Mad Men – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mr. Draper’s Wild Ride: “Tomorrowland” and Mad Men’s Season in Review Mon, 18 Oct 2010 13:56:26 +0000 Over the past few months, Antenna contributors have been writing about Mad Men, each from their own perspective. These have been diverse writings, covering a wide range of topics of academic interest, and what makes Mad Men such an interesting series is that nearly every episode can be approached with any one of these topics.

Take, for example, “Tomorrowland.” The fourth season finale is likely going to be a polarizing episode in terms of audience response, taking Don Draper in what some may view as a self-destructive direction, but in constructing those moments Weiner does little to change the series’ rich thematic tapestry. While I initially felt as if the finale’s marginalization of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and their predicament kept it from truly wrapping up the season, in thinking about the approaches taken throughout this project I realized that it is more cohesive than I imagined.

While the agency may have been marginalized in the episode, my response to the Topaz account was still influenced by Devon Powers’ look at the state of advertising in the 1960s.

When the show lost its one prominent recurring minority in Carla, Don and Betty’s nanny, I thought back to pieces from LeiLani Nishime, Allison Perlman and particularly Kristen Warner (who focused specifically on Blackness and Carla’s role in the series) which dealt with the role of race within the series.

My attention to Megan’s attire during the Los Angeles scenes may have been initially trivial, but as that story developed I considered her fashion in light of Elana Levine’s analysis of the fashioning of femininity.

As Don” fell in love” with Megan, I thought both on Jennifer Clark’s discussion of masculine detachment (and his decision to attach himself to Megan in particular) and Joe Wlodarz’s investigation of the eroding barriers between the personal and the professional (which seems apt considering he is marrying his secretary).

As Peggy visited with Joan to gossip about Don and Megan’s engagement, I returned to both Anne Helen Petersen’s take on the role of gossip in the show and Mary Beth Haralovich’s look at how Peggy serves as our guide throughout the series.

As Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You Babe” swelled up during the final scene, I recalled Tim Anderson’s piece on the role popular music plays in the series’ narrative.

And as the episode came to its conclusion, and Twitter lit up with responses, I reflected upon Louisa Stein’s piece on how Mad Men’s fandom operates, and how the show’s unique fan community will respond to the finale’s event.

But, in the end, perhaps the biggest question goes back to Krya Glass von der Osten’s piece which started us off: with hype at an all-time high for the series, did season four live up to our expectations? There is no question that there were some strong individual hours of television, with “The Suitcase” likely one of the series’ best efforts, but the collective season has been more difficult to gauge. Don and the agency have both spent the season in a state of flux, while numerous other characters have had opportunities to move forward but ended up stepping back. After the substantial change created by last season’s finale, the instability of the circumstance it created has made the characters less likely to make any dramatic changes; until Don’s decision to marry Megan, the characters were reacting more than acting, whether it is Joan and Roger’s affair being the result of a mugging attempt or the agency’s collapse being the result of Lucky Strike’s departure.

However, what I find most interesting is those moments trapped between action and reaction: was Don’s New York Times ad a confident action, or a desperate reaction to Lucky Strike’s departure? And was his decision to marry Megan an action to regain control of his life, or a reaction to the short-term stability she offered and its potential role in solving his identity crisis? When we start pondering Don’s motivations, we get trapped in a vicious cycle wherein his true purpose seems hopelessly lost, but this has always been the case. Don’s actions in the finale are just as confounding and complex as they were before, and so we can still frame this finale – as disruptive as it first seemed, to me at least – in the context of previous seasons.

Perhaps what is most telling is that Don Draper did not seem to act out of desperation: while his decision may be sudden, and impulsive, it did not have the sense of fear which has driven previous behavior. And similarly, there is no desperation from Matthew Weiner in “Tomorrowland”: the episode may be eventful, but it never seems as if there is no control over the series’ future. It may not nicely bring all of the season’s themes or storylines to a close, but Mad Men’s fourth season finale offers the promise that those themes and storylines will continue into subsequent seasons, and that’s enough for me.


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“Those Kinds of Shenanigans”: Mad Men’s “Blowing Smoke” Tue, 12 Oct 2010 14:11:52 +0000 At the long-awaited crescendo of “Blowing Smoke,” this week’s otherwise slow-moving episode of Mad Men, Don Draper’s trademark of impetuous confidence makes what is, perhaps, its most outsize splash yet: a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring that their careworn agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, will no longer take tobacco clientele. As the partners and rank-in-file employees alike reel over what this will portend for the agency, it is Peggy who voices the most astute wisdom, in a private moment with Don in his office. When Don asks her what she thinks of the letter, she looks at him blankly—in that way that only Peggy can—and says “I thought you didn’t go in for those kinds of shenanigans,” before smiling at him wryly. This moment not only brings the episode full circle, but it shows  just how much things have changed at the agency—and no, not just between Don and his prized protégé, but in terms of what it means to advertise, and what needs advertising.

Despite the centrality of advertising to the show’s narrative, until this season the profession itself has received a relatively uncomplicated treatment, making it one of the more dependable aspects of this often topsy-turvy world. This steadfastness provides one of the show’s most tantalizing allures, spinning fantasies of dapper account men and dazzling creativity, of an economics of abundance and unrepentant consumerist fantasies. This season, though, the business has grappled with more existential dilemmas, ones that get at the nature of advertising itself. Mad Men, and its mad men and women, have been on a quest to redefine what advertising is, dramatizing the radical changes that the field underwent during the 1960s.

Most pressing this season has been the fate of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the agency that dawned at the end of last season and which has shape-shifted in nearly every episode since—from scrappy start up to spunky boutique, from confident newcomer to jilted also-ran. This has not only laid the groundwork for fantastic personal drama (watch Don quake with nerves! See Roger reach new heights of tragic buffoonery!), but also made visible the pressures that face the agency as it struggles to find its competitive niche. In this episode, those stresses come to a head, as layoffs transpire, the partners put up their own money to extend the agency’s credit line, and they wrestle futilely for new work. A veritable Madison Avenue-style David vs. Goliath is at hand, challenging not just the mettle of the show’s leading characters, but also whether small business can compete against behemoth corporations. What can an agency like theirs bring to the table that a larger, more established firm, cannot?

