Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 5, 2011

Mad Men

Filed under: feminism,repression,television — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Having finished watching season one of “Mad Men” a week or so ago, I had made plans to write something about it eventually. After reading a rather provocative attack on the AMC series–now in its third season–in the New York Review of Books, I decided to move it to the front burner.

Although this cable TV show has garnered lots of attention, I suppose it would make sense to provide some background on the show for readers who do not have cable. Season one of “Mad Men” begins in 1960 and takes place in the office of a mid-sized advertising agency in Manhattan and in the homes of its major characters.

The main character is Don Draper, who is the creative director of the agency and the most sympathetic member of a largely unattractive cast ensemble. Played to a tee by Jon Hamm, Don Draper is a strong silent type who would have been played by Robert Mitchum in bygone eras. He is the typical alpha male constantly putting down challenges to his authority from those lower in the pecking order.

His nemesis is a sniveling Ivy Leaguer and junior copywriter named Pete Campbell whose sense of privilege collides with his lowly status and constantly brings him into conflict with Don Draper who grew up in poverty but managed to climb his way to the top through dint of his ability to dream up ads that would seduce an American population hungry for consumer goods.

Two equally obnoxious partners, each in their own way, run the agency. Roger Sterling Jr. (John Slattery) is a fortyish roué who suffers a heart attack in season one. Since he is a chain smoker (like practically everyone else in the office) who eats red meat every chance he gets, his heart attack is practically anti-climactic.

The other partner is Bert Cooper, a seventyish character played by Robert Morse, a veteran stage actor. Cooper is an Ayn Rand fanatic who is devoted to everything Japanese. Employees are expected to remove their shoes before entering the office.

Two of the three lead female characters work at Sterling-Cooper and have to endure the sexism of all the male employees that is either expressed either through a smiling paternalism toward the “gals” or through growling viciousness and/or sexual harassment that would get any man fired on the spot today. One is Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), the voluptuous office manager who has been conducting a long-time affair with Roger Sterling. Her main role is to teach new female employees the ropes; this boils down to pleasing the men in the office.

The other is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a Brooklynite who started season one as Draper’s secretary but who is promoted to junior copy writer after offering some shrewd advice about how to pitch cosmetics to women. Peggy, who is a bit overweight and a frumpy dresser, worships the men at the agency and views her job at Sterling-Cooper with starry eyes. In many ways she is like John Travolta’s dancing partner in “Saturday Night Fever”, a working class girl who idolizes everything about Manhattan even when the objects of her worship are pigs.

Finally, there is Betty Draper, Don’s wife, who appears to have stepped out of the pages of “Feminine Mystique”. She is a former model who spends her day worrying about what to cook for the evening meal or which earrings would go nice with her hat. The emptiness of her life and Don Draper’s affairs with other women have brought on a deep depression that leads to psychoanalysis by a coldly aloof practitioner who advises Don that his wife is making progress when in reality their marriage is falling apart.

I will have a bit more to say about this momentarily but the show is basically a high-class soap opera like some of my other television favorites, including “Desperate Housewives” and “The Sopranos”. The show’s kinship with the latter should be obvious given the fact that the show’s creator—Matthew Weiner—also wrote for “The Sopranos”. In some ways, it is very much “Mad Men” and “Made Men”. If you like colorful characters, broad humor, a modicum of social satire, solid performances, and snappy dialog, then I strongly advise renting the series from Netflix as I plan to do.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s assault in the New York Review seems to be an exercise in knocking the show down to size. Perhaps he felt impelled to do this since tastemakers in all the usual places have hyped it. For example, in a long piece on the show that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on June 22, 2008, Alex Witchel spoke for most sophisticated television viewers when she wrote:

Weiner’s achievements with ”Mad Men,” which is produced by Lionsgate, are plentiful, starting with the storytelling. Setting it in the early 1960s, on the cusp between the repression and conformity of the cold war and McCarthy-era 1950s and the yet-to-unfold social and cultural upheavals of the 60s, allows Weiner an arc of character growth that is staggering in its possibilities. It also gives him the opportunity to mine the Rat Pack romance of that period, when the wreaths of cigarette smoke, the fog of too many martinis — whether exhilarating or nauseating — and the silhouettes specific to bullet bras only heightened the headiness of the dream that all men might one day become James Bond or, at the very least, key holders to the local Playboy Club.

