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?