The most surprising answer given this episode is ethics. “For over 25 years we devoted ourselves to a product for which good work is irrelevant, because people can’t stop themselves from buying it,” Don writes in his New York Times letter bemoaning cigarettes. “A product that never improves, that causes illness, and that makes people unhappy. But there was money in it. A lot of money.” For an ad man ostensibly to come out against a client base that provides ample revenue—especially during a moment of crisis, as their agency finds itself in—smacks of an almost pathological gumption, a righteousness unfathomable even a few episodes prior (especially when remembering the reaction, in an earlier episode, to Peggy’s criticism of a client that did not employ people of color). This attempt to make the agency stand for something mirrors Don’s own efforts, however fitful, to turn over a new leaf in his personal life; though like those more personal efforts, this move is primarily a creative one that does not necessarily match the gusto of its surface with substance. The deliberate images of numerous characters smoking in the show’s final movements visualize this, but that is only the most overt display of the duality, even hypocrisy, of Don’s actions. Instead, ethical advertising emerges as the most cunning sales pitch yet. And Don realizes, once again, that he is narrative to be written, a product to be sold.

From a historical standpoint, it is fitting that these introspections are entering at this juncture. The 1960s found advertising fraught with both innovation and crisis, beset on one side by the political and social changes of the era and on the other by brash new ways of thinking among advertisers. Among the changes initiated, solidified, and/or galvanized during this time period are the exploration of previously neglected markets, the establishment of new techniques of market research, and the adoption of more outlandish and unconventional creative techniques. This season has flirted with all these developments, and more—from the recurring themes of market segmentation and research, to renewed continuity with public relations and publicity stunts, to the politics of advertising as a practice. But most crucially, each of these issues comes to bear in recalibrating how the agency—and the people within it—think about what it is that they do. Rather than mere “shenanigans,” the outcome of this episode will be a new future for an agency where promotion and image may become as important as, and potential drivers for, the work of advertising itself.


Back from the Brink: The Return of Don Draper Tue, 05 Oct 2010 13:48:29 +0000 Don and Faye embraceCharacters in Mad Men often attempt to maintain clear divisions between work and family, but much of the series’ dramatic power comes from its troubling of these barriers between the personal and the professional. This week’s episode, “Chinese Wall,” once again centers on the consequences of the intrusion of personal desires, ambitions, and anxieties into the Madison Avenue workplace, but the episode’s overall lack of effectiveness—I think it’s one of the season’s weakest—also hints at ways that the series itself depends upon a limited access to its characters. The title refers most directly to Faye’s violation of professional ethics in orchestrating a meeting between Don and the Heinz execs. Faye’s ethical breach ultimately illustrates her prioritization of her relationship with Don over what she had earlier called “the stupid office.” Given Don’s history with other professional women, though, it’s hardly surprising, or dramatically effective, when she puts her career at risk for him. She’s not the first, and she likely won’t be the last.

The title similarly serves as a metaphor for Peggy’s Playtex gloves that help sustain the “meaningful life a woman leads when work is done.” Peggy, though, knowingly betrays the “sanitary” divisions proposed in her pitch between work and meaningful life. Peggy is most satisfied with her life when she’s professionally successful, and the movement of Abe from her bedroom to her office actually seems to enhance her happiness and self-confidence. This is in stark contrast to the behavior of the men at SCDP—for them, an unexpected visit by a wife, or child, is often framed as an improper violation of their professional space. Similarly, Don Draper’s ability to return to his domestic life unaffected by his dalliances in the city made him a compelling antihero in the show’s early seasons.

Roger sits in a hotel roomThe slow disintegration of Don’s steady facade has, in fact, been a primary arc throughout the series, and  “Chinese Wall” directly explores the ways that the professional lives of the ad men impinge upon their family lives. What’s surprising, though, is that some of the men in this episode actually seem to process this cost. Pete misses out on the birth of his daughter, while Roger seems to pay the most for his mistakes in this episode. In his last scene, he’s reduced to a professional and a personal failure, completely alone while sitting next to his “loving wife.” Earlier in the episode, we find him alone in a hotel room. Guilt-ridden, he confesses to Joan that he’s known about the loss of Lucky Strike for weeks and hasn’t even bothered flying to Raleigh/Durham to try and win back their business. Surprisingly, though, Joan reestablishes a professional boundary with Roger and simply asks: “what am I supposed to do with this information?”

In an episode (and season) filled with professional and personal revelations, Joan’s response is spot on. It could even be seen to mirror the response of the series’ viewers to the past several episodes, particularly those involving Don’s physical and emotional breakdowns. What indeed are we supposed to do with the vulnerability of the seemingly impenetrable Don Draper? Mad Men has been building to such moments from the finale of season one that left Don sitting alone in his empty suburban home. But even as the series has been driven by a desire to undo the many myths of Don Draper, and, by extension, white American manhood, it’s also consistently relied upon the appeal of Draper’s style, creative strength, sexual prowess, and his ability to police the boundaries between the personal and the professional.

There’s something to be said for the secrets that Don held on to so dearly. Half of the pleasure of watching the show has been constantly trying to figure out what he is thinking or feeling beneath his inscrutable facade. What might we learn about Don through his seemingly empty, and often drunken, stares? Moreover, Mad Men’s interrogation of postwar white American masculinity often centers on key moments in which its women characters—Rachel, Betty, Peggy, Faye, etc.—provide their own reading of Don. In recent episodes, though, we’ve seen a new Don Draper, a man who’s lost control of his drinking, who’s prone to panic attacks and fits of weeping, and who’s even started a diary to help clear his thoughts. Don is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and in its varied attempts to directly convey Don’s inner conflict, Mad Men has arguably destabilized its own structure by taking away the most fascinating characteristic of its lead, namely his inscrutability.

