As I’ve said before, the thing that I can’t stand most in this world is being left out of the loop. It’s a bit of a character flaw, but when I look back, that was how I made friends. People I liked being around liked things, usually stuff I didn’t yet know about. They would laugh about something only they knew, and I would have to pretend that I knew what they were talking about because I wanted to fit in.
I hate that feeling.
So now, I try to be informed. I don’t have to be a master at everything, but I want to know enough so I can join in any conversation. Because I hate not being able to laugh at the joke, I don’t like my fake laugh. I want to be informed.
Thus I find myself at 1 am watching Mad Men in an attempt to understand how a show I understood to be popular achieved that notion.
After watching it, I don’t get the hype.
When reading a story, or coming up with one of your own, it’s important to ask a few questions concerning plot and character. Why are we following this person and why now? A deep and interesting world doesn’t come into being when the episode starts. There’s a little bit of context, things have happened before to lead to this point. In Game of Thrones, it’s Robert’s Rebellion. In Harry Potter, it’s the first wizarding war. How you breach that information is important, but it’s significant to question why now. Both of these events, the rebellion and wizarding war, are very interesting and integral to what the stories become, so why are we not reading or watching something that has to do with that moment in the world’s history.
Hopefully, it’s because what’s coming after is going to be even more engaging.
But Mad Men didn’t feel that way, at least not at first. As more characters were introduced, I couldn’t help but wonder why we weren’t following those characters instead of Draper. He’s boring. I figured he was supposed to be some advertising genius, and perhaps he is, but the pilot really didn’t prove it to me. He flounders around, having affairs and smoking cigarettes and complaining that the tobacco brand his company operates through is going to drop them since people now know smoking is dangerous. And it only barely gets solved, and half by someone else. So why not follow Pete, an up and comer trying to make his way in the company? Or Peggy, the new girl in the office who’s desires are not explicitly laid out but who we’re supposed to root for somehow? I didn’t think they were very interesting either, but Don didn’t really come across as someone I needed to try and understand. Things happened around him, people thought he was great, but he just didn’t sell me on it (see what I did?).
Women, Amirite? (No)
Okay, I get it.
It’s the 60s, people are sexist and racist and it’s totally fine and everyone gets away with it. I got that impression from the very first scenes of the show while the woman is showing Peggy around the office, but after the 100th joke on that same tread, I was thoroughly bored.
Of course, it’s world building, and it does set a certain mood. It feels like the 60s, but maybe more as we imagine the 60s than how they really were.
Some people have called the show one of the most feminist minded shows on television. After interviewing 200 women of the era for a book, Stephanie Coontz from the Washington Post wrote back in 2010,
“Yet to my surprise, most of these women refused to watch “Mad Men.” Not because they found its portrayal of male-female relations unrealistic — in fact, many recounted treatment in real life that was even more dramatic and horrifying than that on the show. It was precisely because “Mad Men” portrayed the sexism of that era so unflinchingly, they told me, that they could not bear to watch.
Coontz states her point even more bluntly when she writes later,
“We should be glad that the writers are resisting the temptation to transform their female characters into contemporary heroines. They’re not, and they cannot be. That is the brilliance of the show’s script.
“Mad Men’s” writers are not sexist. The time period was.
I’m not convinced that all of the writers for Mad Men are sexist, nor am convinced that they aren’t. Writing the show that way builds the world, and the fact that it doesn’t shy away from that reality is admirable. I’m sure their intentions were good, but to have many women say that they can’t watch the show because it’s too sexist might not be a point for realism. In fact, it could be making the problem worse.
Sady Doyle from The Atlantic put it this way in her article around the same time when she wrote,
“To be fair, Mad Men doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they’re not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.
Watching Mad Men, we get to sit back and comment on how brutish and stupid men were back in the 60s, when we’re still in the middle of dealing with same problems in the year 2016. It’s the same reason why we can read about the civil rights movement in the sort of three day history lesson we receive in high school. First Rosa Parks, then the march on Washington for “I Have A Dream”, then the signing of the bill so African Americans can vote. Then we can sit back and kick our feet up and say, “Yep, and that’s how we solved racism.” Yet we still have Ferguson style riots and Tamir Rice shootings almost weekly, but hey, it’s not like how it used to be. We don’t do that anymore.
And why can’t the girls be heroines. Maybe they can’t start a matriarchal revolution and take over the establishment (It’s not historically accurate but I would have preferred to watch something like that), but they can still be dynamic and interesting in their own way. But wouldn’t you know it, none of the women have any drive or motivations of their own. Maybe that’s how the world is, but only Menken seems to have any kind of personality, even when it’s entirely hemmed in by what men think of her. Peggy is annoying and lifeless, and Don actually has a wife that we only see at the end with some kids tacked on in order to make it easier to empathize with him. It’s a cheap ploy, and the rest of the characters just feel the same way; cheap.
An Opportunity Wasted
I must give credit where it’s due. The pilot had one shining moment for me, one scene that made me lift my eyebrow and start paying attention again after I started to lose focus on what was happening. Through all of the cigarette smoke and misogyny there came a brief scene between Draper and Menken that I thought really stood out.
After storming out of their last meeting, Draper and Menken sit down to try and make amends. Draper explains his philosophy on love while Menken explains what she thinks about Draper, and subsequently, herself.
I feel like the heart of the show comes out when Don says to Rachel,
“Oh “love”. You mean the big lightning bolt to the heart, where you can’t eat, can’t work, and you run off, get married and make babies. The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call “love” was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.
And there you have it. That’s what got the show from the board room to the screen. I can see the appeal. Here we will explore how our notions of happiness and unhappiness in the present were created in the distant past, not by experience, but by people in order to sell a world that doesn’t exist. Our ideas are still decades old and we’re trapped searching for that ideal country that has never been and never will be. What kind of power does a person have when they can create paradise in the minds of people through the hypnotic world of advertising? We don’t remember them, we don’t ever see them, but they’re there. And we know they’re there, but we choose to ignore it for happiness sake.
Rachel makes a compelling comment back to him, showing that she and him are somewhat alike. They’re intelligent, ambitious, but they also see the world for what it is. That is, created by other people. Most people are living their lives without thinking about it, but those at the top can see when they look down that the fantasies they create aren’t real, and so they can’t live in them, even when society becomes a mirror and turns back on them, expecting them to follow the same norms. They can’t be happy or fulfilled in the same way most people can because they’ve looked behind the curtain, and now, even with the power to create worlds, they find themselves lonely and looking for distraction. They want to enter that attractive, nuclear world, but they are forever barred from it.
This is what would make the show compelling, this is what I came here for. But I can’t stomach all of this really excellent philosophy while also listening to people constantly telling Peggy to hike her skirts up. There’s too much other crap going on that I can”t sit down and enjoy the good stuff, like trying to have a great dessert when the walls of your house are smeared with shit.
Kinda takes away from the experience.
There’s a nugget of something really great here, and perhaps watching more, the writers could more directly access the message they’re trying to portray. But trying to navigate the boring character motivations and narrative for the sake of the subtext is too much of a chore. I give Mad Men three noxious cigarette butts out of ten.