Deepening the tension between that fantasy and reality, Weiner has put Sterling Cooper, the fictional ad agency that employs the show’s characters, on the old-school, WASP side of the equation, letting them revel in their racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. It was during that period that the creative revolution in advertising was taking off at agencies like Grey and Doyle Dane Bernbach, where Jews and some women held leadership positions. That Sterling Cooper’s creative director, Don Draper, is played by Jon Hamm, a leading man in the Gregory Peck mold who manages to make his sometimes oblique and often heartless character into a sympathetic figure (and won a Golden Globe for best actor), eases the pain.

Mendelsohn would have none of this. He writes:

As I have already mentioned, the actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element. When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today. An unwanted pregnancy, after all, had different implications in 1960 than it does in 2011.

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

Mendelsohn grudgingly admits: “I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s…” He also is a fan of Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, two shows geared to the cognoscenti whose appeal somehow eluded me.

Despite his characterization of the show’s writing as “extremely weak”, he has no problem comparing it unfavorably to “The Sopranos”, a paradox given the fact that Matthew Weiner was a major creative talent in both series. For my money, the writing is the best thing about the show. For example, one of Don Draper’s flings is with a Jewish department store CEO who has come to his agency in search of talent that can help transform the store from a discount house into something more contemporary and upscale. For those who keep track of such ephemera, this was clearly inspired by the transformation of Barney’s. Without attempting to recreate the dialog between Draper and Rachel Menken, those who have tended to trust me on such matters should understand that the combination of attraction and revulsion between the two is sharply conveyed. Although Draper is no anti-Semite, he manages to put his foot in his mouth frequently with Rachel Menken—a function of his unfamiliarity with Jewish sensitivities rather than hatred. Their relationship is finely nuanced and a credit to Weiner’s ability to express psychological depth.

That being said, I don’t think that “Mad Men” is in the same league with “Revolutionary Road” or “Far From Heaven”, two movies that cover the same terrain: 1950s suburban angst, petty prejudices, and the straight-jacket of social convention.

For anybody who is curious about the 50s and early 60s, “Mad Men” is a great introduction. No matter how broad the characterizations and crude the satire, this is a show that will bring a smile to your face almost constantly. While most of us got into politics to oppose the war in Vietnam or fight racism in the 1960s, we should never forget how much our battle was one over the right to define ourselves freely.

The main thing that comes across in “Mad Men” is the invisible chains that drag each character down. Men are slaves to commodity fetishism and women are slaves to men’s expectations. You can’t escape the feeling that the characters are deeply impoverished no matter how much money they are making. All of them appear to be having a great time getting drunk and eating 16 oz. steaks, but they are on a slow march to ruin.

Although I never worked in advertising, this world was still very much the norm in 1968 when I went to work for Metropolitan Life Insurance in New York. Fellow programmers told me that the movie “The Apartment” was filmed there. In season one of “Mad Men”, there is an allusion made to Billy Wilder’s classic since it is very much about the world that they inhabit. “The Apartment” is about executives sexually exploiting women in the office, a norm before women’s liberation put such practices into the ashbin of history.

My boss at Met Life was a guy named John Falzon who came to work in a fedora every day, just like Don Draper’s. He was the kind of guy who referred to “gals” in the office and who probably enjoyed a martini or two at lunch.

But by 1968, the old ways had begun to change. There is nothing about the red scare in “Mad Men” but it would not be hard to imagine it coming up in one of the episodes, especially with a character like Bert Cooper who worshipped Ayn Rand. One day I got a postcard at work that came through office mail. It had been sent to me by the FBI but was written as if by an SWP organizer reminding me to the next meeting. As the FBI put it in the file that I retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act, it was an attempt to “embarrass” me and possibly get me fired (although they did not state this.)

When Falzon heard about the postcard, he called me into his office and told me that if I ever got a postcard like that again, he should be the first to know. He would find out who sent it and have them fired. Things had definitely changed, thank goodness.


  1. I’m 60 years old, and yes things definitely changed (we helped change them.)

    Mad Men usually does an excellent job of portraying that world, and I don’t get that criticism piece either.

    However, AMC has hinted that they may not make room on their schedule for Season 5 of Mad Men until 2012 and the prolonged negotiations between AMC and Lionsgate further threaten Mad Men in 2011.

    Maybe no Don Draper this year, they say? No Peggy Olson, no Joan?

    Oh, really? Well, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!



    Comment by Judy Brown — February 5, 2011 @ 11:43 pm

  2. Good overview, Lou. Have you managed to see Seasons 2-4 yet? If you don’t want to buy the DVDs (Season 4 should be out in a few months) they can be viewed online (not authorized by AMC – you’ll have to do some Googling to find the sites).

    If you haven’t seen the more recent episodes, I don’t want to spoil the fun for you. Needless to say, Don and the gang get dragged headlong into the Sixties! Peggy’s growth as the years pass is particularly interesting.

