I’ve decided to give Mad Men another try–I really can’t stomach the reality TV shows that have dominated this decade, and I like to reward people who are trying to produce quality dramas for television. But, since so many of you whose opinions I respect took me to task for my skeptical post on this last year, I thought I’d take another look. I’m just about halfway through season I, and I have to say that I’m pretty much sticking with my original verdict: it’s OK for a diversion when I’m stuck in the rec room rotating loads and folding laundry (which is exactly what happened here at el rancho Historiann last night), but I’m a little tired of all of the “hey, in 1960, they did all kinds of stupid and dangerous things, didn’t they?” heavy-handed little in-jokes. (Like the hugely pregnant women constantly smoking and drinking, lots of drunk driving, and even an aside about feeding peanut-butter sandwiches to children while encouraging them to handle BB guns. Get it? Nowadays, we know that both peanut butter and BB guns are equally dangerous!) OK–we get it! We’re so much more virtuous and careful now, aren’t we?
One thing I appreciate about the show is its relentless exposure of suburban married misery, although it’s so unstinting that it seems over the top. Unfortunately, the show is guilty of one of the most irritating things about TV and movies today, which is the relentless focus on men’s lives and men’s stories. TV in the 1970s and even the 1980s was different, and even movies in those decades were much more likely to feature women in leading roles than in the 1990s and beyond. Mad Menis so much more interested in the men and in their emotional lives that the most moving scenes I’ve seen so far–the ones between Don Draper and his abandoned younger half-brother, Adam Whitman–are entirely between men. (Oh, and do we really need to know that Pete Campbell might be a tool because his father is a tool, too? Does that really make him more sympathetic or more interesting? Boo-freakin’-hoo, Pete: I wish I had your “problems” as an undeserving member of the American ruling class.)
I get that the writers are making points about “separate spheres” and the alienation of men and women from each other–but this strategy also means that women actors yet again are marginalized and their characters’ stories are only seen as vehicles to advance the men’s stories. As I suggested last summer, just because the show goes to some lengths to suggest that this is wrong doesn’t make it all that revolutionary: men’s stories and male actors still rule. Just because Mad Men portrays beneficiaries of patriarchy as undeserving stooges who spend all of their time at work drinking scotch or rye and listening to Bob Newhart LPs doesn’t make the show particularly daring, because men are still at the center of the story. Rachel Menken, the Jewish department store heiress who strangely continues to do business with Sterling Cooper although the WASP jerks who run the firm insult and demean her at every turn, is clearly the most interesting woman on the show–but I fear that she’ll be dropped like a hot rock after her two or three episodes.
Oh, and for the record, from someone who knows better: Betty Draper claims in one episode to have gone to Bryn Mawr, and then in a therapy session in another episode says something like, “I know how women can be, I was in a sorority.” Not at Bryn Mawr she wasn’t–not even in the early 1950s. (If Betty is 28 in 1960, that would make her about the class of ’53 or ’54, right?) I have to say, though: Betty Draper sure seems much more like someone who belonged to a sorority than a Bryn Mawr woman. As the first dean and second president of the college, M. Carey Thomas, once famously said, “Our failures only marry.” Sorry, Betty.
Here’s a question for you material culture experts and junkies out there: I love the degree to which the show tries to recreate the fashion and interior design of the era, but would a Betty Draper still be wearing the “New Look” silhouette in 1960? I would think that an affluent young woman like her living in a near-suburb of New York would have adopted the sheath dresses of the early 1960s already. (Or, is this a signal on the part of the show’s writers and directors that Betty is having a hard time adjusting to the new world of the 1960s, by clinging to her 1950s crinolines? What do you all think?)
I’ll keep watching seasons I and II–famille Historiann apparently lives to generate dirty clothes to keep me busy on long autumn and winter evenings. Mad Men is better than what I’d be able to find on the broadcast networks most nights–but that really ain’t saying much now, is it?
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