The ambivalences of Mad Men

A great deal of modern storytelling relies on deep ambivalence. Modern stories move between two opposed claims at once: the cruel character acts kindly; the racist saves the drowning black man; the campaigner for equality rights turns out to be corrupt after all (this is not always true of past storytelling: see for example medieval morality plays). Well-known scriptwriting teacher Robert McKee dedicates a section of his book, Story, to the phenomenon. At a broader level, this takes the form of an ambivalence towards the social world that the storyteller depicts.

In the case of the television show Mad Men, which depicts an advertising firm in the early 1960s, the questions arise: is the show a critique of early 1960s America or is it a celebration of it? And what then does it say about our own world?

Much has been written about Mad Men’s discussion of history through the personal lives of its characters. The characters are chosen for their ability to stand on the social fault lines of the day: the first woman to become a copywriter; the closeted homosexual; the desperately unhappy trophy-wife; the femme-fatale office organiser; the lecherous up-and coming young men; the pigeon-holed female secretaries; the bohemian whose girlfriend is African-American. As a whole, Mad Men seems to provide us with a picture of the 1960s set to a background of beautiful – and celebrated – visual style and design.

Mad Men’s creator, Matt Weiner, has described the show as science fiction, set in the past. By this, he means that Mad Men shows us an estranged world whose primary function is to make us reflect on our own. In particular, it aims to show a world of sexism, racism and bigotry in the hope that we will reflect on the prevalence of these today. According to reviewer Bernie Heidkamp: ‘To say this strategy is brilliant is an understatement.’ He notes:

As the viewer, you sense that the people you are observing are larger than life – their world is a microcosm of America. But you also understand instinctually that it’s not America of some hazy past but the America you live in.

Interestingly, Mark Greif in the London Review of Books takes off from the same position, but reached a diametrically opposed conclusion. For him, Mad Men’s bigoted society is used to celebrate rather than critique contemporary society:

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.’

But Greif correctly notes that Mad Men is in fact ambivalent towards these relationships. At once, Mad Men is at once a critique and a celebration of social relations during the 1960s. At times, it asks us to revile at its abhorrent social relations. At other times, it seems to ask us to vicariously participate in them. Greif is right, then, when he adds:

Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread.

Hence, the underlying sense of Mad Men is one of romance. Beneath its melodramatic (and soap operatic) storylines, it asks us to yearn for this lost world. It tells us that women want charismatic ad man Don Draper and men want to be like him. Things work out in the end, for our ‘favourite’ (i.e. central) characters.
So: both critique of the 1960s and celebration of it.

But if a narrative moves between various oppositions, there is still, always, an overall framework that emerges when we ask the question: what world-view is the narrative asking us to participate in? When all is said and done, when the narrative conflicts are resolved, the episodes and seasons finished, what underlying premise has the story been shaped by? In the end, what is the ‘controlling idea’ as McKee would have it?

Mad Men overwhelmingly comes down on the side of celebration of the 1960s. Part of the reason is in Mad Men’s attitude – at least until the end of season four (the extent of my own watching) – towards that most repulsive of trades – advertising. In the end, our point of view is from within this system (the rare times we step out of it are when we’re with the family of the advertising workers, such as Don’s long-suffering wife Betty). This choice to show the 1960s from within an advertising company limits our perspective. The radical movements of the time – civil rights, the emerging New Left – are shown to us as purely external events. Moreover, despite the brief forays into questioning the morality of various corporations (tobacco companies, for example), we are constantly invited to participate in the ‘creativity’ and ‘excitement’ of this soon-to-be ubiquitous industry. We are treated to Don Draper as a latter day Leonardo Da Vinci.

For much the same reasons Mad Men is ambivalent towards the world of the 1960s, it is ambivalent towards our own. Isn’t it good that we no longer live in such a bigoted world? it asks us. And then: wouldn’t it be fun though? For all its antinomies, it resolves itself to a celebration of the 1960s, into a romanticised view of that past, a kind of desire for a simpler life when men wore suits with style. Our world has lost too much of that charm, it says.

