Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960sby Lauren M. E. Goodlad
Since the show's debut in 2007, Mad Men has invited viewers to immerse themselves in the lush period settings, ruthless Madison Avenue advertising culture, and arresting characters at the center of its 1960s fictional world. Mad Men, Mad World is a comprehensive analysis of this groundbreaking TV series. Scholars from across the humanities consider the AMC drama from a fascinating array of perspectives, including fashion, history, architecture, civil rights, feminism, consumerism, art, cinema, and the serial format, as well as through theoretical frames such as critical race theory, gender, queer theory, global studies, and psychoanalysis.
In the introduction, the editors explore the show's popularity; its controversial representations of race, class, and gender; its powerful influence on aesthetics and style; and its unique use of period historicism and advertising as a way of speaking to our neoliberal moment. Mad Men, Mad World also includes an interview with Phil Abraham, an award-winning Mad Men director and cinematographer. Taken together, the essays demonstrate that understanding Mad Men means engaging the show not only as a reflection of the 1960s but also as a commentary on the present day.
Contributors. Michael Bérubé, Alexander Doty, Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Jim Hansen, Dianne Harris, Lynne Joyrich, Lilya Kaganovsky, Clarence Lang, Caroline Levine, Kent Ono, Dana Polan, Leslie Reagan, Mabel Rosenheck, Robert A. Rushing, Irene Small, Michael Szalay, Jeremy Varon
“The varying perspectives presented make this work useful supplemental reading for television critics, scholars, and researchers interested in deeper analysis of the show’s portrayal of 1960s culture.”
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MAD MEN, MAD WORLD
Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s
By LAUREN M. E. GOODLAD, LILYA KAGANOVSKY, ROBERT A. RUSHING
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
All rights reserved.
Mad Men in Its History
Lane PryCe: [looking at the newspaper for a movie to go see with Don Draper] "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Don: Yes, it is.—"The Good News," 4.3
Mad Men: it's a pretty nifty title. Obviously and efficiently (and aided by the consonance of those monosyllabic words), it puns on Madison Avenue and on that location's key role in the development of postwar advertising culture ("ad men"). And it taps perhaps into a general if intangible anomie, frustration, and even anger that these men in gray flannel suits sometimes feel toward the way of life they're caught up in (and caught in), and that we, the spectators, are typically supposed to feel that men in the popular culture devoted to life in Madison Avenue corporations are supposed to be feeling.
But it's here—in the reference to "men"—that the title already reveals an incompleteness: clearly, Mad Men has been as much about women, and their own desires and dreads, as they confront the fraught historical period referenced over the course of the series. Just as it was easy to forget the plural in Matthew Weiner's previous series, The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007), and imagine it as being centrally and even primarily about Tony Soprano's "issues," it is tempting to see Mad Men as another installment in the ongoing saga of popular culture's representation of a "masculinity in crisis" (and here the show would be doubly invested in that representation as both a show about men in the 1960s and a show made in the newer representational moment of the first decade of the twenty-first century—which has brought its own sense of the imputed crisis of masculinity to bear on the subject matter).
Obviously, Mad Men is not not about an overbearing, omnipresent, and (to its own view, at least) omnipotent masculinity. One could even suggest that the incompleteness of the title is ironic and contributes to the series' ongoing depiction of the way these men themselves confront the incompleteness of their masculine hold on their world. If the very end of the very first episode serves as a sort of punch line to suddenly reveal that Don Draper has a suburban life complete (or incomplete in its own way) with suburban housewife (this after much of the episode has shown him cavorting with a beatnik woman from Greenwich Village), it is one consequence of later episodes to fill in that other world, and give perspective and voice to the wife (and to other women characters) in a manner often apart from Don (and from other male characters). Of course, that the women are sometimes given their own scenes and their own points of view independent of male presence does not mean that they in any way become independent. Not for nothing, if the series title focuses on masculinity, is a season 4 episode that focuses on the women overall named "The Beautiful Girls" (4.9), picking up the sort of patronizing phrasing that we might imagine the ad men to use, precisely, to pigeonhole the women in their work and leisure lives.
In this respect, if, from the very partiality of its title to the course of its narrative over the seasons, Mad Men bears an incompleteness to its representational project, it is as possible to argue that the representation of such incompleteness is its project, rather than a failing within it. In other words, it might be that the series uses the partiality of the worlds it depicts—such as the world of "men" in the corporate demographic—to dramatize limitation and the forms of narrative struggle against it. This is not a total or totalized picture of the times as they were but a deliberately partial and incomplete picture of how some people lived some parts of those times and, in some cases, groped toward other ways of living them. The issue of incompleteness then becomes less a question of accuracy—does, for instance, the title "correctly" sum up the series?—than of representational function: How does Mad Men use incompleteness in the service of its dramatic project and to what ends?
