburbia and more as a mirror to the viewer.

  10. But others in the femosphere have expressed concern with show, particularly with the misogyny and racism in the script.

    I continue to be impressed by people who can’t tell the difference between portraying X and endorsing X. I can’t even imagine what mindset leads one to be unable to see that Mad Men is criticizing the 50s and 60s for these bigoted attitudes. Would it really be better to pretend people were more liberal in 1960 than they actually were? I see no value in rewriting history.

  11. Ron O. says:

    This is the first series in forever (OK Buffy) that I make an effort to watch regularly. The characters are so flawed and so believable I find it very interesting.

    Another minor line from last week that spoke loudly about class and privilege came from Mr. Cooper. He and Don were talking about the Cadillac and Don’s reluctance to buy it. Cooper basically says, “I know you are not who you say you are. You have a chance to join my [upper] class. Don’t squander it.”

  12. Actually, what I was expressing annoyance with was the WRITING of the female characters and the “closest thing” the show has to a feminist ally. I get that the show is attempting to deconstruct male entitlement. I just don’t think the creative team was as successful as it could have been in S1.

  13. The Countess says:

    I’m another “Mad Men” fan. I thought reactions to the episode when Duck abandoned his Irish setter said a lot about how people view sexism today. There were LOTS of complaints from viewers about how the show treated that dog, yet there wasn’t much said about the dreadful treatment of women in the same episode.

    At first I took the show as being sexist, but after watching more episodes, I think it’s trying to present how sexism was at the time. The Count and I debate whether or not the show is depicting over-the-top sexism to drive the point home to viewers, or a more realistic view of sexism in the ’60s. I can only go by my treatment at work in the ’80s, which was pretty sexist and abusive in some companies, so I do think that some of the depictions in the show are accurate.

  14. wall-flower says:

    I’m so glad people are defending this show. It’s definitely showing how the 50s and early 60s were decidedly NOT the good old days. To me, the lack of what we might today call a feminist character might actually be about how important consciousness-raising became in the later 60s. (What about Midge, Draper’s boho girlfriend, as a possible feminist?) One of the first times I realized the show was feminist was in an early episode — I think it might be called the Ladies’ Room? — where every time a woman goes into the bathroom, there’s another woman in there sobbing because of what she has to endure at her job.

  15. Monkey Girl says:

    Actually in a flash back scene, Peggy’s sister is pregnant, which means the baby shown in Season 2 is probably her sister’s baby. And the coworkers do say that Peggy got “knocked up” (hee hee) by Draper.

  16. Lauren says:

    Actually, what I was expressing annoyance with was the WRITING of the female characters and the “closest thing” the show has to a feminist ally. I get that the show is attempting to deconstruct male entitlement. I just don’t think the creative team was as successful as it could have been in S1.

    I hear you. I was kind of meh about the show at the end of the first season but started watching this season regardless, and personally the second season is when the writers get their footing. S1 was kind of muddy whereas S2 is much clearer in form and intent. I do hope that having taken the time to watch S1 that you’ll give S2 a look. S2 starts almost two years later and the divides between women like Joan and women like Peggy become much wider. Their stories are what is so interesting, and most of the focus is off of the good ol’ boys and more on the people made to endure their insensitivities.

  17. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many people liking the show for all the wrong reasons. They’ll talk about how ‘classy’ all the characters are, and how those were really the good old days. They see the sexism and racism and think this is how the world is supposed to be. Ugh.

  18. Their stories are what is so interesting, and most of the focus is off of the good ol’ boys and more on the people made to endure their insensitivities.

    Ah, see, that’s what it needed, IMO. I’ll check out S2 when it’s on DVD, if not before.

  19. emjaybee says:

    AW, ha. I have noticed a lot of people like the show who are drawn in by the clothes and nostalgia–and you could watch it that way. But, eventually, the way the white men come off as mostly unsympathetic (though I think the writers pity them too) and the truly horrific shit the women and minorities put up with are bound to make even clueless people uncomfortable.

    Just to add my own historical note: my mom still has horror stories of her bosses from the 60s and 70s talking to her in exactly this way–she was treated like shit way too often. If she were a man, she would have been an executive, but she never got those promotions.

  20. Cola Johnson says:

    Oh, I love this show so much. I wish to death I could watch the second season right now. I only saw the first episode on Hulu.

    Thanks so much for this review. I’ve been seeing a lot of people denouncing it roundly as sexist, and it pains me to see people misunderstand the intentions of the writer.

  21. urbanartiste says:

    I understand the difference between portraying x and endorsing x, but there will always be someone that will watch this and enjoy the “isms” in it. I personally can’t stand this show, but I watched it once after reading so many articles about the writer and he seemed smug.

    An older cousin who worked in that era asked me if I watched it. She said she lived it and can’t stand to watch it. It brought back so much frustration and anger for her. I just hope the show will progress to the time when all those marginalized in that work environment start to take it over. But I am not holding my breath after reading some of the negative responses by the writer/creator when asked about the changes that will inevitably take place. You can’t stay in 1960 forever.

