In the 1970’s, the television show, All in the Family, was one of the most popular shows in the nation and a real cultural mainstay. One of the reasons for its enduring popularity (aside from great acting and interesting plot lines) was the fact that regardless of where you fell on the political spectrum, All in the Family offered a humorous portrayal of the generational divide. The show’s creators (and many viewers) felt that the show clearly illustrated Archie Bunker’s bigotry and was therefore critical, rather than condoning, of his prejudices. In reality, studies actually showed otherwise. In, True Enough, Farhad Manjoo points out a study that showed that bigots and non-bigots each found the show equally humorous but that they also, “harbored very different ideas about what was happening in the show.” The psychologists Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, who conducted this study, found that people of low prejudice saw Archie Bunker as closed minded and a bigot, whereas people of high prejudice saw Archie Bunker as, “down-to-earth, honest, hardworking, predictable and kind enough to let his daughter and son in law live with him.”

Norman Lear, the show’s creator, had sought to make a satire that lampooned prejudice, but, in reality, All in the Family’s success stemmed from the fact that viewers were often reading the show as supporting, rather than critiquing, the hatred and bigotry it portrayed. I view the wild success of Mad Men to be a similar case of selective perception. While the show’s creator has stated many times that he seeks to portray the advertising world of the 1960’s as it actually was, in reality the tense and beautiful landscape of the show has created a kind of fantasyworld which can be interpreted as horrifying or fantastically seductive, and, in many ways, functions as both simultaneously.

Mad Men is a complicated and perverse pleasure, and it is precisely because of this that I vehemently disagree with Stephanie Coontz, who recently argued in The Washington Post that Mad Men was “the most feminist show on television.” Coontz claims that because the show is historically accurate it helps viewers to understand and empathize with its female characters and the lack of empowerment and agency they have over their own lives. Certainly, that is one reading of the show. But many male viewers enjoy watching the show for the pleasure of imagining themselves in the role of the show’s hero, Don Draper, a kind of James Bond figure, whose sexism is continuously rewarded- he gets to sleep with all sorts of beautiful women and is continuously held in high esteem by his peers and colleagues regardless of the fact that he is often cutthroat and cruel. Likewise, many women see Don as a dreamboat, a hunky throwback to a time when strong, silent types abounded. Ultimately, even though we may feel pity for the Joans, Bettys and Carlas that inhabit the world of Mad Men, Don Draper is theshow’s hero and the one the viewer is supposed to root for.

Does this mean that I think Mad Men’s writers are in fact sexist? Not at all. I think the intention of Matthew Weiner and many of the show’s writers is to give viewers an accurate portrayal of the sexism and racism that dominated this time period. But, in doing so, they also illustrate just how seductive this culture is and how, perhaps despite many of our best intentions, we are still somewhat drawn to it. When watching Mad Men viewers get to have their cake and eat it too. We laugh and cry at how cruel and backwards this generation was, all the while enjoying the pleasures that this kind of world affords. The show renders bad behavior seductive- from the booze, to the sex, to the notion of a natural hierarchy among the sexes (men are more important than women) and races (whites are more important than blacks). It seems fitting that this show has achieved such success in our current economic climate, as mainstream media seeks to soothe our general discontent with depictions of men and women in very traditional gender roles. While some of the sexist depictions we see in advertising, television and films currently are part of a longstanding tradition of objectifying women (such a cultural mainstay I don’t think I even need an example here) and infantilizing men (Dad can’t cook dinner! That’s Mom’s job!), some of the most troubling depictions we see today actually capitalize on a kind of retro sexism that reaffirms our existing beliefs in gender roles, and then quickly covers them up as if the whole thing was a joke in the first place.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Mad Men’s theme commercials, which position themselves as cheeky satire, but actually conform to gender stereotypes that still exist today. An ad for Clorox bleach shows a man’s shirt with lipstick on the collar. The tagline reads: “Getting ad guys out of hot water for generations.” Though this ad positions itself as a clever play on the sexism of a bygone era (and trendy TV show), in reality commercials for laundry are still targeting women as their primary demographic. It seems clear that to ad men (and women) today that the only time a man might want to wash a shirt is when he is hiding having an affair.

In Mad Men we are simultaneously drawn towards and repelled by the world the show depicts. Its archetypal characters are pre-packaged. We already know how each character will respond to whatever stimulus story writers will construct for them, by virtue of our knowledge of this particular era gone by.The characters are stuck. We know that Betty will respond to the world around her as a typical housewife would have and that Don will respond as an adman of that era would.The show, while often emotionally resonant, is ultimately not character driven. We don’t see portraits of characters; we are merely zooming in on pieces of a kind of cultural tableau or landscape.