In this respect, just as we can see as ironic or deliberately limited the emphasis in the series' title on "men," it is worth noting that the qualification of them as "mad" seems incomplete in its own right. Notions of being "mad" run rampant through the 1960s, but Mad Men invokes them only indirectly. Again, the issue is not one of accuracy. And the point is not just to catalogue the absences but to clarify how their nonpresence is often a deliberate choice and has constitutive effects on what the show prefers instead to show of its times. In 1966 the French philosopher Pierre Macherey analyzed gaps in a cultural text's representational coverage as what he termed "structuring absences," and it is the way in which valences of the "mad" hover around Mad Men even as it chooses other representational projects to explore that serves as the impetus for this chapter.
For instance, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the doctrine of always trying to outdo the enemy in nuclear firepower so that the would-be belligerent will blink and back down from first-strike actions, is nowhere mentioned in the show, but it is there implicitly in continued references to the Cold War threat (for example, in season 1, one elevator conversation is about how absurd it is that the French, too, now have the bomb; in seasons 2 and 4, the agency flirts with a defense contract and all that it entails in terms of security clearance; and season 2 ends with the Cuban missile crisis).
Likewise, Mad Men offers little awareness of that sense of the absurdity of war that is summed up in the last line of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), "Madness! Madness ... madness!," and that increasingly filters into 1960s popular culture with works like Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961)—where Yossarian's feigned madness is outdone by the military's real insanity—only to then move beyond representation into reality with the Vietnam war. Even though by season 5 of Mad Men we are past the midst of the decade, there is little mention of the war's increasing escalation and media visibility (Joan's one-time husband, a doctor, serves in Nam, but we get minimal glimpses of the war [most often through brief news reports on tvs in the background of scenes], and certainly no assertions of any absurdity to it). More generally, Mad Men eschews that 1960s reversal of values so well depicted by Heller or by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern in their screenplay for Dr. Strangelove (1964), in which it is institutions of control—like the military, but also, by extension, schooling, medical establishment, government, and so on—that are seen as insane, and the seemingly crazy or damaged people they are processing as so much fodder who are seen as having a visionary sanity beyond institutional recognition. (As Hot Lips Houlihan puts it in M*A*S*H , "This isn't a hospital; it's an insane asylum!" In the cult classic King of Hearts , a soldier on mission [Alan Bates] falls in with the inmates of an actual asylum and comes to find their company preferable to the absurd and deadly insanities of military command.)
True, Sterling Cooper's founder Bert Cooper is presented as somewhat not quite right in his love of abstract painting (always a giveaway in mainstream popular culture) and in his insistence on going barefooted. There is something a bit off at the top of the corporate world. But Bert's eccentricities are presented generally as amusingly benign (both to the workers at the office and to us spectators), and there is little sense of a generalized institutional insanity that has dire consequences for the lower-echelon inhabitants of this world. It would be hard to argue that Mad Men is using the advertising agency as in any way a metaphor for the madness of institutionalized power in the manner that Catch-22 does for the military.
Similarly, the 1950s and '60s are the moment in which that great symbol of what-me-worry irreverence, Mad Magazine, flourishes, but Mad Men doesn't have much of that publication's wacky, even sick humor aspect to it. Perhaps the moment from the episode "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency" (3.6) in which, during a wild party, one of the secretaries, on a demonstration lawnmower out of control, runs over the foot of one of the executives and mangles it, comes close in its morbid yet comically zany weirdness, but the moment is ultimately just that—a moment, a single instant pulled from the flow of the show (and given special narrative explanation by the fact that the accident happens at a party that got out of control). Mad Men is wicked and sardonic, but rarely in the consistent and committed scandalous way that Mad Magazine was.
To take a different notion of "mad," the series does, as noted, seem to tap into a common, even stereotypical, figure of the postwar nine-to-five male as consumed by an anomie that can render him anywhere from frustrated to cantankerous to, at times, downright angry. But being "mad" would then seem to connote something so variable (in frequency, in reach, in quality and intensity, and so on) that it would seem too vague to be a serviceable concept. This seems to be the case no matter which contemporary valences of being mad we choose to look at. For instance, the discontent of the "mad men" on the show very rarely converts into that excessive anger that drives, say, Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) to explode at a waitress in an iconic scene from Five Easy Pieces (1970), a film at the very end of the period, or that pushes Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Network (1976) to declare as his infamous motto, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more."
