Push(back) at the Intersections: Two Ways of Looking at Mad Men

s.e. smith's headshot. they are wearing blue and their short, curly brown hair halos their head.
s.e. smith
View profile »

s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

Another season of Mad Men has begun, and the Internet is all atwitter. This show is widely critically acclaimed, with good reason (in my opinion), and there’s also a lot of discussion about the show in the feminist community, because there is a whole lot of stuff going on and people like talking about it. Mad Men also provides a lot of opportunities for exploring intersectional issues, most particularly race, a topic Latoya Peterson has covered extremely well in the past.

I think there are a whole lot of ways to view this show, but today I’m focusing on the most common two that I encounter in critiques and discussions about Mad Men:

There’s the glorification of the 1960s: the clothes (‘let’s dress up like them!’)! The three martini lunches! The heady atmosphere of Madison Avenue in an era when people thought the only direction they could go was up!

Then, there’s Mad Men as a commentary on the society of the 1960s, an unveiling of the darker and trickier stuff that was going on during this period. For extra credit, Mad Men also criticizes the society we’re living in, often in very sly ways.

I think you can probably guess which reading I lean towards.

Some folks just seem to love the show because they think it provides a starry-eyed vision of the 1960s. I’m not quite sure how they are taking this away from the show because to me it’s one of the grimmest, starkest, most all-fired depressing do-not-watch-three-episodes-in-a-row kind of shows ever made, which is actually why I love it, but there you go. Some people watch Mad Men for the clothes and the 1960s and the Christina Hendricks (ok, I’m actually with them on that last one).

A publicity still from Mad Men, showing Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) walking towards the camera while an admiring group of men stares at her.

The fashion, in particular, is something that many people seem to be very into, and I will say that I think the costuming in this show is fucking amazing, not because ‘oooh pretty clothes’ but because it’s so very ace. The costuming, to me, is part of the social commentary of the show. The costumes are a social and gender performance. They are their own characters, honestly, and they definitely fall into the oppressive camp; when I see women standing around a kitchen in girdles and makeup, decked out to the full to avoid being seen as slatternly, I see the underlying social attitudes that forced women to don pantyhose and lipstick to dart out to the mailbox.

To me, the bleak representation of life in this show is an unmasking of a lot of myths about the 1960s. The 1950s were repressive and the 1960s were liberated, right? Not so! In fact, there were a lot of repressive things going on in the 1960s, even as rebellion was unfurling in some communities. What I love about Mad Men is that it depicts oppression neutrally, without comment, forcing people to confront it. This is not a show that moralizes. It shows, instead of telling. You can choose to ignore it, if you want, but you’re missing out on a lot if you do.

At the same time that I think it’s an uncovering of the seamy underbelly of the 1960s, it’s also a challenge to modern society in some ways. You can look at Mad Men and say ‘my my, how far we’ve come,’ or you can say ‘my my, how far we haven’t come.’ Because, really, a lot of the characters are struggling with the same things we are fighting today. When Peggy brings up equal pay, it’s not just a reminder that pay wasn’t equal in the 1960s, it’s a nudge to remember that pay still isn’t equal now, for example.

What’s interesting about the way that a lot of people view this show is that a lot of fans can identify the obvious oppressions depicted, and the obvious problems with Mad Men, but many seem to have trouble drilling down to see what lies beneath the surface. Fan denialism is a common thing with popular shows, but it never ceases to sadden me; I’ll freely admit that I love Mad Men but it is not a show without Issues. There’s a lot going on here, and the critiques that manage to identify the deeper stuff are the ones I’m most interested in.

In a way, Mad Men, with the layers of meaning navigated by the characters, is an allegory of its own critics and fans. There are these glaring things seen in the show that everyone can spot, and then there are the hidden things, the codephrases, the references to ongoing oppressions, that only certain people are taking away from the show. The people who spot the obvious stuff congratulate themselves for seeing it, while the people who are interested in the deeper, darker stuff are reminded, once again, that the oppressions they experience just aren’t that interesting to a lot of critics.

I think the differences in the way people engage with Mad Men are a reflection of the different ways that people like to interact with pop culture. For some of us, it’s pure entertainment. For others, it’s something deeper and darker. I like pop culture I can sink my teeth into, I like things that challenge me and leave me thinking, and I adore things that challenge oppression and provide historical context, even if this show doesn’t always do a pitch-perfect job of confronting oppression—what show does?

