Do we know each other? I mean, somewhere other from this moment? -- Don Draper
I always joked with my friends that Mad Men's real title was White Men. Because that's what it's about. It's about white dudes in New York City figuring out how to get everyone else to buy shit from their clients. It is about men in advertising, marketing and capitalism.
Normally, this would bore me. But that's the strange thing about Mad Men, it doesn't bore me at all. While the context is business and the majority of characters are white men, it certainly isn't what the show is about. Somehow, the show displaces its own premise and becomes a vehicle to understand the American present.
Mad Men has everything to do with Ferguson. It has relevance in congressional stalemates, with e-commerce. But perhaps the most perplexing result of the displacing plot techniques of Mad Men is the idea that the show isn't about men at all -- it's about American women.
Cut to the second episode of the show, "Ladies Room," where Don Draper is puzzled by his wife's sudden anxiety at home in Ossining, NY.
"Let me ask you something -- what do women want?"
Roger Sterling laughs and suggests that all of the answers can be found in advertising. "They want what everyone else has," he says.
"Ladies Room" is the real pilot for Mad Men, folks. It sets up the most compelling long-term conflict of the show. In 1960s America, women are a fast growing target audience for advertising because they are buyers. The only difference between that fact in 1961 and 2015 is that now, the majority of women now are spending their own money.
Using the time-appropriate framing of white-men-at-work, the viewer is witness to the transformation and growing agency of the American woman. Mad Men's "authenticity" of the era is a tool used to incite a nostalgic disgust and to perhaps reference a current cultural stagnancy.
Mad Men premiered in 2007, when Americans were still obsessed with reality TV competitions. Fear Factor and American Idol still ate up the ratings -- Ninja Warrior was starting to become a thing (a thing I desperately watched for hours). The Colbert Report was starting its second season (I remember because I tried to coax my roommate into buying a life-size cutout of Colbert for our living room). The Wire was still huge.
When AMC released Mad Men, there wasn't anything quite like it on the air. The pilot episode "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" was estimated in reaching about 1.5 million American households. This was chump change for a pilot (LOST brought in 18 million viewers for their pilot episode), but viewership has been pretty solid throughout the show's tenure. Each episode brings in about 2 million viewers; episodes showcasing the events that rocked the late 60's brought in between 3 and 4 million.
After its premiere, Mad Men quickly became a bar by which new television dramas were measured. Other networks quickly realized it was time to invest in quality scripts, cinematic aesthetics, and anti-heroes. The new golden age of television had begun.
Mad Men was arguably the game-changer when it came to high quality television on accessible cable networks. Matthew Weiner created the show slowly and with special care; he wanted to devote his full attention to it (he was writing for the Sopranos before spearheading Mad Men). But, since its premiere, it has become the first contemporary television drama to parse not only the issues of our time, but also the cultural impact of American television itself.
Mad Men takes place during some of the most volatile and productive years of American cultural life: 1960-1970. It thrives on the operation of nostalgia.
From the greek "nostos" (home) and "algos" (pain), nostalgia generally refers to a homesickness, or a vision of the past that is met by a discontent of the present. Nostalgia is the act of remembering fondly. In American television, nostalgia is enacted with whimsical anecdotes and soft lighting. A crude example would be Drunk History: While the intoxicated storyteller is detailing a historical narrative, it is enacted in a romantic lens, complete with smiles, sepia tones, and overwrought gestures.
In Mad Men, nostalgia operates on many levels. The first and my personal favorite is the nostalgia of New York City in the '60s. The businessmen, the elaborate wining and dining of clients, the starving artists in the Village -- all of these are part of an affectionate love letter to the greatest city in the world. For any devotee to the history of New York City, the show is undeniably enchanting.
Mad Men also incites nostalgia for one of the most politically chaotic and artistically creative decades in American history. Setting is used flawlessly, complete with the evolving interior design, lighting, and technicolor dreams of the 1960's. Hair and clothing fashions are stunning and expertly crafted. The cigarette smoke appears on film, along with the thicker fabrics of the era. Every detail -- from the grainy television sets to the billowing nightgowns -- remind you of your parents, or your grandparents, or maybe some old picture you saw in a magazine from the time. On the surface, it reminds you of a different time -- an exciting time -- a time where the United States was an apex of cultural and political potential.
Here's the biggie -- Mad Men recalls a time when the market was fantastic. The show arguably would have flopped without the current context of economic recession. Mad Men is the golden child of critical acclaim and takes home Emmy awards every season because it reminds us of a time when people actually made money. The show takes place before corporate outsourcing, when factory jobs were still in America and going to college actually meant something. When we watch Mad Men, the order of operations for a successful American life is simultaneously confirmed and denied. While modeling the ideal American dream that has long been lost to the economic recession, it also points to the danger of romanticizing the era.
