Mad Men and mad men

The Montreal Museum of Fine Art is currently holding a magnificent exhibit devoted to European Orientalism-realist paintings full of camels, turbaned warriors, and provocatively-clad dark-eyed beauties. Not surprisingly, one very large room is all about the harem. The curators’ commentary tells us that 19th-century artists mistook harem women to be not only beautiful and alluring, but submissive. In reality, these women had more in common with Scheherazade, the feisty lass from One Thousand and One Nights whose talent for telling tales saved her from certain death at the hands of her new husband. The only thing the Europeans of the Victorian Era could do, however, was interpret the exotic East through the lenses of their own zeitgeist. It was a time when women began to demand the vote – a frightening prospect for some men, no doubt. The harem represented a fantasy version of the world these men feared could soon disappear.

Mad Men, a cable TV show set in the 1960s, has just aired its final episode in the United States. Like most science fiction, historical drama is really a commentary on the present and how we frame it. Mad Men is no exception. Its frame lies over the ongoing societal struggles with male – particularly straight, white male – appetites and expectations.

In the Mad Men world, middle-class white men drink during the daytime (at work!), smoke, eat whatever they like, and bed their secretaries with impunity. Many people watched the first few seasons in a half critical, half wistful daze. The clothes! The drinking! The uncensored pats on the bum! Civil behaviour has always been about regulation of impulses. For many people, contemporary society presents a particularly dazzling set of stodgy directives and ridiculous rules. Don’t eat that: it’s high in fat and sugar. Don’t speak to her like that: it’s sexual harassment. That’s not funny: it’s racist and sexist.

The past 40-50 years have been marked by tumultuous change, reflected in law, fashion, popular culture, and education. Women have flocked to the workforce, which has shifted balances of household and community power. Huge public protests have resulted in laws to prevent racial and sexual discrimination. Health warnings (starting with the infamous low-fat craze) pop up with increasing frequency. Through it all, those straight white men of the 1950s and 60s – who boozed, drove gas-guzzlers, ate steaks, and cheated on their stay-at-home wives – noticed the ground quaking. Some decided to go with the flow, while others dug in their heels and grew angry.

For the underprivileged, progress always moves at a snail’s pace. For those in power, the same incremental changes seem capable of causing whiplash. The incremental demotion of the entitled male has led to backlash. In the contemporary US, several kinds of men’s liberation movements vociferously address the alleged disappearance of their hitherto sacrosanct privileges (‘rights’). There are too many of these men to dismiss them simply as fringe whingers. These men have no intention of relinquishing even a small share of the advantages they have held for millennia. They now consider themselves part of the disadvantaged. They insist they are marginalized by ‘feminazis’, blind to the grim statistics that confront us in the daily news: US police shooting black males on the flimsiest of pretenses; women still earning only about 70 per cent of what men do; the ‘rape culture’ thriving on many college campuses. Who is truly oppressed?

Mad Men reflects, or channels, this mainstream moral ambivalence. There is something immature about refusing to share your toys – or privileges. True adulthood involves accepting that we cannot confine our concerns to the self (and our closest associates). We need to look out for the Other(s). All thinking people agree that whether it is along income, racial or gender lines, the disparity should be closed if a mature society is to exist.

The nominal grown-ups in Mad Men truly seem to live in a bubble, clueless as to how exclusive and privileged their world is, let alone how it can or will change. To whatever extent the skirt chasers or racists elude detection and punishment, theirs is a glorious middle-world of simultaneous rule awareness and rule defiance. They sneer and sport like youths on the permanent brink of responsibility.

The show’s central character, brilliant adman Don Draper, fascinates us because his flaws blend almost seamlessly with his qualities. Lesser characters serve as foils to highlight his complexity. By and by, we learn to regard Draper’s excessive drinking and weakness for women in a somewhat sympathetic light. His fear of intimacy springs from a loveless childhood in a Depression-era brothel, of all things. Since we receive no such back story for his colleagues’ tomcatting, their venality stands out. From the vantage point of the ‘enlightened’ early twenty-first century, we are free to make of those sins what we may. That works as television, not social commentary: none of the characters ever appears to learn from his blunders – another benchmark of maturity – or tries to apologize to those he harms.

Without a doubt, the folly of remaining as a sort of Peter Pan provides tension in several Mad Men plotlines. At the same time, keeping in mind that the past is always viewed through the lens of the present, what is the upshot? Do the producers want us to feel grateful for living now, or nostalgic for a time that was simpler, by virtue of its clearly delineated roles for men and women, whites and non-whites?

Should it matter? It is ‘only a TV show’, yes, but a very popular one. In an increasingly disconnected world, TV and other media are becoming our community – the source of many of our social cues. The global village is the screen: we translate personal opinions into the political, and back again, every time we watch. The message behind Mad Men may be that when we look back to other times we are just as capable of bias as when we try to understand other cultures, Other anything.

Louise Fabiani

Louise Fabiani lives in Canada, where she writes about science, culture, literature, and art. Her articles, reviews, poetry, and fiction have appeared in many print and online publications, in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., including the TLS, Dark Matter, Agenda, The Rumpus, and U.S. 1 Worksheets.

More by Louise Fabiani ›

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  1. if you think TV is relevant given the artificiality it encompasses, re-creating un-realities that critics think has relevance even though nobody pays attention to the daily delusions of make-believe than that too will become as irrelevant as the contents it portrays by pretending to be real. Which it is not. TV is a diversion at best for those with lives watch it perhaps occasionally given the full spectrum of the internet which is created by real people

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