There’s nothing to say you can’t enjoy Mad Men for the martinis and the social commentary, of course.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

13 Comments Have Been Posted


I'm hoping that Sal comes back. When he vanished abruptly (I know the way he was fired was a demonstration of systemic homophobia) I waited for him to return. Stonewall is just a few years away and the show is set in New York.

Me too! Sal was

Me too! Sal was pitch-perfect.

Excellent analysis!

This critical analysis is measured and intelligent. I prefer to see thoughtful writing like this as opposed to outright attacks. Obviously anger has its place, but the degree to which some writers are willing to throw one of the good ones under the bus for failing to be the perfect paradigm of gender/queer advocacy is unproductive. Thank you for giving due accolades to a brilliant (but not perfect) show.

The Bad & The Good of Mad Men!

You're spot on! Peggy is my favorite, and I <strong> can't understand </strong> all of the "take me!" swooning that countless women post over Don Draper.

I'll grant you, he's good looking, but...YECH! The only thing I'd want him for is a mentor, as Peggy does. There are times I outright <strong> HATE </strong> him, and then he'll show a side like he did for the 1st Mrs. Draper when he learned she has terminal cancer, and you want to love the real Dick Whitman!

Mad Men is wonderful about showing how REAL PEOPLE have complexities and can't be categorized simply as "good," "bad," "old," or whatever.

Same thing with Pete - I just <strong> DETEST </strong> him for so very many reasons, but he goes and shows real insight into the "Negro market," and is only one of two who finds Roger's blackface routine unsettling.

Mad Men always keeps your attention, that's for sure!

I'm with Bupalos, Miles

I'm with Bupalos, Miles Ellison, etc. on the analysis of race issues in the linked piece. These minor characters are peripheral, but not one-dimensional. There is so much subtext to Carla's character, and to write that, cast it, direct it, you have to get that intelligent, sophisticated women like her *were* nonconfrontive with employers who were sometimes their clear inferiors, in a way we can't easily imagine. The insistence that the writers show characters' frustration, annoyance, humiliation assumes that people were in the habit of revealing themselves. But maintaining a mask, a dual consciousness, as a coping mechanism is easier when it's consistent, where a person's entire presence and personality in the white world is different from that expressed at home and in community.

I'm glad Mad Men doesn't conform to expectations set by less perceptive, less honest work.


While it is true that a lot of the attention paid to Mad Men is the fashion, and general aesthetic of the early 60's, I do not think that this fact is much of a surprise--or misguided. Our culture feeds on Modern design, art, decor, architecture. This is just a truth, because we have been so severely influenced by it. As someone who works in the art world, it is hard pressed not to see up -and-coming new artists who haven't had some influence from 50's and 60's Modern aesthetic. It is also true in fashion. How many people who consider themselves "alternative" are now wearing something mimicking the so-called "Mad Men" look? Why are sites such as ModCloth.com so popular? Not because of Mad Med, but because that is our culture. The 50's and 60's were the last decades where American design and art had any meaning or power in visual culture. The appeal of the fashion and aesthetic in Mad Men is not superficial, but planned.

full disclosure: I haven't

full disclosure: I haven't actually seen Mad Men--on one hand it interests me (esp. from the clothing angle) but on the other hand, I'm fairly certain it would depress me as well, which isn't something I can tolerate well at this point in my life.

Something popped out at me, though:

"The costumes are a social and gender performance."

This makes me happy. I wish people understood that more. You need to think about what you put on your body. For me, I am high femme--skirts, heels, the whole shabang. I wear it conscious of the message it puts out; in many cases, the opposite of what I support. However, I also know it's an extension of myself, and that's what I am most comfortable in, physically. I find pants restrictive, and I have funny shaped feet that prefer a slight heel to true flats.

I appreciate shows that seem to realize this. The Closer, for example, she's frequently seen changing her clothes before an interview, to give off a certain signal.

I'm a very feminine

I'm a very feminine feminist (I especially love my red lipstick), and dressing to reflect this is in no way the opposite of what I support. Feminism is about, among many other things, being as masculine or as feminine as you want. Why <i>shouldn't</i> I dress feminine if I wanted to, if <i>I</i> want to? Is it "better" to dress masculine? Are you implying by saying that dressing effeminately is the opposite of what you support that men are the ideal to which women should aspire, and that we are not intrinsically of equal worth? The problem isn't what I put on my body, it's that other people judge me to be more or less deserving and worthy as a human being when I do. After all, isn't that part of the whole "she was asking for it" mentality?