However, at the end of “Chinese Wall,” the show’s antihero seems to be returning to form. After Don has yet another office liaison, this time with Megan, Faye reveals that she has compromised herself personally and professionally for him. Don doesn’t seem to bat an eye in the process. Don’s tender and distanced exchange with Faye at the episode’s conclusion distinctly references that between Roger and Jane. And in using Roger as Don’s foil, Mad Men once again tries to give us the Don Draper that we’ve been encouraged, both textually and extratextually, to admire and to desire. Unfortunately, in these final scenes, Don’s philandering and inhuman detachment feel more like a retread than a reinvigoration. Perhaps the final two episodes will more effectively restore some of the mystery that Don has possessed in the best moments of the series, while also putting his particular vision of American masculinity in a closer dialogue with the culture and politics of 1965.


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“Listen. Do You Want to Know a Secret?”: Mad Men, Episode 10, “Hands & Knees” Wed, 29 Sep 2010 13:24:21 +0000 Yellow tickets to a Beatles concertThe most striking use of pop music in this season of Mad Men appears at the beginning of episode eight, “The Summer Man”. Opening with a montage of Don Draper after he has begun to reclaim his life we hear The Rolling Stones 1965 summer release, “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction”. Arguably their signature song of the 1960s, the Stones’ three minutes and forty four seconds of audible discontent is layered onto a somewhat rehabilitated Draper who swims and takes on writing exercises. Still, it’s hard to hear this record as anything less than an on-the-nose critique. Draper, as we will soon discover, will continue to lie, drink and has yet to begin to come to terms with the abuse he has dealt the many women in his life. And, as we have seen throughout this season, the consequences of these lies will take their toll as many of our Mad Men characters continue to lead lives of tremendous dissatisfaction. Mad Men‘s across-the-board dissatisfaction is the malignant mystery of the 1950s, the unspoken secret of Camelot, the never addressed residue of American film noir. It is also the constant crisis of Mad Men.

The season-to-season differences show up in the small details of its attendant culture. For the fourth season, one of those significant differences is the music. In its first three seasons, Mad Men is populated by the sounds of Percy Faith, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Ann Margaret, Julie London and Brenda Lee, among others. Throughout the series, Matt Weiner and Alexandra Patsavas, Mad Men‘s music supervisor, have chosen recordings that audiences immediately recognize as suitable and relevant to the program’s early 1960s setting. Each record and artist is deployed in a manner that reminds us that a Skeeter Davis record could deliver its fair share of critical commentary. What season four has witnessed is the substantial arrival of rock and roll. Note, not the arrival of a hypermasculinized rock, but a more nuanced version that is both fun and critical. It is a version that is sexy but doesn’t necessitate sex; global yet still somehow American. It is the British Invasion, it is Warhol’s Velvet Underground, and it is radically life changing. Rock in this context is not your parents’ music. Rather it is what hip hop is today: at worst your parents hated and at best put up with it. If you were lucky, they chose the latter because to deny you its place in your life would simply be too traumatic.

And it is here where we cue little Sally Draper’s Beatle-inspired scream from episode ten, “Hands and Knees”. While earlier this season we witnessed that Sally’s discovery of some of her sexuality as she watches The Man from U.N.C.L.E., her entry into adolescence will no doubt be cemented by a Fab Four concert as she is chaperoned by her father. Although Don dismisses Sally ‘s efforts to live with him (and thereby distance herself from Betty) in the previous episode, “The Beautiful Girls”, Sally is temporarily welcomed into Don’s New York life with the promise of Beatles tickets. As Don asked, “Can you keep a secret? You think your friends are going to be jealous when they find out that you are going to see the Beatles this Sunday at Shea Stadium?”, I wondered aloud if Don fully understood what this act would mean to Sally. That remains to be seen.

What is clear is that the British invasion of Sterling Cooper at the end of season two has resulted in a noticeably different firm and a noticeably different direction to the series. This has also meant moments of audible change. For example, the decidedly garage-rock, blues-based sounds of Britain’s The Nashville Teens are featured at the end of the fourth season’s first episode “Public Relations”. Both a nod to Draper’s rural past as Dick Whitman and the lie that Whitman/Draper uses to define himself to reporters at the beginning and end of the episode, “Tobacco Road” is positioned at the episodes end credits as a simultaneously raw and mocking counterpoint. We hear a similar use of pop music at the end the latest episode with Santo & Johnny’s late-1964 release of their instrumental version of The Beatles, “Do you want to know a secret?”. Most famous for their single, “Sleep Walk”, the duo’s instrumental take is neither rock nor roll, nor pop. Accompanied by woodwinds, the duo’s signature pedal steel arrangement is sweet and easy, stripped of any of The Beatles suggestions of intimacy. If George Harrison’s vocals promised a lover’s trust, Santo & Johnny promise nothing of the sort. In fact, Santo & Johnny’s version of the Beatles song, as well-executed as it is, is as excessive in its sweetness as the episode is in secrets.

About Don Draper’s question, “Can you keep a secret?” It is answered repeatedly throughout “Hands & Knees” with a, “yes, but I’d rather not”. Worse yet, those adhering to Draper’s and the firm’s desire to remain quiet are all too often Mad Men‘s women. One has to wonder just how much longer Joan can keep her composure given her most recent trauma and the fact that she is devoted to a distant husband and Roger Sterling’s reputation. Indeed, Roger, Don, and Lane’s secrets have simply become uncontainable and begun to erupt as accounts, identities and loves are lost. Even Pete Campbell cannot escape the fury of hidden truths as he complains to his wife about the plethora of office secrets that swirl about in “Hands & Knees”. Pete’s substantial hypocrisy (see season one affair with Peggy) is rewarded with him being forced to take a symbolic fall to protect Don Draper’s, and by proxy the firm’s, most substantial lie.