Still, Mad Men’s vitality does lie in the sense of history occurring around the characters. For even if we are provided with not so much a microcosm of America in those days as a limited selection of it, author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, Natasha Vargas Cooper, is probably right to say that:

It isn’t just that it looks beautiful and that Jon Hamm is a miracle. It’s that the mood in the show is concurrent with the mood right now. The big villain on Mad Men is history. No matter what happens to these people’s lives, you know what’s coming next, and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to help these people feel like they’re any less subject to the throes of history. I feel like part of the reason why we relate to Mad Men so much is that we’re in the same kind of moment right now. Our generation is transitional.

The sense of vital change is probably more applicable to the 1960s than today. Nowadays we have less a sense of uncertain forward-movement (again, somewhat contradictorily captured in Mad Men) as that of shifting and crumbling foundations. For the characters of Mad Men, the ‘high sixties’ is almost upon them. Who knows what our uncertain future holds?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. I take your point, but I’m not entirely convinced about that glorification.

    The thing that always strikes me about Mad Men is how flooded with melancholy it is. The characters are rarely ever happy, and when they are, it’s almost always because they’ve allowed themselves to be taken in by something against their better judgement. They spend so much of their lives posturing and pretending and playing at intrigue that when they finally do things for themselves, the results are disastrous and destructive. To me, that’s a social critique that seems to be directly connected to the aestheticisation of the era. “Look how pretty all this is” is a crucial aspect of that critique.

    The only person who ever seems to push past this is Peggy. And in my opinion, that’s because she has something she finds fulfilling in and of itself – namely, independence and self-determination – that she regularly has to fight for. She still engages with the glamour, and occasionally gets something out of it, but religious upbringing aside, unlike so many of those characters, she understands how much weight her choices carry, and that glamour is transient. That sets her apart, I think.

  2. I think Mad Men should be looked at in its context among all the other popular serials of US cable television – of the “binge TV viewing” era since, say, The Sopranos.

    So many of these shows, for example Deadwood, The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, and Boardwalk Empire are set in a dysfunctional milieu characterised by ‘bad shit’.

    The most common type of ‘bad shit’ is general violence. After that it’s specific misogyny, and violence against women. Why?

    I say it’s because HBO and AMC producers want an excuse to depict violence and misogyny.

    The “sexposition” complaints levelled at Game of Thrones are of a lineage with the regular strip club meetings held by Tony Soprano, and later by Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in the early days of The Wire, before its creators found their resistant streak.

    In Sons of Anarchy, SAMCRO runs a porn production company. In Boardwalk Empire, the “hard facts” of liaisons with prostitutes in Atlantic City are pruriently laid bare in more or less every episode. The same goes for Deadwood.

    These shows were created to thrive on titillation, and to the extent that they contain an embedded critique of misogyny (in some cases, a searing critique) they also aim to bring male viewers to identify with their protagonists. They are, we hear, ‘historically accurate’ histories of the most woman-hating societies ever,and ‘complex, multi-layered works’.

    But the critique is partly there to compensate for the ongoing, fascinated depiction of brutality against women, and to deflect criticism. So in these cases, compensation or misdirection may sometimes be a better interpretation than ambivalence.

    I think Mad Men, for all the stated reasons, despite its melancholy, its strong female characters and its good writing, and despite Don Draper’s downward spiral, is just a less egregious example of the same phenomenon. It’s built, first and foremost, on the Don Draper wish fulfilment fantasy of the male viewer, with a plot driven mainly by his romantic liaisons with a series of ‘hot chicks’.

    • Oh how tedious for all you non-whores to have to sit through entertainment that illustrates how sex workers are used as political pawns and narrative “props,” and that tells stories of injustice, ignorance, dispassion, money, money, money, sex, community, boredom, work, corruption, illegality and love in and around sex work (remembering that much of the sex work depicted in the shows mentioned is occurring in illegal settings – porn industry in the USA aside).

      In “real” life I wonder who you think sex workers are, who visits sex workers, who has meetings in strip clubs and who owns porn companies. A hell of a lot of people work in, visit and are associated with sex work.