But, nostalgia is comforting. So, I follow Don Draper and the fantastic cast of characters at the ad agency religiously. Every Sunday night, I salivate and revel in the music, culture, fashion, lexicon, and current events of the '60s. I marvel at the period authenticity -- the humor, the development of technology, the presence of war. I worry about race in America, I think about what has changed and what hasn't. I watch Don treat women, including his daughter, like shit. And I love every minute of it.
I'm a feminist. And I love every minute of a show where men are openly sexist. What the fuck.
Mad Men has always been very clear about their misogyny; yet, as the Atlantic suggested in 2010, their sexism problem feels very "modern." When we are watching Peggy, Joan, Betty, Megan, and even Dawn throughout the show, it isn't a journey we are simply observing. It is a lived experience. Mad Men speaks to the sexism and racism of American culture in the 1960s as a living force in our communities. It lives and breathes everywhere, and one of its favorite places is the television.
It's a challenging show, because we know what's going to happen. We know about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. We know that Marilyn Monroe is going to die. We kind of know the plot already. But, even with the knowledge of the unfolding events and the technology to understand them deeply, we still do not know how to solve the problems they present. If we did, we wouldn't so closely identify with these characters.
Since the beginning of the show, Mad Men has touched on issues central to 21st century feminist activism: rape, abortion, gender roles, and domestic violence. But, the way the show broaches these topics speaks to their relevance. Or to put it a different way, it isn't what Mad Men is talking about, it's how it's being talked about that inspires thinking about the current status of women.
In Mad Men, female characters are primarily treated as objects by the men (at differing degrees), commodities meant for male consumption. Pete's asinine dismissal of women in his workplace very clearly had an impact on his ability to achieve the status of partner. Don uses women and throws them away women like diapers (dear god I hope that man used condoms). Roger continues to treat his daughter like a Manhattan princess, even when she is fully pushing back against his paternal authority. Eh, Roger thinks, she'll get over it.
None of these views of women are new. They are and continue to be the bread and butter of the entertainment industry -- controversial, outdated, but still eagerly consumed. While they remain important to plot and character development, it is within the subtleties of gender dynamics that Mad Men really shakes things up.
The subtle modernism of Mad Men's misogyny is captured accurately in a recent episode, "Severance." Peggy and Joan are in a client meeting, discussing the future of two companies that market to women. SCDP has recently merged with McCann Erikson, an advertising giant. Both Joan and Peggy are struggling to find where and how they fit in within the new corporate structure.
During the meeting, the client inappropriately suggests that Joan should work for a brassiere company because she has big tits. The comment dismisses her professional duty of liaising with clients regarding their ad needs, a core function of her role as partner.
After the meeting, Peggy and Joan are sharing an elevator, seething. This is what happens:
Peggy: So, should we get lunch?
Joan: I want to burn this place down.
P: I know, they were awful. But at least we got a yes. Would you have rather a friendly no?
J: I don't expect you to understand.
P: Joan, you've never experienced that before?
J: Have you, Peggy?
P: You can't have it both ways. You can't dress the way you do and expect...
J: And how do I dress?
P: Look, they didn't take me seriously either.
J: So what you're saying is: I don't dress the way you do because I don't look like you, and that's very, very true.
P: You know what? You're filthy rich. You don't have to do anything you don't want to.
Joan and Peggy are both women. They both work at the same company. They are both feminists, certainly. But, they are not on the same team. While they may subscribe to similar professional goals and strive for personal agency in their life, they do not agree on the appropriate and correct way to obtain that.
This has to be one of my favorite moments of the entire series. I've always been team Joan, honestly. Peggy had the whole job mobility thing going on, but she consciously buys into a degree of sexism. In short, Joan acts like a man and Peggy acts like the New American Woman. I should like Peggy, but she sacrifices her identity as a feminist to avoid challenging the male dominated power structure. I got issues with that. But, that's what the lot of us do in situations like these. As professional women, we say to ourselves that our job is more important than confronting the sexist remarks of a client. Maybe we mention it to HR, but probably not. Wouldn't want to ruffle too many feathers or put a promotion in jeopardy.
Within the context of Mad Men's plot, this exchange highlights one of the biggest chasms within feminism today: is a woman who is taking charge of her own sexuality an agent of feminism or the patriarchy? Seasons ago, Joan agreed to sleep with a Jaguar rep in exchange for a partnership (the sex was his idea, not hers). But, as she is finding out at McCann Erikson, her long standing reputation for being the first high powered woman of SCDP, achieved by performing like a man, is mercurial. The structures of gender dynamics are variable in corporate America, and Joan hits another wall when some idiot says that he thought she would be "sweet" instead of, you know, a woman that acts like a man. A bitch.