Yet as their cynicism and duplicity threaten most of the firm’s partners (I love how Bertram Cooper somehow seems to operate above the fray), I find hope in Peggy and Sally. As celebrated as Jon Hamm is for his work as Don Draper, he has nothing on Kiernan Shipka, whose portrayal of Sally will no doubt go down as one of the greatest acting jobs by a child actor on television in the history of the medium. While Peggy’s complexity has been a mainstay over the length of the show, Sally has emerged as her own person and she is anything but satisfied. The same is true of Peggy whose nascent feminism pops up in a conversation with a would-be suitor who disparages her plight by claiming that there is no comparison between a women’s struggle with those of African-American citizens. Peggy rejects this poet but continues to associate herself with an emerging counterculture. While Draper toyed with Greenwich Village beats in the first two seasons, they were always his exotica. This new rock and roll counterculture, on the other hand, is Peggy’s, and soon-to-be Sally’s, milieu. Peggy’s newfound friends come with a Warholesque happening in episode four, “The Rejected”. Her “scene” is replete with “Velvet Undergroundesque” background noise as well as a experimental films, gays, lesbians, artists, and writers who refuse to work for ad companies. In other words, anything that rejects straight society.

While Peggy’s encounters are somewhat new for her as an adult, one has to wonder what the Beatle fan Sally Draper will make of her teenage world of rock and roll to come. As the mop tops grow beards and go psychedelic, Sally Draper will change with them. How exactly remains unsure. A child of divorce whose father is a professional liar and whose mother has seemed less-than-motherly throughout season four, Sally will most likely turn to the psychic charms of rock. In a word, Sally remains as good a reason to watch Mad Men as any. Whether or not she will find satisfaction in her search remains to be seen. And I’ll be listening. Hopefully, I will be able to hear a secret or two.

Tim Anderson’s essay on popular music and Mad Men is scheduled to appear in the upcoming collection “Mad Men”: Dream Come True TV, ed. Gary Edgerton (I.B. Tauris) available in late 2010.


Peggy’s Social Consciousness: Corporate Culture and Counterculture Wed, 22 Sep 2010 13:33:34 +0000 Peggy looking into the distanceThe last shot of “The Beautiful Girls” episode invites interpretation:  three women in an elevator, leaving the office after work.  Joan, Peggy, and Faye:  each negotiating gendered identity and life choices; each alone with her own thoughts.  Yet, the “beautiful girls” in this episode also include girl-powered Sally, free-spirited Miss Blankenship, feminine and maternal Megan, and self-assured Joyce.  All of Mad Men’s women in this episode are beautiful in spirit — desiring, adapting, confident, thoughtful –- all but icy-hearted Betty.

An intersection of civil rights and women’s rights is woven through this episode about women’s voices.  In this post, I would like to follow on from Kristen Warner’s engagement with the previous episode, about Mad Men viewing race relations through white women’s eyes.

In seasons past, Peggy was mentored by women about how to fit into the career path that was opening for her.  Joan Holloway and Bobbi Bartlett advised Peggy on how to attain mental and physical confidence.  Now a copywriter, Peggy continues to trace one woman’s movement through the social and career space of the time.  In “The Beautiful Girls” episode, Peggy is mentored about race relations in corporate culture (via Don) and counterculture (via Abe).

Don reminds Peggy that the agency’s role is to sell products not civil rights, consumer capitalism not social justice.  Abe raises Peggy’s consciousness about racial segregation but is dismissive of the need for women’s rights.  Peggy points out parallels between the exclusion of women and the exclusion of African Americans, but, despite her experiences, does not see that gender can cross barriers more easily than race.

In SCDP’s roundtable of ideas for the autoparts client, the agency struggles to find a strategy that can market to two classes at the same time, professionals and ordinary people:  “for the mechanic in every man.”  Later, Peggy suggests that Harry Belafonte sing the jingle for the ad:  “everyone likes him.”  By the early 1960s, Belafonte was a popular musician and film actor.  He had already made substantial inroads into mainstream entertainment.  Belafonte had significant exchange value.  But, the northern agency cedes without question to the client’s race segregation in its southern stores.  Recall, from an earlier season, Pete’s failed attempt to convince Sterling-Cooper to advertise television sets to an African American market.  Peggy crossed the gender lines at SCDP because brains trump gender.  Harry Belafonte cannot cross the race lines at SCDP because race trumps everything, even business sense.

In this episode’s didactic moments, Mad Men invites the audience to witness the clash of corporate culture and social consciousness.  Intelligent and candid, Peggy is our guide, our familiar – a white woman, newly aware, frustrated and uncomprehending about attitudes towards gender and towards race.  However, in Mad Men’s conceit about historical verisimilitude, the show remains poised at the edge of social progress.  I am reminded of R.W. Fassbinder’s comment about Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1956):  everyone in the movie theater cried, because changing the world is so hard.  Peggy asks why the agency is doing business with a company that supports racist practices, even as Joan and Roger are mugged by a black man as they walk through a “bad neighborhood.”  Abe is patronizingly dismissive of women’s rights, even as SCDP’s female professionals demonstrate competence.

Peggy may continue to develop awareness and negotiate corporate culture, but SCDP is not likely to explore the possibilities of progressive business practices.  Yet, the television audience today is not a mute and powerless witness.  In the blogosphere, people are sharing perceptions and lived experiences of the burgeoning civil rights and women’s rights movements that sit at the margins of Mad Men’s storyline and timeline.