    Comment by John B. — February 6, 2011 @ 12:33 am

  3. I have seen every episode of Mad Men. The last season was the best in my opinion. Sharp writing, good character development, interesting historical allusions too. Plus January Jones isn’t too hard to look at either! I won’t spoil anything for Louis, but keep watching. Plus the old commercials are great too. I like the Sopranos better and The Wire too. Even Six Feet Under.
    None are art like La Strada or Battle of Algiers, but good entertainment and make you think some too. As is and does MadMen. What more could you want?

    Comment by michael yates — February 6, 2011 @ 12:40 am

  4. I just finished the 3rd season. The only problem with the series is that it never develops a plot beyond one or two episodes. As a result, it gets a little boring watching the characters go through the same scenarios over and over again. The basic social commentary of the show is accomplished in season one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t develop beyond that in seasons 2 and 3. hopefully season 4 is better in terms of social critique, plot, and entertainment. i would also add that character development is quite weak.

    Comment by tb — February 6, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

  5. Mendelsohn’s “assault” is simply an exercise in high cultural small talk. It ought to be read as such, when the need is felt for a bit of to and fro high-flown banter. The truth is that “Madmen” gives us interesting characters that it’s a pleasure to see up against one another. Period. That this is its real attraction is obvious watching it here in Italy in Italian. No one is in the least concerned about the historical veracity of 1960s Manhattan. I’ve noted the same reaction watching it on DVDs with friends in the U.K. The story is taken as a fantasy, with satisfaction felt at finally stumbling onto a good soap opera.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 6, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  6. purely anecdotal, but the viewers in my life who really, really like the show are women past 35 who have worked in corporate world.

    Comment by nuntii — February 6, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

  7. I found Season 4 rather uneven. There are a couple of episodes that are quite spectacular, probably the best of any season. Others don’t really do it for me. I would agree with the New York Review writer that the subplot about Lane Pryce’s Playboy bunny girlfriend was silly (embarrassing really) and added absolutely nothing to the overall story arc (unless Weiner reintroduces the thread in Season 5), and the business about Draper’s 10-year playing with herself was really unnecessary too. There are so many things going on here that 13 episodes a season just aren’t enough.

    Comment by John B. — February 7, 2011 @ 1:32 am

  8. You can also get the dvds of entire seasons of
    Mad Men at the NY Public Library. Thats how I’ve been watching it. They have the dvds of
    all 3 seasons.

    Comment by Carol — February 7, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

  9. Paul Kinsey, the pipe-smoking, bearded, beatnik jazz aficionado is secretly Lou’s favorite character. “There’s a young man that’s going somewhere!” says Lou as he scratches his beard and ambles down Amsterdam Avenue. “Not like those damned Weathermen who ruined everything” he mutters as he casts a glance at the now-closed down Night Cafe bar owned by former Weatherperson Brian Flanagan.

    Comment by Don Draper — February 8, 2011 @ 12:48 am

  10. One thing I enjoy about the series is the interior decor. The mid-1960s modernism with its wood and metal must have been the high point of U.S. decor, before plastics became common.

    Comment by Mark — February 8, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

  11. Draper is soulless in a soulless world. And therefore it fails.

    Comment by billj — February 9, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

  12. I think this is worth a read,



    Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ – ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ – a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave. Mad Men is currently said to be the best and ‘smartest’ show on American TV. We’re doomed.


    Comment by resistor — February 10, 2011 @ 12:50 am

  13. Back when I had time to watch television, I thought that “Desperate Housewives” was one of the best series in recent memory, the first few years at least, so I appreciate hearing that you like it, too. My recollection is that critics loved it, until it dawned on them that it was actually a dark humored social critique of contemporary suburban life, and not just a fluff ball soap opera. I noticed that sometime in its second season. Critics got cool to it all of a sudden. Mark Frost, one of the creators of it, was also involved with “Twin Peaks”, and I’ve always perceived “Housewives” as “Peaks” cross-dressed as a more whimsical, soap opera comedy, with same subversive perspective presented in a more palatable form for the audience. The resemblence becomes obvious in the more sinister plotlines that popped up in “Housewives” from time to time.

    Anyway, what’s the problem with soap operas? Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder made a lot of brilliant ones, as has Wong Kar-wai.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 10, 2011 @ 1:30 am

  14. […] I first posted about Mad Men, after viewing the entire first season, I defended it against such charges, drawing upon my experiences at Metropolitan Life in 1968, on the very floor […]

    Pingback by A conversation with Jeffrey Marlin and Richard Greener « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 18, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

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