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.
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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