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In Defense of the Strategic Marginalization of Blackness within Mad Men Tue, 14 Sep 2010 13:08:00 +0000 Mad Men an oversight, a strategic choice, or a reflection of the continuing privilege of whiteness?]]> Carla, a black maid, in the background of Betty and childrenThe dearth of blacks in television programming is an old story. Season after season, watchdog groups cry foul as the broadcast and cable networks produce television shows without thinking about casting black actors. In many cases, the blacks who are cast function as filler—they walk across the screen and fill up space. Of course this lack of racial difference is a problem that needs to be addressed and not in the more pedantic measures that network executives have peddled, e.g., adding the “token” black to an already established white cast or the more recent process of blindcasting where race is not explicitly written into the casting breakdowns which grants non-white actors the possibility of employment. The problem with the latter is that the role is written as normatively white, thus cultural specificity is both lost and conflated with skin color. These are the systems at work in contemporary television programming which is why the title and purpose of this essay seem counterintuitive. Why in the world would anyone defend the strategic marginalization of blackness?

I began to put together my thoughts on this issue in 2008 during Mad Men’s second season. Set in 1962, I had great hope for what this program could become. Two years later, this essay wrestles with those thoughts and the issues I incorrectly predicted.

Roger Sterling performs in blackfaceFirst, let me be clear: this is not a generalizable defense of all shows that exclude blacks. Mad Men is an exceptional case because of its very rigid time period and object of study: advertising agencies in 1960s America. In season two, several important events had yet to occur that would make my argument differ: JFK’s death and the election of Lyndon B. Johnson which eventually beget the Civil Rights Act of 1964. African-Americans in particular had yet to gain equality in the workplace. Thus, it made little sense to “see” blacks outside of the positions they dominated at this time. The black elevator operator, the black lunch lady, the black janitor, and the black maid represented the various types of minority presence on the show. Initially off-put by the exclusion, I reconsidered once I realized the show’s desire to recreate that America in all of its ugliness.

Unlike other recreations of this era — I am thinking particularly of Hairspray (2008) — Mad Men does not carry the same kind of “hindsight smugness”; that is, a show’s ability to re-interpret an era’s ideology through a contemporarily superior lens. For example, Hairspray‘s seemingly easy integration of blacks and whites overwhelmingly contains hindsight smugness. That film’s thesis posits that people can just get together regardless of racial backgrounds and dance but that is a 21st century belief and not a 1950s one. Conversely, Mad Men‘s strategic exclusion of blacks in key character roles works because integration had not occurred in the way it would in the late 1960s and 70s. To place a black man in the offices of Sterling Cooper would be more to comfort ourselves as contemporary audience members than to give a more accurate depiction of that overtly racist era.

Sheila, a black woman, with Kinsey and JoanThe future of race politics in American culture leads to my final point concerning the possible ways we can understand Mad Men‘s exclusion of blacks as central characters. Two years ago, I believed that as the show continued there would be African-American characters in key positions based on the steady increase of their presence in season two. And I was partially correct: season two found Paul Kinsey dating Sheila, the black grocery store clerk. While she only had two lines of dialogue, her presence was necessary to illustrate Kinsey’s superficial attempt at non-comformity and potentially brought Mad Men one step closer to negotiating racial conflict. As it is now, the show strategically places blacks and issues of blackness in the periphery—always present, always watching, always knowing the white characters think of them as invisible. However, is that enough? Is it enough to view the characters watching television’s coverage of Civil Rights? Is it enough that Betty dreams of Medgar Evers? At this point, blackness should not consist of a random black couple passing Don, as in last night’s episode. But maybe the answer speaks to a larger issue that queries if the show is imitating life or if life is imitating the show: what happens when a white showrunner and a staff of white writers review history through the eyes of characters who are wholly invested in white privilege? What does that suggest about the writers’ own privilege?

In closing, I still have hope that this strategic exclusion will pay off. But I have grave concerns that we will be satisfied with the nudges and winks at Don Draper’s world being turned upside down at the expense of a story about those who are doing the turning.


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Open or Closed? Mad Men, Celebrity Gossip, and the Public/Private Divide Tue, 07 Sep 2010 13:30:39 +0000 Liston on the cover of EsquireThis week’s Mad Men is all about gossip — and not just because that’s what I study.

As has been the case in several excellent episodes over the course of the series, a significant cultural event anchors “The Suitcase.”  The title bout between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston provides open avenues for characterization: Trudy meets Pete at the office beforehand, creating an opportunity for Peggy to witness and react to Trudy’s pregnant body.  Even the fact that Peggy would miss the fight underlines her discomfort and disaffiliation with events and practices that are meant to be universal.

The fight also clears out the office, allowing the confrontation/reconciliation between Don and Peggy to take place in isolation.  But most importantly, the fight itself features two celebrities — two constructed images.  And what people say about these images — how they gossip — reveals as much about the speaker of the gossip as it does about the subject.

Gossip — whether about celebrities or prominent figures in our own social lives — allows us a way to work through issues.  Gossip works to socially police beauty and cultural norms, but also speaks the unspeakable, permitting us to talk about things we’re otherwise not comfortable explicitly discussing.  When Don admits his hate for Clay — “Liston just goes about his business, works methodically,” while “Cassius has to dance and talk” — he’s essentially declaring what he values and dismisses in a man.

The cultural environment of 1960s was characterized by the expansion of celebrity. With the star system dead and buried, fan magazines were increasingly turning to a broad range of public figures as grist for the gossip mill, including singers, politicians, and sports figures; Photoplay had declared Jackie Kennedy America’s “Biggest Star” in 1961.  A celebrity was more than just someone who was good at his job.  He also disclosed something about his personal life (his childhood, his romances, his favorite foods), intermingling the public and the private and offering the resultant image for consumption.

In this way, Clay vs. Liston was more than a fight between two men.  Liston was an ex-con, had mob associations, was terse in interviews, and in December 1963 appeared in close up on the cover of Esquire dressed as Santa Claus, looking, according to Sports Illustrated, “like the last man on earth Americans wanted to see coming down the chimney.”  Liston’s handlers forced him to pose for the Esquire cover; he seemingly preferred to keep quiet and do the job.  In contrast, Clay, the self-declared “greatest,” loved the spotlight.  He had a publicity team; he loved to spout bombast.  Clay was the future of celebrity, always eager to provide copy, later intermingling his personal political and religious beliefs (“I don’t have no quarrel with the Vietcong”) with his “profession.”  Of course, Clay won the fight.  And Don lost, both figuratively and financially.

