The Mad World of 'Mad Men'
"Mad Men" returns to cable television this coming Sunday, continuing its saga of mutable identities and creative branding at a New York advertising firm during the 1960s. Or at least one assumes it will still be set in the ‘60s. How much narrative time lapses between seasons varies unpredictably. Like everything else about the show, it remains the network’s closely guarded secret. Critics given an early look at the program must agree to an embargo on anything they publish about it. This makes perfect sense in the context of the social world of "Mad Men" itself: the network is, after all, selling the audience’s curiosity to advertisers.
A different economy of attention operates in Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style & the 1960s, a collection of 18 essays on the program just published by Duke University Press. It’s not just a matter of the editors and contributors all being academics, hence presumably a different sort of cultural consumer from that of the average viewer. On the contrary, I think that is exactly wrong. Serialized narrative has to generate in its audience the desire for an answer to a single, crucial question: “And then what happens?” (Think of all the readers gathered at the docks in New York to get the latest installment of a Dickens novel coming from London.)
Of course, the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World write with a host of more complex questions in mind, but I don’t doubt for a second that many of the papers were initially inspired by weekend-long diegetic binge sessions, fueled by the same desire driving other viewers. At the same time, there’s every reason to think that the wider public is just as interested in the complex questions raised by the show as any of the professors writing about it. For they are questions are about race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, money, happiness, misery, and lifestyle – and about how much any configuration of these things can change, or fail to change, over time.
Many of the essays serve as replies to a backlash against "Mad Men" that began in the third or fourth season, circa 2009, as it was beginning to draw a much larger audience than it had until that point. The complaint was that the show, despite its fanatical attention to the style, dress, and décor of the period, was simple-mindedly 21st century in its attitude toward the characters. It showed a world in which blunt expressions of racism, misogyny, and homophobia were normal, and sexual harassment in the workplace was an executive perk. Men wore hats and women stayed home. Everyone smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish, often at the same time. Child abuse was casual. So was littering.
And because all of it was presented in tones by turn ironic and horrified, viewers were implicitly invited to congratulate themselves on how enlightened they were now. Another criticism held that "Mad Men" only seemed to criticize the oppressive arrangements it portrayed, while in reality allowing the viewer to enjoy them vicariously. These complaints sound contradictory: the show either moralistically condemns its characters or inspires the audience to wallow in political incorrectness. But they aren’t mutually exclusive by any means. What E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity” tends to be a default setting with Americans, alternating with periods of maudlin nostalgia. There’s no reason the audience couldn’t feel both about the "Mad Men" vision of the past.
See also a comment by the late Christopher Lasch, some 20 years ago: “Nostalgia is superficially loving in its re-creation of the past, but it invokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history’s hold on the present.”
At the risk of conflating too many arguments under too narrow a heading, I’d say that the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World agree with Lasch’s assessment of progress and nostalgia while also demonstrating how little it applies to the program as a whole.
Caroline Levine’s essay “The Shock of the Banal: Mad Men's Progressive Realism” provides an especially apt description of how the show works to create a distinct relationship between past and present that’s neither simply nostalgic nor a celebration of how far we’ve come. The dynamic of "Mad Men" is, in her terms, “the play of familiarity in strangeness” that comes from seeing “our everyday assumptions just far enough removed from us to feel distant.” (Levine is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.)
The infamous Draper family picnic in season two is a case in point. After a pleasant afternoon with the kids in a bucolic setting, the parents pack up their gear, shake all the garbage off their picnic blanket, and drive off. The scene is funny, in the way appalling behavior can sometimes be, but it’s also disturbing. The actions are so natural and careless – so thoughtless, all across the board – that you recognize them immediately as habit. Today’s viewers might congratulate themselves for at least feeling guilty when they litter. But that’s not the only possible response, because the scene creates an uneasy awareness that once-familiar, “normal” ideas and actions came to be completely unacceptable – within, in fact, a relatively short time. It eventually became the butt of jokes, but the famous “Keep America Beautiful” ad from about 1970 -- the one with the crying Indian -- probably had a lot to do with it. (Such is the power of advertising.)
The show's handling of race and gender can be intriguing and frustrating. All the powerful people in it are straight white guys in ties, sublimely oblivious to even the possibility that their word might not be law. "Mad Space" by Dianne Harris, a professor of architecture and art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers a useful cognitive map of the show's world -- highlighting how the advertising firm's offices are organized to demonstrate and reinforce the power of the executives over access to the female employees' labor (and, often enough, bodies), while the staid home that Don Draper and his family occupy in the suburbs is tightly linked to the upper-middle-class WASP identity he is trying to create for himself by concealing and obliterating his rural, "white trash" origins. A handful of African-American characters appear on the margins of various storylines -- and one, the Drapers' housekeeper Carla, occupies the especially complex and fraught position best summed up in the phrase "almost part of the family." But we never see the private lives of any nonwhite character.
In "Representing the Mad Margins of the Early 1960s: Northern Civil Rights and the Blues Idiom," Clarence Lang, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas, writes that "Mad Men" "indulges in a selective forgetfulness" by "presuming a black Northern quietude that did not exist" (in contrast to the show's occasional references to the civil rights movement below the Mason-Dixon line). Lang's judgment here is valid -- up to a point. As it happens, all of the essays in the collection were written before the start of the fifth season, in which black activists demonstrate outside the firm's building to protest the lack of job opportunities. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hires its first African-American employee, a secretary named Dawn. I think a compelling reading of "Mad Men" would recognize that the pace and extent of the appearance of nonwhite characters on screen is a matter not of the creators' refusal to portray them, but of their slow arrival on the scene of an incredibly exclusionary social world being transformed (gradually and never thoroughly) by the times in which "Mad Men" is set.
There is much else in the book that I found interesting and useful in thinking about "Mad Men," and I think it will be stimulating to readers outside the ranks of aca fandom. I’ll return to it in a few weeks, with an eye to connecting some of the essays to new developments at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. (Presumably the firm will have changed its name in the new season, given the tragic aftermath of Lane Pryce’s venture in creative bookkeeping.)
When things left off, it was the summer of 1967. I have no better idea than any one else when or how the narrative will pick up, but really hope that Don Draper creates the ad campaign for Richard Nixon.
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