      There are so many parts of these shows that are whorephobic, and their depiction of sex work are sometimes incredibly problematic and factually incorrect.

      But I must say audience reactions, such as the comments on this page (not just yours Tom, I’m not picking on you!) about being uncomfortable about depictions of sex work AT ALL interestingly rely on the word “prostitution” to sum up some kind of assumed collective consciousness of distaste among the left with the representation of sex work in such TV shows.

      I really felt I had to comment to say “hey, sex workers are real people, we watch tv too, we read Overland too, and our experience of seeing our work depicted in fictional narratives is different to the experience non-whores have when you watch the same material.”

      IMO Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy treat sex work with a fair bit of day to day banality, which is refreshing to see.

      BTW it is also interesting to me that Rjurik didn’t mention the sex work aspects of Mad Men (or any other show) but Overland readers decided to talk about “prostitution” anyway. Maybe this is a reflection of where Overland/the left is in regards to a normalised distaste and unease with sex work generally. How po-mo of me to notice.

      xx randy

      • THANK YOU Randy for this comment. Truly on the money. These shows are SO whorephobic in so many ways / the workers (who are literally just making a living and don’t need to justify themselves) are painted as “dumb whore” types while the main characters (wives and girlfriends of SAMCRO for example) look down upon the workers with pure disgust – a scene where Gemma and Tara treat a sex worker (Lyla) like trash because of her profession was really enough to make me angry and look online for someone who noticed and commentated on the whorephobia in such shows and how it hurts to see the main characters look down upon so smugly those who are in the industry. You can tell the show is written by people who don’t understand what it’s actually like to work in the industry it’s really disappointing, almost a trope to look down upon and laugh at the sex workers in these shows instead of admiring their work ethic. Glad I’m not alone in this!

  3. Perhaps one thing I might have emphasised a bit more is that the narrative structure of a lot of Mad Men seems to me to be more soap operatic than, say, realist. As you point out Steph, it’s filled with secrets, affairs – facade and truth. But it’s not clear that these are more than personal issues, rather than things with much social weight. Despite their appearance of ‘typicality’ (in Lukacs’ terms), I’m not sure any of the characters really represent as much as the writers would have us believe. This is something that HBO’s Rome does as well – though I can’t comment too much on some of the other shows Tom mentioned – where there’s an appearance of history happening, but somehow it all feels a bit … absent.

    • I’m unsure whether to come down hard on these dramas for their soap operatic narratives, as they are commercially driven works which make obvious artistic concessions to attract an audience.

      I don’t think we have any real idea what a social realist long running TV serial not subject to the usual commercial imperatives might look like, just hints.

      It might be worthwhile to compare Mad Men to another show which is well known for its deliberate attention not to historicity, but to a form of social realism not dissimilar to that discussed by Lukacs in his account of typicality – The Wire.

      When one of these show does very deliberately appeal to the audience to recognise the typicality of the scenarios it depicts, it opens itself up to other avenues of criticism.

      A recent, fascinating Steven Boone article which claims that Mad Men is ‘Roots for white people’ (you’re likely to have read it) relates a scene from The Wire which is replete with typicality but far from immune to criticism.


      I think that Mad men succeeds in some similar areas where other shows have failed. I felt its account of Peggy’s sex encounter with Pete, subsequent pregnancy and giving up of her child, was told in a way that did explicitly recognise historical context and the framework of oppressive social forces at work.

      Its use of a milieu that is large enough to encompass a range of social experiences and act as a microcosm of wider society is also critical to this success. This is lacking in, say, The Sopranos.

  4. Like Stephanie, I’m also not sure I buy the “glorification” thing. I have found the show almost relentlessly psychologically dark and harrowing from day one, much more than some of the very gritty, hyperviolent fare that has been celebrated on cable lately.

    In that sense I think Mad Men functions a little like David Lynch’s work in the late 80s / early 90s, but with even less room for any of the characters to experience real happiness: That is, it works for me as a show where everything is so perfect on the outside it constantly reminds your of the hollowness within.

    It makes perfect sense, then, that real social change mainly impacts from without on these characters; it’s their relative disconnection from socially liberating developments that we’re reminded of again and again. The advance on Lynch is that the show’s social critique is much less simplistic than his.