Which brings us back to Don and Peggy — representatives of two approaches to the public/private divide.  Don’s attempts to shelter his past is more than a straightforward attempt to shed the remnants of Dick Whitman.  He doesn’t talk about his past, especially not at work, because, in his conception, it’s simply not pertinent.   Or, as Chuck Klosterman just Tweeted, “Don Draper would hate Twitter.”

Peggy’s past and personal narrative explicitly informs her work.  While she shields aspects of her life — her pregnancy, her relationship with Duck — she is always forthcoming about her family, where she lives, her (lapsed) Catholicism.   She recognizes that the private, whether yearnings or biographical details, are readily becoming available for exploitation and public consumption.  Intimacy — or at least the projection of intimacy — is increasingly crucial for success, as so perfectly embodied by Dr. Faye, whom Peggy clearly admires.  She doesn’t  fully embrace this shift, but also recognizes that she can’t fight it.

Something crucial happens, however, when Don chances upon Roger’s tapes, which disclose the intensely private details of Roger and Cooper’s pasts.  Peggy exclaims “Why are you laughing?  it’s like reading someone’s diary.”  And, of course, it is: a diary that Roger plans on publishing and from which he hopes to profit.  It’s gossip, intended to construct an image of Roger Sterling for public consumption.  The surprise is that Don’s eating it — and loving it.

Here’s our turning point.  In the diner, Peggy returns to the gossip about Bert, this time in giggles.  They each disclose details of their pasts, desires of their futures.  Don ends up in the toilet bowl; Duck exposes Peggy; Peggy watches Don break down and weep.  The episode culminates with an ambiguous yet intimate gesture, one that mirrors a gesture that Peggy attempted early in Season One, when she thought it her responsibility to make herself sexually available.  Don rebuffed her then, but this time, he is the initiator.

Increased Peggy-Don intimacy (romance? closer platonic friendship?) would entail a thorough intermingling of Don’s personal and private lives, and add a very different valence to the ‘Don Draper’ image.  Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston may have been the biggest celebrities of the specific cultural moment, but Don was a celebrity of both Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the advertising world, and what people thought and said about him revealed a lot about the image of 1960s “the ad man,” anxieties over the future of the agency, and the trajectory of the industry.

Perhaps more importantly, “Don Draper” is a celebrity of our own time.  What each of us think about him and this potential relationship whispers volumes: about ourselves, our own desires, our own acceptance or antipathy towards celebrity culture, and even our conception of how a “quality” narrative should proceed.

So what do you think?  “Open or closed?”


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What’s Happening to Don Draper?: Mad Men and the Waning Value of Masculine Detachment Tue, 31 Aug 2010 12:00:54 +0000

“Award or no award, you’re still Don Draper.” –Dr. Faye Miller

“Whatever that means.”—Don Draper

Nothing is as it was in this season’s Mad Men. From cultural mores to familial and interpersonal dynamics to workplace hierarchies, everything is in flux. And the change in masculine authority and its maintenance—figured primarily through Don Draper—is the most dramatic of these changes. Understanding what it means to be Don Draper continues to be a central concern, as it has been since Season 1, but his loss of certain power is a new, central development. This season, and especially in “Waldorf Stories,” viewers see Don trapped in a world neither of his own making nor under his control. While this character shift offers a peculiar sort of pleasure for viewers, it also underscores the means by which Don has exerted masculine control up to this point: through the uniquely male privilege of disengagement. Unlike any other episode to date, “Waldorf Stories” stresses the importance of masculine disengagement by creating a context in which this mode is no longer available to Don.

Throughout the first three seasons of Mad Men, Don has deployed detachment from others and expressed a world weariness that has placed him apart from the feminized, emotionally laden, threatening, and/or naïve attitudes of those around him. This expression of patriarchal power invites viewers to identify with a man in control because of his detached sensibilities (versus a hysterical Betty or a naïve Peggy or feminized clients and rivals). Don’s ability to detach from seemingly trivial concerns and attachments that affect others makes him admirable, even when his actions might otherwise register as despicable. Whether effectively besting a romantic rival by cynically deflating empty posturing or simply gazing poignantly into space as he contemplates serious matters while others engage in silly office politics, Don’s ability to remove himself from the world around him makes him a superior being.

The aesthetic qualities of these scenes reinforce this sense of Don’s superiority: viewers are afforded languid camera movements and extended shots of Don deep in contemplation. This not only grants us identification with Don, but also deepens his mystique and helps us to imagine that he (especially given this unique aesthetic) is unlike everyone else. Narratively, his knowledge of existential predicaments fuels his business acumen (as seen in his Kodak Carousel pitch where he philosophizes about the pangs of nostalgia) and his charisma in the public and private domain.

What we have in “Waldorf Stories” is the same aesthetic treatment, but with very different effect. In this episode, the camera lingers on Don while time lapses, but it no longer helps us imagine Don’s inner torment nor asks us to contemplate what sets Don Draper/Dick Whitman apart from everybody else. Instead, we watch an increasingly pathetic man lose control of his world and squander the power he has earned (or has been granted, depending on the particular viewer’s sympathies).