And for all the obsession of the period with psychiatric and antipsychiatric conceptions of madness as mental disorder—reflected in the popular culture in such titles as The Mad Woman of Chaillot (1969) or Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) or A Fine Madness (1966)—Mad Men itself offers few representations of a vibrant nuttiness. The most literal case of mental dysfunction in the series is that of Betty Draper's father, Eugene, who is suffering, in quite ordinary and realistic fashion, from senility. There is little here of the energetic madness that takes over 1960s figures in Marat/Sade (1967) or Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)—to reference two films from the decade in which madness is seen as an inspiration in a generalized rejection of social norms. And although Betty herself sees a psychiatrist in season 1, in this case the series' flirtation with the psychiatric establishment ultimately peters out: Betty discovers that her husband, Don, is being given updates on her treatment by the psychiatrist, and she uses the information against both of them, a triumph that basically causes the plotline to drop away. (This often seems to happen with Betty's accomplishments in the course of the series: when she does something affirmative, she scores an immediate, local point, but then the show offers no follow-up, as if her achievements have no lasting impact.) To the extent that Betty is indeed a character consumed by anomie, it is worth noting that by season 4, this has manifested itself not just as rage (her misguided dismissal of the nanny who has been with her children from the beginning) but as its opposite: a descent into a passivity little different from inertia. The fourth season's last image of Betty Draper is of her curled up in veritable fetal position in her bed. In pointed contrast, 1960s madness in the popular culture of the moment was often an uplifting, invigorating leap into action: for example, "Charlotte Corday" (Glenda Jackson) in Marat/Sade is an inmate with sleeping sickness who rouses herself both to act the killing of Marat and, more important, to participate in the lively revolution of the inmates over the aristocrats that ends the film. What many viewers of the fourth season saw as the increasing rendition of Betty as a horrid harridan (one piece I came across ranked her as one of the worst moms of all time, along with Medea and Joan Crawford!) was also the increasing framing of her as powerless to the point of inconsequentiality (followed by her frequent absence from the episodes of season 5). From Thomas Szasz, to David Cooper and R. D. Laing, to Foucault and Guattari, the 1960s were all about finding revolutionary potential in madness, but this is not a historical path that Mad Men thus far has chosen to venture into. (Sally Draper may be one exception, but I will reserve discussion of that for the last paragraphs of this chapter.)
Nonetheless, it is worth returning to the question of accuracy for a moment, since one particularity—and perhaps peculiarity—of Mad Men is that in addition to being seen as an example of "quality tv," it is somehow taken to be, and admired as, a document or even documentary of upper-middle-class suburban life in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Viewers assume it offers a picture of the way things were in those times. The paradox here is that a series appreciated as an aesthetic accomplishment—that is, as a construct whose value lies precisely in its creative divergence from reality (which we might take to be one mark of quality TV)—is also appreciated as an accurate picture of its time. Among the quality shows, Mad Men may be unique in this respect: The Sopranos, for instance, might often end up being about ordinary issues (family, work, relationship, moral choice), but it would be difficult to imagine that its comic Mafia was in any way to be taken as a deep document of "real" Mafia life.
Maybe there is something in the long sweep of the postwar period in America—from the clichés of a 1950s that is simultaneously conformist and about rebels without a cause into the impression of the 1960s as the period in which rebellion becomes wholehearted—that generally tempts us to take aesthetic representations of this cultural moment as veritable documentations of it. These years are ones we feel we know well, and any cultural work that offers even minimal iconic markers of that knowability can become elevated into an accurate portrayal of the times. In particular, the 1950s, we might say, seem directly sociological: that is, there is an ongoing representation of the period that invests in a set of common tropes and motifs to make us feel that we have a clear picture of what 1950s society was all about. Significantly, the most common picture of the period is built up not only from fictional works (from contemporaneous examples such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit [both the novel of 1955 and the film adaptation of 1956] to recent ones like Mad Men itself) but in the critical accounts of it which themselves play on recurrent iconography and narrative stereotypes. One has only to read virtually any scholarly study on the 1950s to come quickly across references (often quite similar from text to text) to sociologists of the time such as William Whyte or C. Wright Mills or David Riesman or even Vance Packard, as if they summed up the period and can still easily be referenced for doing so. The writings of these figures are adduced as symptoms of the time but also as accurate analyses that can still be used for their evidentiary, explanatory yield (thus, for instance, Riesman's notion of the "outer-directed" American is somehow taken to indicate that Americans in the period were overwhelmingly outer-directed in point of fact). Even as the classic sociologists from the time talk about how the decade witnesses the hardening of identity into sociological categories, their own writings participate in the very same process of reification and of constraining categorization. It is as if people in the 1950s were direct embodiments of abstract laws.
It is an easy step, then, to go from this seductive impression of the categorical knowability of the average American to the sorts of stereotypes on display in a film such as Revolutionary Road (2008), which came out after Mad Men's second season: a shot of men in gray flannel suits getting off a commuter train and then marching in veritable unison is all the viewer needs to feel in the presence of a familiar set of themes (alienation, the white-collar worker as cog in the machine, etc.) and to believe that this is the way it was back "then." Such works of popular culture so become conventionalized symbols of a time that they then start to be taken as reference points for other works that come after them (in other words, conformity to their vision is taken somehow to be conformity to the historical times they claim to be representing). Thus, in 2010, when Variety reported on plans by the BBC to develop a television series that would be about "sexual tension against the backdrop of the ruthless, male-dominated world of 1950s mass media," the industry journal could offer as its single commentary, "Sound familiar?"— obviously suggesting that the show sounded a lot like Mad Men (Clarke).
Excerpted from MAD MEN, MAD WORLD by LAUREN M. E. GOODLAD. Copyright © 2013 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Lauren M. E. Goodlad is University Scholar, Associate Professor of English, and Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience (forthcoming) and a coeditor of Goth: Undead Subculture, also published by Duke University Press.
Lilya Kaganovsky is Associate Professor of Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Media & Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of How the Soviet Man Was Unmade.
Robert A. Rushing is Associate Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Resisting Arrest: Detective Fiction and Popular Culture.
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