This bothers me for two reasons. First, as a fiction writer, I feel that this kind of character writing is a bit of a cop out.While, certainly, the majority of people within a certain time period may have behaved or responded in a certain way, clearly there have always been individuals who have made choices which were outside the dominant paradigm. Creating characters, which always necessarily conform to cultural stereotypes of a specific era, is just as fallacious as saying that all black or Asian or Jewish characters will respond to certain situations in a specific way because of their cultural background. It’s reductive and a way of closing off character development as opposed to confronting it dead on.

Secondly, I’m not sure what this fixation on the past actually accomplishes. Many critics claim that Mad Men helps to open our eyes to the racism and sexism of the past, but so many Mad Men viewers behave as though they are charmed by this very generation.The number of feminist enthusiasts for Don Draper staggers me- if a sexy modern man behaved half as badly as Don Draper does in every episode of Mad Men, the feminist community would hang that character out to dry. Similarly, we seem to feel that the fact that women had a variety of healthy, curvy looking bodies almost mitigates the kind of sexism that women had to endure during this time period.And the fact that black characters in Mad Men have been relegated to background scenery is ridiculous. There is a way to show how white characters on the show view black characters as scenery without actually making them fade into the background. Give Carla an episode where the viewer gets to focus in on her experience. It doesn’t have to be a spin off or a whole season. It just needsto be a moment of direct recognition that, despite this cultural framework, these characters have lives which are worthy of thoughtful and in-depth investigation.

Because Mad Men positions itself as a mainstay for intellectuals, it is difficult to criticize the show without getting told that, “You just don’t understand! This is how things really were back then.” This statement, though ubiquitous in discussions about Mad Men, is completely disingenuous. Mad Men is not some “found” footage from the 60’s. It is a deliberate construct of that era. Saying that writers are not making choices about the show and how they are dealing with issues of race and gender is entirely fallacious.

It’s also a cheeky way of shutting off critical thinking and abnegating responsibility. Just like Don and Peggy and Joan can’t change how they respond to the era in which they live, there is this fatalistic undertone of the series which suggests that we can’t change the way we respond to the era in which we live in either.Agency is portrayed as a kind of fantastic illusion throughout the series,an idea just as silly and superficial as the notion that we can get perfect skin or teeth, by way of a new product marketed exclusively to us.

I don’t think that good writing is always political or helps to make us better and more moral people. But I do think that good writing should challenge us to grow. The final episode of Mad Men’s fourth season, “Tomorrowland” was heartbreaking in that Don, rather than actually act on any of the potential changes he could have made, pursued a future which was ultimately a retelling of his own tired fantasy story.While I think this lacks in terms of narrative storytelling, as an allegory, I think this narrative is useful. Let’s not keep making Don’s mistakes.

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

20 responses to “Bridge To Tomorrow: 
Mad Men‘s Fantasyland”

  1. Angela says:

    I am one of the viewers who finds myself drawn to Don Draper even though I know better and who longs for that era even while acknowledging what is wrong with it. The lure of Mad Men is found in comparing that era to our own. While we sit around applauding ourselves for embracing civil rights, gay pride, and women’s rights we must also acknowledge that the price of that growth has been a loss of glamor, a loss of civility, and a loss of innocence. I wish that people still dressed nicely for work everywhere – not just in big city finance and fashion firms. Even while I sit here in my chinos, I inwardly deplore casual work wear. I wish that we still fostered an appreciation of a job well done, instead of creating the notion that only wealth matters. I wish the clerks at the gas station were cheerful and friendly instead of sullenly asking me, “What do you want?” when I attempt to pay for my fill-up. Surely there must be a way to balance social growth and evolution with a more dignified lifestyle. I think Mad Men shows us how the baby boom generation chucked out the baby with the bathwater. Did we need civil rights, gay pride, women’s rights, etc. ABSOLUTELY we did. Did we need to sacrifice social graces, politeness, integrity and personal responsibility to get them. No, we didn’t – but that’s exactly what happened, and that is why the Mad Men era seems so attractive.

  2. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Thanks for your comments, Angela. I don’t know if the world of Mad Men is particularly civil, and I feel that dressing nicely is probably still of utmost importance in industries like advertising, even if the fashions have changed. My interpretation of Mad Men is that it is illustrating the appearance of politeness, integrity and personal responsibility, rather than the actual existence of it during this time.