Throughout Season 4 and especially in this latest episode, Don is no longer able to sustain his aloof, disaffected stance. Instead, he seeks approval and affirmation from women (asking Joan how he looks before receiving his Clio, asking Faye Miller if she saw him win), engages in giddy emotional displays (the drunken victory lap in the conference room), and generally acts less like Don Draper with every passing moment. With this, Don risks losing control in his work and personal life. The series makes this threat clear through intertextual references to earlier scenes and visual elements intrinsic in developing the deeply intertwined nature of Don’s disengagement and his empowerment. For instance, in the series premiere, Don shuts down the firm’s emasculating female psychologist and then retreats to a reverie on his office couch while the camera lingers on his face and lighting evidences a passage of time. Here, his control over the workplace and threatening women work in tandem with his solitude and his ability to control space and protect his time of solitary thought. All of this is signified through this mode of lighting and editing. Similar aesthetic techniques are used in the Lost Weekend scenario of “Waldorf Stories,” where Don drunkenly goes to bed with one woman on Friday evening and wakes up with another one on a Sunday morning. They are used again when he retreats to his couch to recover from his debauchery. In these instances, Don has lost rather than gained control. Linked through these aesthetic commonalities, these scenes effectively contrast the commanding Don of Season 1 with the out-of-control Don of Season 4.

It is also important that Don’s loss of control is gauged by women who appear and disappear in these scenes. They leave and enter his bed without his full knowledge and break in upon his dream/drunken states. Doris, the diner waitress whom he wakes up next to, effectively traps him in his own bathroom; Betty wakens him with an angry phone call about his negligence in visiting his children; and Peggy appears at his apartment to direct him to “fix” the error he has made in stealing an insipid tag line from Roger’s “idiot” relative.

Rather than a means of controlling his world, Don’s disengagement has now become a trap (in one instance, quite literally) and a mark of irresponsibility that is now effectively disciplined by women. Rather than philosophically rich and introspective speeches, we are given bastardized, inelegant versions of them. Rather than detachment from clearly inferior clients, we are given Don’s overly eager and desperate rapid-fire pitches. Rather than protracted scenes of Don’s fugue states where we are meant to admire his indifference or complicated inner states, we are given alcohol-fuelled stupor, blackouts and hangovers. All of these changes, not coincidentally, come during the very season where we have sustained rumblings of women’s liberation and various challenges to the heterosexual patriarchal order. In the past few episodes alone, Mad Men has represented in relatively affirmative ways: lesbianism and an acceptance of women’s desires for each other outside the domain of men; global economies that introduce national and ethnic Others as significant figures and the waning currency of American men’s WWII heroism; and a growing sense of workplace equity for women.

By referencing key elements of earlier seasons that presented Don’s power as appealing, “Waldorf Stories” marks the radical differences between a Don Draper whose power is justified and a Don Draper who doesn’t “earn” his masculine prerogatives. While this might be the show’s critical reflection on the inevitable future of patriarchy in 1965, it also should remind us of the vicarious pleasures we may have experienced in relationship to the appealing, powerful, in-control masculinity of the pre-1965 Don Draper model.


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“You’re Not Going to Kill This Account”: Mad Men, Racial Prejudice, and History Tue, 24 Aug 2010 05:01:04 +0000 “Since when is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?” Roger asks towards the end of “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” It’s an important question for a character on Mad Men to pose, since forgiveness implies an ability to move forward, loyalty a deliberate tethering to the past. One of the conceits of the entire series has been how history, especially the parts of it that have been omitted from our popular memory, still structure our present. Don himself is a synecdoche for the historical revisionism of the series: though he tries to pretend as though his past as Dick Whitman never happened, it continues to play a determinative role in the decisions he makes and the emotional scars he bears; similarly, by recuperating an alternate narrative of the 1960s—one that counters celebratory images of heroic civil rights activists, counter-cultural rebels or anti-war activists—Mad Men begs the question of how the 1960s embodied by our characters informs the present world that we now inhabit. What would it mean if we are the inheritors not of only the brave triumphs of the Freedom Riders, but also of the indifference or disinterest of people who felt unaffected by them?

“The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” seems to propel this question, as it strikes me as both an anomalous and representative Mad Men episode, especially in regard to how it engages with the history of race relations and cultural difference in the 1960s. The Roger/Honda storyline marks the first time I can recall that racial prejudice is condemned within the program’s diegesis. Over the course of the episode, Roger is roundly attacked and castigated for his anti-Japanese racism. In contrast, Roger’s blackface performance in season three shocked and appalled viewers, though, with the exception of Don and Pete, his derby party audience smiled on in approval; anti-Semitic slurs were common in season one when Sterling Cooper attempted to land both the Menken’s and Israeli tourism accounts. In this week’s episode, no one is amused by Roger’s anti-Japanese vitriol, no one sympathetic to the war service that informed it, no one tolerant or indulgent of his feelings. His jabs read not as cute, but embarrassing and inappropriate, indicative of how Roger himself—along with his prejudices—are by 1965 anachronisms for which no one else has much patience. And they’re bad for business.

In addition, Don’s ability to best nemesis Ted Shaw and win back Honda’s interest requires him to learn something deeper about Japanese culture than a visit to Benihana’s affords. His ruse, formed after reading Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, is premised on the cultural differences between American and Japanese businessmen, distinctions that he will honor and manipulate knowing that competitor Shaw will not. In other words, it is a plan that requires not only the kind of hijinks that are becoming the signature of SCDP, but also the willingness to try to see things through a different cultural lens and the humility to recognize the cultural specificity of one’s own interpretations. It’s a theme that is at the center of Benedict’s book and is repeated over the course of the episode, the gang at SCDP needing Bert to function as a cultural interpreter as much as the Honda execs require Akira to be a linguistic one.

On the other hand, the episode’s treatment of the civil rights movement is consistent with how the series has approached the topic up to this point. By and large, Mad Men doesn’t deal with the movement as much as mention it. This week’s episode prefaces the introduction of the Honda account and Roger’s anti-Japanese outburst with a brief discussion of Selma, though it relies on audience familiarity with what “Selma” signifies: the vicious police brutality against civil rights activists as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march from Selma to Montgomery. Gesturing to a newspaper headline, Roger asks Bert whether he still believes there is no need for a civil rights law, to which Bert responds “they got what they wanted, what else do they want?” Don arrives, Pete raises the possibility of a Honda account, to which Roger evokes his war service, derides Honda execs as Pete’s “little yellow buddies,” and sets in motion a principle dramatic tension of the episode. Once the scene ends, the camera cuts to Don’s apartment where Sally and Bobby watch the news unsupervised, as the anchor discusses what I believe is the funeral of James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had traveled to Selma to support civil rights activists and who subsequently had been beaten to death by local white supremacists.

