AMC’s Mad Men.
Mad Men first appeared on our screens in 2007 via American cable network AMC. A smart and elegantly packaged period drama which transported audiences once a week (or at any frequency you’d like thanks to Netflix) back to the 60s, and invites us into the world of advertising company Sterling Cooper, and an intimate portrait of the psychology of the unmistakable Don Draper.
From its inception, Mad Men has been lauded by critics and the public alike, noting its slick aesthetic, commendable performances (especially those of Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss), and its unapologetic lack of nostalgia when it came to telling the truth of its time (as Tom Hanks put it). The title itself came from the self-coined term of men who worked in the now legendary Madison Avenue during the 60s, ad men who mingled with New York’s best and brightest, and created some of the most significant media of that time.
Drenched in alcohol and cigarette smoke, we the audience are given a tour into addiction, identity crisis, sex politics, racism, anti-Semitism, and a society swept up in a period of drastic change and struggling to adjust. Over 40 years later, despite a shifted context, the spirit of this is not lost on us. For this reason, showrunner Matthew Weiner described Mad Men as a “science fiction of the past”, in that “it uses the past to discuss issues that concern us today that we won’t discuss openly.” Therefore, the choice of the 60s era is potent, because it was a time of cataclysmic change, where society as people knew it hung by a thread – and today, we are on the cusp of a such an era.
Above: The Real Don Draper by Vice
Don Draper. A man who is so handsome, one is even attracted to the back of his head (thus Jon Hamm landed his iconic role). He symbolises a classic masculinity we have been sold and, regardless of our sexual persuasion, desire on some level. Closing advertising deals by day and womanising by night, he can be seen to symbolise what all men want to be. It is tempting to see this seductive image and be enthralled or aspirational. Thankfully, Weiner is characteristically unforgiving in stripping away the veneer of Don Draper – and this is how:
Draper’s very backstory does this for him. Don Draper is an identity he’d stolen from a dead man. Through the series we learn of his harsh upbringing and see how he grasped the opportunity to reject his underdog status and become a figure of power and respect. One could even say his identity is built on escapism.
For this reason, Draper’s life is built upon pretence; nobody in his life knows who he truly is, not even his wife or closest friends, and when they do find out they reject him.
His career, advertising, is built on simulation and idealisation. Unlike Peggy, his fellow advertiser, his talent does not lie in creativity as much as it does in charisma. His oration skills and classic good looks are the cards he has to play, even leading to his colleague to say “you don’t have character, you’re just handsome”.
Through flashbacks we see past sequences of him as a child, followed by a close up of his tear stained face and understand he hasn’t escaped anything. We also see his dysfunction in his female relationships, constantly swinging on a pendulum from narcissism to co-dependency
Through the escalation of his alcohol addiction. Once seeming so suave with an old-fashioned in hand, to passing out in his office
Male identity comes under scrutiny in the Mad Men series.
Paradoxically for audiences it is comforting to see their sturdy anti-hero in such instability because it assures us that this form of masculinity doesn’t exist and never did. Those who aspire to it feel like they’ve been let off the hook, and those who desire/fear it feel less afraid. Weiner critiques the ideal of male identity. No man is capable of it and what’s more, it is impossible to be healthy whilst aspiring towards it. Therefore, it should not be aspired to at all; Draper is distant to his children, abusive to the women in his life, and unkind to those he deems are beneath him. Moments where he is rewarded and when the audience are endeared are in his moments of authenticity and vulnerability: helping 15 year old Glen drive a car, taking his little boy to the cinema when he’s upset, and finally, embracing and crying with a man at a rehabilitation centre in the final episode (which greatly echoes Fight Club).
Of course, Weiner is not the first to make such a statement. Chuck Palahniuk did with his aforementioned book and later film (despite great misinterpretation). However, Mad Men invites us on a meditation on femininity too. This was helped by the many female writers on the show, and reflected in the diversity of characters, from different social classes, racial backgrounds, and standards of beauty (though unfortunately not in terms of body images). Despite this, we are still provided with a feminine ideal in Joan Holloway, who can be seen as Draper’s female equivalent.
Above: Joan(on the right) is played by Christina Hendricks.
Played by Christina Hendricks, Joan is equally as striking as Don with her bright red hair, doll-like face and voluptuous figure. Visually, Joan presents a cartoonish female fantasy, and this is heightened by her breathy girlish voice, and flirtatious yet maternal nature. Unlike Don, she does not experience an unmasking as being known for a façade is not a choice for Joan, but something that is thrust upon her. Instead, Weiner shows how Joan suffers for her femininity, and later, subverts it:
Joan is in a long-standing on-and-off again relationship with Roger Sterling which makes her ‘the other woman’, and the rest of Joan’s relationships remain fruitless. Her marriage is abusive and ends in divorce (by her initiative), and her second significant partner ends the relationship on hearing about her career ambitions. Despite Joan’s desire for a husband, she is not willing to settle for an unsatisfying relationship
While married, Joan is not content with life as a housewife and quickly becomes bored.
Joan is one of the only women in the office to be over 30, and subject to ageism. It is clear that despite her air of confidence that this bothers her.
Her body is constantly objectified throughout the show, even sleeping with an executive to cut a deal, which proves fruitless. Despite this, Joan is not afraid to use her sexuality to her advantage. She, like Don, understands the power she has over men and women alike because of how she looks.
As the series progresses Joan’s ambition grows alongside a realisation of her talent, and she demands recognition for it. When she cannot get this, she leaves and starts her own production company.
Above: Jon Hamm on Sexism in Mad Men.
Out of all the characters in Man Men, it can be said that Joan experienced the greatest character development. Each time she becomes independent of a man, her life improves. Her initial cattiness towards Peggy (a younger receptionist turned copyrighter, who is pretty but less conventionally stunning), she saw as mousy and inferior, grows into admiration and solidarity. Here, the feminine ideal is dismantled, because Joan achieves her success largely by acting as a man would, and beyond appearances, arguably Peggy is more stereotypically feminine. The more Joan embraces her internal personality and desires, the more successful she becomes and fully claims her space in the professional sphere. For this reason, Joan can be seen to embody female emancipation.
On both sides of the spectrum, Weiner artistically conveys the overarching theme of the deceptiveness of appearances (no matter how aesthetically pleasing) and the emotional novocaine they provide. More than this, he constructs stories which unveil these illusions, and the truth is even more disturbing than the knowledge that we were deceived. The archetypal genders Joan and Don provide are nothing more than fantasies, and while moments of authentic expression are enjoyed, the expectation that they perform their roles to the people in their lives and the outside world is never absent. Perhaps then, rigid gender archetypes are the longest running ad campaign in the world. Why? Because no one’s managed to achieve them yet.