    At this point in our time don’t we need more shows promoting equality and the progress for the future rather than stepping back? I really doubt the people that need to be less prejudice will watch this show and have an enlightenment. It is usually the ones that get it already that are discussing this show.

  22. JR says:

    I want to take issue with the circular logic of the claim that it’s hard for the show to talk race b/c there are so few black characters. If the show can capture the tensions and underbelly of gender segregation in both the home and office, then it can — and should — do the same for race.

    Right now, they are totally dropping the ball. It is, what, 1963?. Martin Luther King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham jail” in 62, “I have a Dream” speech was delivered in 63, Medgar Evers has been murdered, freedom riders are organizing everywhere… There are plenty of ways to integrate this into the plot. Pun intended.

    They don’t even do small things with the camera angles and timing to suggest the double consciousness or dual perspective of the black maids/coffee workers/bellhops that occasionally pop onto the screen. Shit — show the maid come home to her family at 1am after working her ass off making Don’s dinner party a success. Show the coffee server observing all the shit she sees in the office and contrast that with her reality as she commutes home…

    Saying that b/c there are no black characters, therefore the story can’t analyze race in the same way it dissects gender is just a cop out. I like this show, but I am utterly perplexed by its silences here. For all its interest in showing the cracks beneath the surface of the picture-perfect 60s, they are missing the mark.

  23. JR agreed. There are probably half as many black people on show as there are white women, which means that they wouldn’t even have to work that hard to show their realities as well.

  24. lauram says:

    I’ve only seen season 1 as I too am watching on DVD. I’ve loved it from the get-go. Being in my mid-40s I came into the workplace as it transitioned from the politically-incorrect (ala mad-men “show us more than your ankles baby”) to the more politically-correct (sexual harassment is real and can be prosecuted). But as I speak to younger women, I get the sense that they think that the workplace has always had what scant protections it does now. IT DIDN’T. If Mad Men can show these 20 and 30 somethings “they way it was”, I think that can only be a good thing. In my early career days I remember constantly being asked to be the note-taker in meetings (’cause I guess men can’t write quickly or something) and being in the room as off-color and sexist and racist jokes were told, and having to pretend not to be offended because I didn’t have any other tools or ways to respond.

    Mad Men, because it shows the carelessness of the white middle class men of the time, to women, to the environment, to minorities, to anything and everything that didn’t feed their egos and pocketbooks, is as good a primer on how far we’ve come as any television show I’ve ever seen. If it raises the awareness of younger men and women as to the “good old days,” it is doing a progressive service.

  25. Lauren says:

    I want to take issue with the circular logic of the claim that it’s hard for the show to talk race b/c there are so few black characters. If the show can capture the tensions and underbelly of gender segregation in both the home and office, then it can — and should — do the same for race.

    Oh word. I should have said, “Racism is a hard thing for me to analyze in Mad Men in part because there are so few people of color…” I think the show has a huge hole in ignoring the differences between, notably, the black people in the fictional environment as compared to the white people. Considering that this is on the cusp of enormous change in regards to MLK and freedom riders, like you mention, I can’t believe it hasn’t come up yet. If the civil rights movement is something that Don Draper watches on TV, I’m going to be so pissed off. Of all the narrative opportunities squandered. But for the moment, I’m waiting to see where the writers take us; it seems like there is a planned trajectory in place.

    If it doesn’t happen, Mad Men is ripe for “The Wind Done Gone” treatment.

  26. Merryn says:

    Season 2 is set in 1962, so the events of late 62 and 1963 that JR mentions haven’t happened yet.
    There has been some attention to racial issues, particularly the awkward semi-accepted position of Jews in NY. The first episode showed a black man in a menial position at a restaurant get in trouble for ‘bothering’ Don when Don had been asking him questions that he reluctantly answered, and a reference to black janitorial staff being fired for a theft that wasn’t.
    I think the show, particularly season 2, has a very strong feminist subtext. The limits of women’s lives then are being drawn very clearly through the differently positioned female characters.
    One thing that I found interesting was Betty’s behaviour with her son, snapping at him for every little thing he does wrong, because her understandable anger at her husband cannot be expressed.

  27. Rosie says:

    “Oh word. I should have said, “Racism is a hard thing for me to analyze in Mad Men in part because there are so few people of color…” I think the show has a huge hole in ignoring the differences between, notably, the black people in the fictional environment as compared to the white people.”

    So, are you saying that you’ve never seen the Season 2 episode, “Flight 1″ and the interactions between Paul, Joan and Paul’s black girlfriend, Sheila? There wsa practically a big debate over Joan’s comments about Sheila. Have you forgotten this?

    In fact, Sheila will be making a repeat appearance, later this season.

  28. Lauren says:

    No, I don’t think I have. I watched parts of the first season peripherally and really started paying attention this season. I’d like to get my hands on the first season in total without having to pay for it. :P

    the Season 2 episode, “Flight 1″ and the interactions between Paul, Joan and Paul’s black girlfriend, Sheila? There wsa practically a big debate over Joan’s comments about Sheila. Have you forgotten this?

    Was this an online debate or a debate within the show? Apparently I don’t know what I’m talking about.

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