JC: Yesterday, 3G1B posted JR’s review of Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s book Mad Men Unbuttoned, which, along with her fantastic blog (seriously…check out the supercool archive on The Footnotes of Mad Men), details the characters, themes, and societal shifts as depicted in the series. JR recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
Jason Rice: So. Mad Men. It covers an incredibly fertile period, not only advertising but of human evolution. Right? Not to mention the microscope it puts over fashion, human habits, good and bad, never mind advertising. Do these men make the times they live in, or does time shape them?
Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Ooo, you almost tricked me into using the word ‘symbiotic’ but I’ll resist! I think there is something eternal in watching men push against the established margins when the right historical moment presents itself (Hello, Russia!). Though this is a precise moment when culture, commerce, sex, power, money all converge in a uniquely American way and these guys really took the moment by the balls.
JR: This is a great looking book, Mad Men Unbuttoned. Can you tell me what got you interested in bringing this out into the world?
NVC: It’s like, someone made a TV show about your favorite band and you know or want to know the story behind the songs. That’s what it was like when I saw Mad Men. But the band was called, ‘MIDCENTURY AMERCAN HISTORY’ Each reference was like a note I couldn’t get out of my head. People were also really excited to talk about the show and so I was like, HEY! Let’s dance!
JR: I love how your voice isn’t just a tour guide through the advertising campaigns used on the show, but has a kind of therapist’s tone, especially when Betty Draper uses “lesbian”, you try to understand her upbringing, and where she went to school, and how it wasn’t a mistake by the show’s creators to introduce that term in her vernacular. Striking this tone must have been hard, how much did you pull back, push, and massage this book into its current state?
NVC: I aim to be engaging! I did make it a point to never be flip or condescending towards a topic. I cut anything I felt neutral about, it was either transcribe the thoughtfulness and intensity of the show on to paper or don’t bother.
JR: You break this book into nine parts, and eviscerate each detail of the show as they are reflected by the ads and the time the show is set. When you wrestle a period piece like Mad Men, is it possible to look around at certain things, like sex, or drugs, even the hippies of the 60’s and wonder how do I figure out what to talk about? Draper and Co, are about to drift into that time period, drugs sex, and free love, and all that comes with it. JFK is already in the pine box, so to speak, what’s next for them to experience? And how far can the show really go? I’d watch it until 1980.
NVC:1968 is going to dropkick these guys! Nevertheless, it’s not the aesthetics that hook people or necessarily the era (though they help) but the richness of the characters and all their muted dramas. I think they’ve shown in the first two episodes of the new season that the culture is moving too fast for these guys to keep up with. Only the young like Pete and Peggy could stay afloat and even they will face a reckoning. I’d imagine they’re going to stay in the decade because it’s such a fundamental time in our development as country. It’s the starting point for our modern ethos and culture, it’s when we became full-time consumers!
JR: Could a Mad Men-like show exist now? What advertising campaigns would you pick, say, if you made a show set in Seattle, Washington, right now? Would the Draper role be played by a woman? How would you handle Internet marketing, Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, downloads of music, is it impossible to cover everything now?
NVC: Mad Men would be really boring if Don Draper was played by a woman! Women can’t go around finger banging ladies in restaurants then telling their wives they look like a whore in a bikini! Part of Mad Men’s appeal is that it’s pre-sexual revolution, the gender roles are oppressive, sure, but they are also sharply defined. It’s such unapologetic masculinity that gives the show such vitality. It also could not take place today because the stakes are not nearly as high seeing as how fractionalized consumer markets are, additionally, no product brand or outlet has the authority that these guys did 40 years ago.
JR: I love the shape and design of this book. It’s images and colors are carved with great care. I feel like nothing is over looked, from the Marlboro Man advertisement campaign to the paintings on Bert Cooper’s walls. The creator Rubicon called Mad Men “John Cheever on television”. Is that accurate?
NVC: I buy that! It’s certainly a visual novel. No question that Mad Men is high-art –and it’s accessible. Also, it seems so obvious now, but of course, 12 part serialized dramas seem like a perfect way to delve into characters and tease out all the pathos – why didn’t we do this before the Sopranos?! Mad Men fulfills the full potential of the medium.
JR: There seem to be a million times more distractions for the average person today. Where do people get their ideas to buy things? Amazon.com? TMZ? What their starlets wear to the gym? What kind of special Yoga classes Brad Pitt takes when he’s on location? How do trends form today? From where? Or, where do you think they come from?
NVC: If I knew why people bought things I would not be in the publishing industry. But I do think consumers get a bad name! American consumers are a most sophisticated and savvy lot. Empires do have the benefit of breeding discerning shoppers.
JR: I love this book. I take it with me everywhere. It helps that I love the show. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of Mad Men?
NVC: My favorite part of the show is watching Don Draper try to navigate through all the moral morass. The self-indulgence and consequent emotional wreckage he creates for himself and the people close to him. I think the compulsion to assert individuality against history, family, work is compelling. My least favorite part is that I know that the writers are pulling all the right levers and presenting us with this very attractive package called Don Draper but that he has a rotted core. When you identify with Don, which I find myself doing often, you’re identifying with a monster so that’s (exquisite) torture!
JR: Thank you Natasha.
NVC: My pleasure!