    Thoughts?

  3. Professor Bernstein your writing is amazing! I think the highlight of this essay are the two points that bother you about Mad Men. I whole heartedly agree with both. In any time period, there have always been people who have strayed away from the mainstream current and actually provide a unique more flavorful taste of that era by opposing the mainstream. Excellent point about modern day feminists would disapprove of Don’s character.

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Brilliant, Arielle: a lucid, cogent, thoughtful, well-reasoned and plentifully exampled argument.

    Here’s one nugget I was especially struck by:

    “Because Mad Men positions itself as a mainstay for intellectuals, it is difficult to criticize the show without getting told that, “You just don’t understand! This is how things really were back then.” This statement, though ubiquitous in discussions about Mad Men, is completely disingenuous. Mad Men is not some “found” footage from the 60’s. It is a deliberate construct of that era. Saying that writers are not making choices about the show and how they are dealing with issues of race and gender is entirely fallacious.”

    “It’s also a cheeky way of shutting off critical thinking and abnegating responsibility.”

    Reasonably, you question the writers’ failure to be responsible to the viewers of “Mad Men”.

    You also, importantly, question their craft. On that point, I would suggest that the writing is hackneyed. We can attribute this either to the writers’ inability to rise above the trite, cliched and stereotyped, or to their amorally fulfilling the dictates of their employer(s).

    Here, you’ve served notice beautifully—-and most fittingly:

    ” . . .if a sexy modern man behaved half as badly as Don Draper does in every episode of Mad Men, the feminist community would hang that character out to dry. Similarly, we seem to feel that the fact that women had a variety of healthy, curvy looking bodies almost mitigates the kind of sexism that women had to endure during this time period. And the fact that black characters in Mad Men have been relegated to background scenery is ridiculous. There is a way to show how white characters on the show view black characters as scenery without actually making them fade into the background. Give Carla an episode where the viewer gets to focus in on her experience. It doesn’t have to be a spin off or a whole season. It just needs to be a moment of direct recognition that, despite this cultural framework, these characters have lives which are worthy of thoughtful and in-depth investigation.”

    Thanks, Arielle, for your analysis that cuts to the core of many of the “isms” that afflict us.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks so much for your comments, Judy! I think one of the reasons I find Mad Men so frustrating is that so much of it is done right- it’s a beautiful show, but I really hope they investigate some of these problems more concretely in upcoming seasons. I’d love to see the characters engaged in some real change!

      • Judy Prince says:

        Well, then, Arielle, have you worked up a couple episodes and submitted them to the _Mad men_ folks? I’m not kidding.

        • Arielle Bernstein says:

          Oh! You flatter me! That would be phenomenal…I wonder how one goes about doing that? Perhaps, “Don Draper” style- I’ll slip story ideas inside a mink coat and finagle my way into the studio.

        • Judy Prince says:

          “You flatter me!” Au contraire, my dear brilliant, refreshingly creative Arielle: I’m not a flatterer.

          Slipping your story ideas inside a mink coat and finagling your way into the studio (Don Draper style, as you say), would be far more exciting, quite frankly, than proceeding The Usual Way to market your literary wares, no question about it! HA!

          Start writing now, Arielle! It’s not just ideas, you see, that you will be submitting, but TWO episodes that you would love to see in the series.

          Be absolutely true to your visions, be wild and free as you write; you will by creative nature be plotting and planning who does what, where, when and why; hence, do not be worried; just let your free spirit have its way.

          Beat your internal editor about the head and shoulders before you begin each writing session so that she does not mess with your wild freedom.

          Let the characters tell you what they want to do and say and look like. Put all of your self into them. They will be little Arielles, but you will know them only as “real” people who will inhabit your brain nearly exclusively during the month it will take you to write the episodes.

          Do not be concerned with how you will submit the episodes to the producers of the series, you will get that information easily and handily when it is time to do so. Other folks will supply much of the information to you.

          Kick ass, Arielle!!!!!

          YES!!!! (high five)

          Judy who will be awaiting your progress and cheering you on.

        • Arielle Bernstein says:

          Thank you, Judy! This is the most amazing response 😀

          You will be the first recipient of my Mad Men screenplays!

        • Judy Prince says:

          “You will be the first recipient of my Mad Men screenplays!”

          That’d be marvelous, Arielle!

