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.