The costumes may be a gender performance, but that's only a negative when <i>people</i> can't help but judge--unfairly. As over-righteous as this sounds, the fact that I wear feminine clothes isn't the problem--it's the people who estimate my value based on them who are. Now THAT is sexism.

Or genderism. Probably more accurate.

What is feminine?

This is purely subjective, especially if you are speaking of attire. However, if you want to dress "femininely" you'll be spending a lot more of your money ($.75 to a man's $1.00), than your male counterpart. You'd be better off stashing that $$$ and investing it in something more concrete.

Of course it's purely

Of course it's purely subjective, but everyone seems to agree on most of it don't they? And I'd thank you not to tell me how to spend my money--I'm more than aware of the wage gap, and I assure you dressing femininely does not mean spending more. That's quite presumptuous of you! It's where you buy the clothing and when you buy it, and I can handle myself quite well. I recognize you probably weren't advising me <i>specifically</i>, but your statements certainly include me, so let me tell you that I know exactly in what to invest, thanks. I'm currently attending university full time, and my clothes are not getting in the way. I don't feel I should have to explain myself but I will: dressing femininely also does NOT mean having more clothes than you need.

Clothing thread

Hi everyone,

Please refrain from commenting on one another's clothing choices here. Not only is it rude (DesertRose can dress as femininely as she chooses to) but it is a total derail. Let's keep the focus where it belongs: on <i>Mad Men</i> and the contents of s.e.'s post. If you want to talk about clothes, talk about that awesome dress Joan wore in last week's episode! (Or in just about every episode. I swear if I was willing to put up with those foundation garments I'd try to find someone to make me copies of Joan's dresses...)


Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

<i>Ask me about our <a href="http://bitchmedia.org/comments-policy">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

Thank you for this

Thank you for this pitch-perfect analysis.

I can forgive people for excessively loving the wardrobe (indeed how can you not?). But the show itself is stylistically impressive well beyond the dress. Beyond the show's famous forensic period accuracy, the colors are absolutely hypnotizing, the cinematography is ambitious and cinematic. Shots are set up in ways that develop the show's theme, not just move the plot. The show might at any moment reference an Edward Hopper painting or an Antonioni film. Clothing and setdressing are often matched in color or pattern for no other reason than the sure visual pleasure of such images.

The depiction of the social realities of the 60s has also been needless to say, extremely compelling. But they are tied up with the stylistic aspects of the show. I think it's all building theme, and so we need not pit them against each other. Most viewers with brains probably (er hopefully) pick up on the rampant sexism, even if they're mostly in it for the duds, and vice verse. And the style plays a role in the commentary, like your excellent example of the clothes being a mode of performative gender.

I've really enjoyed the show's approach that, like you said confronts us with the ugly social realities without getting "preachy" or simply reassuring us of our superiority. It also presents us with some tangential situation and demands that we read into it. The progressive message may be left by the wayside to some viewers (i know some rather annoying fans who say things like "Don Draper's a pimp!!!"), but I really respect how much the show respects and makes demands upon our intelligence. Mad Men isn't socially perfect (why cant we follow the black characters home for instance?), but it's not fair to hold the shallowest, unenlightened readings of the show against it.

The show is at it's strongest when it's using the social and stylistic together to serve theme. Then we can really sink our teeth into it. The show is much weaker when it leans too much on serial plot. For instance the weakest episodes are clearly the ones with extended flashbacks of Don's childhood and rural past as Dick Whitman. It seems like mindless plot that serves no necessary thematic concern, and tramples all subtlety. This past episode 4.3 seems to be just such an example, compared to the much stronger previous 2 episodes.

Second the notion that -

Second the notion that - "The show is at it's strongest when it's using the social and stylistic together to serve theme."

Admittedly, I haven't watched the show enough to know if this is the strongest part of the show, but I totally agree that it's something the show does surprisingly well compared to others. As to say, I was actually taken back by how nuanced the show's use of style as metaphor can be, especially when it comes to style as metaphor for gender oppression. We more often see one or the other - if the audience is to understand the past as flawed, the aesthetic is gritty and real; if the audience is supposed to romanticize the past, the aesthetic is visually appealing and dreamy. Mad Men shakes this up a bit. I wonder if this is part of why some viewers are able to ignore the social commentary?

Add new comment