    The other advantage of using the advertising industry milieu is that it says something about the limits of consumer hedonism. These are the people first inventing the empty promise we are being sold today.

    It is obvious, however, that there is a segment of the viewer base *genuinely* in love with the aesthetics as something they aspire to, who don’t seem to notice the other stuff. It would be interesting to know the demographics, but my suspicion (based on who I know who sees it this way) is that there is a section of the (genuine) middle class that has bought the fake dream Mad Men displays as the outer shell and are unable to penetrate it. But I’m not sure you can blame Weiner and co for that kind of reaction.

  5. I don’t find Mad Men glorifying – though of course there are moments of that. I think the show is one of the few around that seems to have a genuine interest in analysing gender relations and to have looked at the rise of feminism. I know that people often come to diametrically opposed views on what this show is, or is not doing (as you point out in your article, Rjurik) but I think the show is a feminist one. As those who saw the recent ‘Joan episode’ might know, it absolutely pushes the line that the men in advertising are, basically, pimps or are themselves prostituting themselves. I can’t think of a man, or woman, who could have sat through that episode and think of it as glorifying of either gender, or the period as a whole.

  6. Have just belatedly read the entirety of the Greif article – had previously only skimmed the first few paragraphs.

    I found it quite accurate, and only slightly too wrapped up in the flair of its assault. The references to the real history of advertising are interesting.

  7. I’m assuming the Joan episode is in Season 5? In which case, I’m behind. But I’m not sure I’d go so far as to claim Mad Men is feminist. As I said, I think it is contradictory. It certainly highlights the sexism of the men, but I still find that there’s a sense of ‘isn’t this such a “cool” place’ to it: Wasn’t this all so much prettier, somehow more simple and attractive than what we have now? But I’ve said this…

    I think The Wire, however, is less a Lukacsian realism as an Althusserian structuralism – it is able to wonderfully show how all its characters are caught in the social structures and even when it seems that they’re making a choice, they almost never really are. A very hard thing to pull off.

    Just for the record, I don’t think I used the term glorification.

  8. I’m also not convinced it is as psychologically harrowing as Steph and Tad suggest. In one sense, it’s true that most of the characters are unhappy. But that’s standard fare for fiction, isn’t it? I mean, nobody wants to read about or watch happy people who have their life together. It may be that there is a sense of hollowness to it all, but I’m not sure if that was the key think Mad Men offered whether it would still be on air. I think that’s part of what is great about it – but only part of it. Hence, the ambivalences…

  9. Fwiw, I found the first couple of seasons harrowing. (Less so afterwards, when the soap took over more – although the storyline with Betty’s daughter is pretty painful, I wonder if the the glamour was more for its own sake after that. I’d have to watch it again to know.) I do think mine was a rather personal response: for me, the simulacrum of the 60s – when I was a small child – was so accurate that it resonated deeply. My mother bought the same ideologies as Betty – perfect housewife, perfect mother, perfect wife – and although her circumstances differed enormously, she was disastrously unhappy in many of the same ways. The sexisms – covert and overt – struck home too, both because it wasn’t that ago that those things happened – I can remember them – and because so many are still happening now. I totally agree that the series is ambivalent – but the critique on gender wouldn’t have felt so pointed nor so painful if it were merely glorifying the rich young things of the 1960s, with a bit of grit thrown in. I agree with Dr Tad about its use of the advertising industry, too.

  10. “This choice to show the 1960s from within an advertising company limits our perspective”

    I have to wholeheartedly disagree. In particular, the ubiquitous myth-making about the 1960s by those who were participants or wished they were is an unrecognised limitation of our own perspective, one that it is instructive to step outside of to see how, despite the turbulence of the era, many structures and restrictions of that time survived more or less intact. Madison Avenue is still here now, and it is more powerful as an idea and as a social force than it was then.

    I’m not for a moment suggesting that the massive social change and social movements of the 1960s aren’t worthy of study, documentation, discussion and/or portrayal. There has been some amazing work done in that regard.