Though there are rare exceptions—Medgar Evers appearing in Betty’s birth hallucinations, Kinsey traveling to Mississippi to register voters—the iconic events of civil rights in Mad Men are dropped in via newspaper headlines and brief glimpses of newscasts, sometimes briefly discussed by our characters until the more pressing concerns of office politics or interpersonal dramas grab their attention, or via quick conversational references, as in the season premiere when Bethany mentions the three civil rights workers murdered in the summer of 1964. Mad Men typically does not provide much more than these signposts, and rewards viewers who recognize the events they reference. It’s as though the series is reminding us that these things are going on but, by how quickly these references come and go in the narrative, that they aren’t having much of an impact on our characters, save tepid condemnations of southern violence or quick assessments of civil rights legislation. To underline how little has changed up in NY, the only African American people we see in “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” are a black waiter who passes by as Don waits to meet with the guys from Honda, and Carla who accompanies Sally to her appointment with Dr. Edna.

Because of the temporal juxtapositions, it seems reasonable that the episode invites a comparison between these different forms of racial intolerance, between Roger’s aggressive anti-Japanese tirades and Bert’s dismissal of the legitimacy of civil rights at home, Don paging through Benedict’s book but ignoring entirely the news report of Reeb’s murder. And it is perhaps this take on racism and cultural difference, that it mattered to many white Americans only when profitable, that instantiates one of the show’s most cynical takes on the 1960s and, accordingly, on the progressive and celebratory history of racial equality that we continue to narrate in the present.


Selling Style: Mad Men and the Fashioning of Femininity Tue, 17 Aug 2010 05:01:01 +0000 “The Rejected” has quickly become one of my favorite Mad Men episodes.  Those through-the-glass-doors looks between Peggy and Pete!  Peggy peaking through the window into Don’s office!  Allison glancing furtively (or is it pointedly?) across the two-way mirror during the focus group and then shattering the glass frames while telling Don, “You’re not a good person”!  This is an episode filled with glass surfaces, reflections, talk of looking at oneself and shots of looks between characters both open and secret.  It is also an episode in which how the characters look was central to the meanings on offer.

Mad Men is a series frequently praised and sometimes criticized for its lush visual style.  Foremost in the attention paid to the program’s style is its mise-en-scene—the sets, the props, the hair, make-up, and costumes.  While this retro style is certainly one of the fun elements of Mad Men viewing, its presence is never mere style for style’s sake.  A basic lesson in the analysis of media texts is the awareness that all on-screen elements are there for a reason; they have been chosen deliberately and they thereby communicate meaning.  Mad Men’s vintage setting and generous budget may make its style particularly compelling, but for me—and perhaps for many other of the show’s admiring viewers—the attention to how things and people look is key to the show’s exploration of gender roles so precariously perched on the edge of disruption and change.

“The Rejected” in particular uses the way the characters look to map out some of the ways that femininity, and the kind of sexuality normatively associated with it, is on the verge of change.  The young SCDP secretaries that make up the focus group are garbed in the dresses, jewelry, updo’s, and hair height we associate with the “fifties” part of the 1960s.  Sure, there is a range of looks amongst them—the more juvenile Dotty and Allison in their plaid, the Joan-wannabe Megan in her curve-enhancing jewel tones—but together they represent a traditional young femininity.  This femininity sees marriage as the ultimate goal.  Or so concludes Dr. Faye Miller, the educated, professional, (married) market researcher.  But Faye sees herself as a different kind of woman. She changes her clothes to lead the focus group, abandoning her more businesslike jacket and scarf for a look more akin to the secretaries, hoping to induce a greater degree of revelation from her test subjects.

But the really new femininity introduced in “The Rejected” belongs to Joyce Ramsay, the new friend who takes Peggy into a hipster world of Warhol-worshipping, pot-smoking adventure.  Joyce does not look like any of the other women in the Mad Men world.  She wears a men’s style blazer and button-down shirt, her hair parted in the middle, laying flat against her head and secured in a low ponytail, her one piece of jewelry an “ethnic” looking turquoise necklace.  And she wears pants.  Pants.  Joyce’s “unusual” vibe is further secured when she kisses (licks?) Peggy at the party.  As usual, Peggy is the point of negotiation for these differing depictions, a position made clear as she stands amidst a triangle of options:  Megan, the SDCP men in suits, and Joyce and her hipster gang.

While Mad Men uses its characters’ sartorial style in these thoughtful and revealing ways, AMC and the show producers are also aware of the marketing magic of the program’s fashion-savvy.  Capitalizing on a broader cultural embrace of the program’s retro style, AMC has partnered with national retailer Banana Republic to sell “Mad Men Style” to the (upscale) mass market.  In weekly vlogs, costume designer Janie Bryant chats with Banana Republic Creative Director Simon Kneen, who links the Mad Men look for both women and men to BR’s contemporary stock.  Meanwhile, a weekly “Fashion File” blog post deconstructs that week’s looks, much as I have done here.

We can certainly see these sorts of marketing efforts as savvy exploitations of one of the program’s appeals.  But I’m not convinced that these efforts detract from the value of the show’s use of fashion and style to explore femininity and masculinity in flux.  A show that takes fashion seriously is also taking seriously a cultural arena long dismissed for its association with the feminine.  To discount it as mere surface appeal or promotional wizardry risks duplicating that troubling rejection of the feminine.  But to take fashion seriously in a way that also explores the limits of conventional gender roles and the welcome potential for feminist change, that helps us share in the looks of the Peggys, the Allisons, the Megans, and the Joyces as they try to find their way?  Yes, please.


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