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).
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.