    But the decade has become so stereotyped in pop culture that we are in need of a reality check – despite the ferment, the challenging, the formation of new political ideas – the corporate world and everyday bourgeois life was in many respects slow to change, or at least slow to change in any very meaningful way. And there is a tendency to forget or to obliterate that radical social movements and social justice campaigning – to say nothing of the reaction it was set up against – both predated and outlived that decade.

    Following WWII, a mythologised version of that conflict became home to a great many creative works, movies in particular. That process in the 50’s and 60’s was a remaking of an era as well as a remembering of it – the war as we would like to have imagined it (not least because a great many of the fictionalisers didn’t personally experience it). It seems to me that another generation is doing a similar thing to the 1960’s.

    The fact that Mad Men is set on the far shore from these waves of social ferment is an invitation to us to challenge our own myths and perceptions, and to reflect on social changes and the need to fight injustice in our own time.

  11. As stylish as it all looks, what I see in Mad Men is an instant, Ikea 60s – everything on the exterior is just too lush and interlockingly perfect – and everything underneath too brooding and melancholy and about to fall apart due to its unskilled labour DIY construction. The 60s weren’t the 60s in the 60s, it was made up of bits of the 30s, 40s and 50s in both attitude, behaviour, dress, cultural objects, values, beliefs, economics and politics etc, like all artificially bounded decades, like today’s. So sure, Mad Men is a celebration of the 60s, but one that never really existed, except as mythology.

  12. Hi Rju – I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, but fundamentally Mad Men is just a period drama. People LOVE period dramas, because they’re escapist and we can look at how pretty and simple and “better” everything once was, in comparison to our daily, difficult lives. You can say all the same sorts of things about other popular series, like Pride & Prejudice, or Downton Abbey: people knew their place, women had no equality at all, servants had little chance of bettering themselves, brown faces are almost non-existent! It’s the TV equivalent of older people harking back to the “good old days” – but the ambivalence should always be there while watching well-made period drama, in order to have the right balance between nostalgia and a reminder of why we wouldn’t actually want to go back to those days. I might love the world of Jane Austen, but I wouldn’t want to live in it.

    • Interesting reflections, Rjurik, but I think I would agree with Stephanie and co on this one.
      I think that the show is immensely complex and layered, and in that regard (as Dr Tad suggests) it’s not Weiner’s responsibility if some people respond to it on a purely aesthetic level. I also completely disagree (I think it was Tom?) with the idea that it is some kind of prurient excuse to indulge these sexual images of women with only a gloss of critique. In fact I think that’s a line that the show walks with superbly fine judgement and, as I think Sophie suggested, it is at its heart a deeply feminist narrative. I don’t think that we are at all invited to celebrate Don Draper’s alpha-masculinity or to see this as a representation of a ‘prettier’ time. I think we are in fact invited to see him as someone who has been both moulded and destroyed by the image that his era has encouraged him to live up to. He is quite literally always ‘passing’, and it’s important not to forget that. Just as an aside, I would highly recommend watching the fifth season, as several of the themes discussed in the article and the comments take on a much more fraught valence in that season–there were many moments where I found myself flinching or covering my eyes, or even moved to tears. Not to *spoiler* but Don’s dream sequence when he is ill is for me an example of just how terrifying, dismaying and ambivalent this character is …

  13. All this office life portrayed in Mad Men is far from gone. In the year 2000 I took a four month temp position as an admin assistant to a vp at Blumcapital in San Francisco. Richard Blum had then three billion in assets with his partners and his wife is Senator Diane Feinstein. His latest coup is sell

  14. I want to add that because I knew Gregg Shorthand and could type fast I was hired. The women were all in assistant positions and the men were the executives except one Sherpa from Tibet who really schlepped like a Sherpa!

    It was very close to the mAd men atmosphere and felt like a time warp. The women were edgy with each other and the senior one was older and to be feared. The dress code for women was still skirts and. Dresses. I as a temp wore nice dark slacks and nice blouses.

    The atmosphere for us female serfs ground me down within a week. I stuck it out and then raised back into tourism where I belonged and have happily stayed far from the mad men crowd.

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