Another episode that featured subtleties of modern misogyny was season 7's "A Day's Work." It's Valentines Day at work and Peggy thinks that Ted has sent her roses. Throughout the episode, Peggy actively moves the placement of the flowers in order to change their significance. They become the scourge of her work day: she cannot separate her understanding of herself from these flowers on her desk. After finding out the roses were not intended for her, but for her secretary, she is deflated, embarrassed, and ashamed of herself as a woman and a professional. The representative object of heterosexual love becomes Peggy's identity as a working woman in charge. As much as she wants to not be an object of desire, it is essential to working as a woman.
All women are aware to some degree that receiving flowers on Valentines Day is a status symbol -- whether you buy into it or not. But, a lot of people buy into it and still I've never heard anyone talk about its significance. But here is another subtle event, a mere bouquet of flowers, that reflects contemporary struggles of working women.
I mean, you could draw a direct correlation between the mechanics of this scene and Gamergate.
So, in these last few episodes of Mad Men, Peggy and Joan are showing us conflicting points of feminism -- that a strong woman must betray certain aspects of feminism to survive, or succeed, in a "man's world." These betrayals occur in small, mundane, and infuriating ways. It's the subtleties that reinforce the presence of sexism. Because our understanding of cultural history generalizes these subtleties, they are stinging points for the modern viewer. Because I've been there. I've been Peggy, I've been Joan.
Another woman that appears on Mad Men, but does not get credit for being powerful or beloved is Betty. Blonde, beautiful, bodacious Betty. Betty Draper represents the consumer, the market that Don Draper targets. She is the mother of the evolving nuclear family: fractured by adultery, domestic power struggles, and the identity of the trophy wife. Her character has garnered some of the most internal change over the course of the show, most of which has been received as hateful and manipulative. Betty is the character that forces us to fully realize the ingrained misogyny of the 1960's and the present.
I've always felt that Betty's unpopularity is analogical to Skyler in Breaking Bad. By correcting and criticizing the men that lead her family, she becomes a force that holds the main character back from great things. I don't think this is necessarily the case because she has an overwhelming amount of power in the show's plot development. Her dissatisfaction with gender roles is outspoken from the beginning, if only within the domestic sphere. Her attraction and marriage to Henry Francis reflects her priority of social mobility -- she recognizes the limitations of her identity as a housewife and seeks a status in which she can be more than that. She speaks Italian, for Christ's sake.
Over the course of the show, she has committed many obnoxiously mundane crimes against feminism. One step forward, two steps back. Her discomfort with her body weight leads her to find support within Weight Watchers, a female centered group committed to self acceptance and approval. But, like most of the action that progress Betty's character, it is a double edged sword. Within female empowerment, she is still honoring the authority of the male gaze. Betty just can't find a way to win. And it frustrates the hell out of her.
The distaste for Betty is visceral among fans. But, I think this is because she is primarily used as a contrast to other females in Don's life -- most notably Sally and Megan Draper. Betty competes with both, vain and unprepared to lose her looks to age and parenthood. Many feminists support that this competition between women is self defeating, as it damages relationships between women in the interest of appearing attractive to men. But, Betty's depth and character evolution over the course of the show has always been authentic. To sum up, she's never been someone she's not -- she notes from the first episode that being a housewife is just what women do. But now, in the final death throes of Mad Men, she has transformed into a student of psychology. I don't think she is necessarily ashamed of her past emotional immaturity, though I think she does regret divorcing Don in a huff. In any case, I am interested to see if the show leaves her empowered or still functioning within the bubble of domesticity.
Throughout its years on AMC, Mad Men has explored themes of death, identity, and the American Dream. But, perhaps we should add irony to that list. Female characters propel the drama and develop the story in essential ways. Yet, the experience of professional women in 1960s New York City doesn't seem to be so different from the experience of professional women in 2015. Mad Men is about women then and now.
So, I guess my question is: Is Mad Men's nostalgia a call to action? Or, is it just restating the problem of sexism in American culture?
I have to say goodbye to this mad, manly world, even though everything within it has essentially gone to shit by now. Life comes together and falls apart for everyone, including Don Draper and companies on Madison Avenue. Peggy drunkenly roller skating around the empty SCDP offices while Roger plays the organ was a brilliant and heartfelt scene, if also pertinent vignette of the chaos that is being a commodity to an employer, sold to the highest bidder. In this moment, Roger and Peggy are equals, cognizant of their shelf life in a changing American market.
No more old fashioneds before lunch, no more disco ball earrings and bouffant hairstyles. It's the end of an era, literally. I'm sad to see it go, but I love to watch it leave, because it wouldn't be as interesting in any other time.
This post originally appeared on Medium.