It’s easy to read Mad Men as a critique of American corporate culture (at the very least) – the show posits itself that way from the title sequence to the vagaries and casualties that happen along the way (we just got to the episode where a copywriter cuts off his own nipple and presents it to his boss as a token of his appreciation because the pressure of production, and competing with the new IBM 360 they get in the office, gets to him). The show begs to be read that way, using the creative types attracted to advertising as an in to the DFHs roaming the streets.
Reading the show in this way, though, seems to require viewing it as a morality play of sorts, and I’m not sure how well that works. The show resists that reading to a degree – Don Draper is intensely hard to like even though we know his backstory, Roger Sherman is witty and tortured and interesting and still an asshole, and almost any character who shows a whiff of humanity is relegated to some sort of hell, even if they don’t know it’s hell. Even Pete Campbell gets what he thinks he wants (and by the huge grin on his face in his last on-camera view, as he gets onto a Lear jet for his new role as Marketing Director in Topeka, Kansas shows), but does he really? He’ll have to sort through the traumas of his life, his failures as a father, and the fact that the ultimate Manhattan rich kid is now living in flyover country.
Perhaps an easier way to discuss this show, then, is in its varying constructions of masculinity. Draper and Sherman (and Burt Cooper) are 50s and 60s wet dream images of alpha males, some born in wealth while others are born to have it. Pete Campbell is the guy you want to punch (and who gets punched), and the good guys, the ones we like, end up maimed (Kenny Cosgrove being the best example). There are no intact examples of the type of masculine ideal that 80s, 90s, and 00s nostalgia is built on.
I’m guessing that that’s part of the point. The constant sexual harassment, the incessant drinking, the napping in the afternoon after drinking at lunch, the hubristic belief that they can sell us rubes anything are all part of a reconstruction of that ideal male that felt refreshing and cleansing in watching, even while I suffered with those being mistreated.
As usual, I have to add a personal sidenote: when I started as a programmer in the mid-80s, I didn’t get why my employer had strict rules on drinking at lunch. We were allowed to have one beer or glass of wine or cocktail if the customer did, but just one, and only to make a customer feel comfortable. After watching Mad Men I now see how necessary that policy was.
There are lots of interesting sidebars, so I’ll note a couple that I’d like to examine later here:
- Marketing’s attempts to become scientifically based are sprinkled throughout – market research that is actually manipulative as hell (done to justify asking clients to spend huge sums of money on advertising), the aforementioned computer, and so on – I think these are to be taken by 00s viewers as they joke that they now appear to be, but I hesitate to be denigrating since we still take that kind of shit seriously…
- The constant work in simultaneously educating and buttering up the customer actually looks like work in this configuration, unpleasant, soul-crushing, and accessible only to those willing to play this game. The game has obvious consequences, at least as displayed in the show (and here I’m resorting to a morality play reading), but it’s also got the potential for huge rewards.
- Even those rewards are a mixed bag, though, as characters who seem to attempt to live to what we now read as the fifties’ ideal (2.5 kids, white picket fence, etc.) end up in jobs that can be read as abhorrent – again, Cosgrove, a good guy who doesn’t cheat on his wife, is a writer on the side, and so on, ends up ‘winning’ by becoming the Marketing Director at Dow Chemical, right about the time that napalm hits the public consciousness.
- The show makes an effort to see some of the huge, paradigm-shifting moments that occur during its fictional run through the eyes of its characters – JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, the moon walk, all of these are watched on teevee, by us as well as the people we are watching.
- I’m tempted to read this show as a palimpsest, which seems too easy in some ways, but it felt like I was watching a text I know having another text imposed on top of it. I could see the bare edges of the previous text (and I knew it was there and how, I think, I was supposed to read it), but I couldn’t quite make out the actual words and images. In that sense, I was vaguely disappointed by the ending, as the show implies that Don Draper reclaims his status by making the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad.
- I also read that as a reminder of corporate America’s ability to buy out all social movements, no matter how idealistic, so the binary might be intentional.
- I wonder too how the mutability of the family functions in this context. It almost reads as a corrective to idealized notions of the family, but does that nostalgia still exist? Is there some sort of ur-representation of the family that needs to be constantly reevaluated? Is that (the reenvisioning of the ur-text) the reason why this show gets made in 2007, and clearly resonates?
- Draper’s search for authenticity (in women, lifestyles, all kinds of stuff) is also hard to watch, and might bear further scrutiny.