          Having reread your post, the comments and your responses, I’m once again struck by your straightforward clarity in digging up the subtly seductive subterfuges that Mad Men writers present to the series’ viewers—-and I’m delightedly impressed by your surgeon-like concise corrections of commenters’ fallacious reasoning. Indeed, your predilection for philosophy and logic-parsing reminds me that careful thought-dissection can save lives as well as expand our usefulness in this world.

          I’ll leave you now with your own wise words about the series and about writing:

          ” . . . there is this fatalistic undertone of the series which suggests that we can’t change the way we respond to the era in which we live in either.”

          “I don’t think that good writing is always political or helps to make us better and more moral people. But I do think that good writing should challenge us to grow.”

  5. t1 says:

    “whereas people of high prejudice saw Archie Bunker as, ‘down-to-earth, honest, hardworking, predictable and kind enough to let his daughter and son in law live with him.'”

    This might be explained by the fact that “people of high prejudice” tend to be stupid. (And shall we pause for just a second to reflect on the phrase “people of high prejudice”?)

    And, setting aside the question of whether writers ever have an obligation to be morally instructive (e.g. be “feminist”) one really shouldn’t expect writers to dumb down their work to diminish the possibility that the slow-witted will draw the wrong lesson. A sexist idiot viewing the concluding episode of the 4th season might well conclude “Way to go Don, that blond chick was waaay too demanding, good for you for putting a ring on the brunette that was good with your kids. Plus she’s hot.” In contrast the correct interpretation is the one you’ve made (“I think this narrative is useful. Let’s not keep making Don’s mistakes.”)

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Yes, the term “high prejudice” is euphemistic. Those psychologists sure love their euphemisms.

      That being said, I think it’s dangerous to assume that only idiots have the potential to be bigots- I know lots of smart people who are seduced by the world of Mad Men. My point is that the show has a dual function- illustrating the problems of this world, while drawing us towards it. I think one could sustain an argument that Don made a good choice for his children by marrying Meghan. She certainly seems pretty nice, is good with his kids and offers him the possibility for a married life again.

  6. Richard Cox says:

    I’ve never watched Mad Men. I’ve heard of it but I honestly had no idea what it was, mainly because I don’t have cable. But I’ll definitely be adding it to my Netflix queue after reading this, because even acknowledging some of the flaws you examine, it sounds like a well-made show.

    However your essay did make me think of Californication. I’ve only watched the first two seasons, and though I obviously can’t contrast it with Mad Men, I’ve often wondered how the average viewer interprets Hank Moody and the fantasy life he leads. Except in the case of Californication we’re not even pretending to hide him behind the veneer of a bygone time. Hank would seem to be nothing more than a hedonistic bare nerve, but his love for his daughter and her mother–along with a healthy dose of self-hatred–somehow renders him as an empathetic character. How many men want to be him, want to do and say things others are afraid to, and how many women desire him for being that guy?

    Probably it’s like comparing apples and oranges, because Mad Men likely brings a degree of subtlety that Californication lacks. Still, your description of Don Draper certainly reminds me of Hank Moody.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      You’ll especially enjoy the first few seasons, since the promise of change is still readily apparent. My biggest beef with the show has been the 4th season, which is a lot of the same.

      I haven’t seen Californication, but it is on my Netflix cue! Is it worth watching?

      • Richard Cox says:

        I definitely think it’s worth watching. Like I said, it’s not the most subtle show in the world, but there’s something to be said for the guilty pleasure of it.

        And if I’m being honest, it’s fun to imagine a life like Hank’s. After all, he is a famous novelist living the life of a rock star.

  7. Amber says:

    “Similarly, we seem to feel that the fact that women had a variety of healthy, curvy looking bodies almost mitigates the kind of sexism that women had to endure during this time period.”

    That’s what gets me: women at the time were expected to have an idealized curvy figure. Today, women are expected to have an idealized skinny figure. A skinny woman then would have felt much the same as a curvy woman now. The wishful thinking that leads people to believe women had it so much better then because they were allowed to be “womanly” doesn’t wash. Any woman is womanly, regardless of her shape. And I don’t think this would be such a big point to me if a large part of the show’s appeal wasn’t Christina Hendricks’ notable measurements.

    And I agree completely about the appearance of politeness without the substance. Like, Jon Stewart said, in the “good old days” you couldn’t curse on television but they wouldn’t let black people vote. It’s better to have cursing on television.

    And you couldn’t get me to wear one of those horrid corsets if you threatened me with a lake of fire…

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      I agree, Amber. It is still body policing. It reminds me of that argument that while the burka and the bikini look strikingly different, they both actually accomplish the same thing- rendering the female body to a sexualized object.

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