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Vivian Norris Headshot

Mad Men and the Decline of America

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The opening credits of Mad Men are the most disturbing and haunting for me. It is 9/11 and the images of the businessmen falling from the twin towers. Yet they are falling past images of consumerism and ads which sell the "best" of America ... in silhouette.

My father was an ad man -- a PR guy -- and I recall my first trip to New York with him while he was visiting clients, making commercials, and the dinners at Sardis before dinner, the Algonquin, the end of an era portrayed in Mad Men. The nostalgia of the wood paneled den and the mother wondering which model/client was being entertained (my mother can't watch the show....my father, on the other hand confirms to me that Mad Men shows exactly how it used to be in that world). When politics and advertising became one, it meant spending early November Tuesdays at campaign headquarters with Styrofoam hats, parades and t-shirts, and those signs in our yard. Vote for him or him or him. I remember the Xerox machine at the office when I was brought in on the odd day when neither my mother nor some maid or babysitter could keep me and I had the girl's eyeview sneak peak of what the working world was all about for the mad men...

The good that came out of this was that my father taught us to dissect television and commercials. I grew up learning to "read" images and not buying it at all. I knew someone was trying to sell me something. The Don Drapers of the world were not to be trusted, but hey, they sure are fun. Which is why my favorite character on Mad Men was Bobbie Barrett, the wife of the comedian who decides to have "the full Don Draper treatment" ... in other words, Don, the one who spent all of his time at home and work objectifying women, becomes the object of desire. Bobbie knew what she wanted and she got it, which left Don frazzled and needing to tie her up and keep her quiet because the world was changing and he was no longer "on top". She also is the only character in the show who actually sacrifices some fun to go attend her children's plays, events etc. She seems like a real human being who cares. Notice how Betty Draper ignores her kids, and during one of her and Don's last lovemaking sessions (when she becomes pregnant with Gene the replacement for her dear departed father) decides to seduce Don and simply takes him on top, enjoys herself, then tells him later, "we were just faking." Guys do that all the time and no one (except maybe Bobbie Barrett) is ever thinking about the kids!

But back to consumerism and advertising which brought down America. We did not learn to dissect the ads well enough. In the early episodes of the show, we saw from time to time the older Viennese refugee psychoanalysts who came out (hints of Freud's nephew, one of the top ad men of his day) out hiding and actually gave notes during the meetings. These characters disappeared in later episodes yet they were integral to the national brainwashing after the war. They (or we) sold ourselves the American dream ... but it was only a dream. As Don Draper reminds us again and again, love is something a guy like him creates to sell us nylons ... there is no there there. We buy, we consume, we dream, but we need to build something real again.

Mad Men has resonated with people for a reason, beyond the brilliant performances, writing and sets. It reminds us of how we got to where we are now...and perhaps, in seeing what went wrong and when the dream began to fall apart, we can learn how to create something more lasting. After all, Roger Sterling knows he really loves Joan and Don Draper wants to be known and loved for who he really is if he can only remember who that man is...

We are all Mad Men. And it should be no surprise that the number one export from America is entertainment. We exported our dream, our images of ourselves..and our TV shows all over the world. Give us some more and show us the way home. (And remind us how to make a real martini while you're at it!).