Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Looking into the mirror, seeing Mad Men

"Mad Men", for those of you who happened to live under a rock for these past years, is a series by AMC depicting the life (or lack thereof) of Don Draper, an advertising agent in 1960 (as of season 1). Working for a small advertisement agency, he encounters challenges in business (i.e. tough campaigns), in relationships (i.e. with his wife) or with himself (trying to find meaning). The series is notorious for having the characters drink and smoke a lot. Plus, the men mistreat their women all the time, forcing them into secondary jobs or into being house-wifes. Now, all that doesn't sound exciting at all if you write it down like this, but the series is compelling, and its ongoing success is the best proof of this. But why is this? Surely it's not just for the manly charme of Jon Hamm in his depiction of Don Draper, bringing back the macho man from long forgotten pasts. 

But if, who could blame them?

And in fact, Mad Men does something to its audience that isn't reached by many shows. The series serves as a mirror. It explores various topics through its clever choice of setting, most prominently men-women-relationships, but also a myriad of other things. But so so other products of our beloved entertaintment industry, you might say now, so what makes Mad Men stand out here? To this I would answer that it's not so much Mad Men's showing of these things, but rather holding us a mirror and forcing us to reflect on our own lives and attitudes. If you read my articles about Battlestar Galactica, you know what I mean - using a fictious setting to reflect on core ideas of our own society. But instead of transporting our value system into the fiction, styling it and perhaps putting some idealism on top to make a point, Mad Men does something else. 

In particular, there's no role like this in Mad Men. No offense, Toby.
Mad Men portrays a world and mentality that is long gone. Its reality is not yet touched by feminism, the hippies are not there yet and America hasn't experienced Vietnam. The most important thing about the setting is that there are no anachronistic roles. This is something that is often done in inferior entertaintment trying to get these ideas in. Oftentimes, you would have a character (most likely a woman) rejecting the corrupted ideals of the society and showing a path. That does not happen here. With a consequence second only perhaps to "Game of Thrones", the characters live in their world and live the mentality that comes with it. There is no main character secretly loathing all of it because of his enlightened insight in modern day rationales with whom the audience can connect. 

Like him.
Instead, the characters do what they are doing because they believe in it. Don Draper telling his wife in all earnest after sabotaging her new job (and life she might have with it) that she already has one, pointing out explicitly washing his shirts and being a good mother, believing in what he says. Pete Campbell telling Peggy Olson that he "didn't like her like this" when she gets some confidence over something she did well, and on her own, he means it. The show does not judge it. There is no indication by the characters or how they are portrayed that what they do and say is despicable. Yet, seriously - who can keep back a feeling of revoulsion at the old men groping at women at their mercy, because their meager salaries of second-rate jobs depend on it?

Seriously, who wants to be on the receiving end of this look?
Mad Men does not make it easy for its audience. We have to get all this stuff by ourselves, by reflecting on what we are currently watching. People celebrating the image of masculinity shown in Mad Men are like people admiring the Blackfish or Tywin Lannister or just how badass the Starship Troopers are. They simply don't get it. At its heart, Mad Men is not about the Sixties. It's about us. When a man gives looks to a woman passing by the next time, he might remember the uncomfortable face of many of the secretaries in Mad Men, being paraded about only for their asthetic value. Women might remember just how conformity was used as a weapon against a single mom in Mad Men, perhaps not judging quite so fast the next time. Then the show would have succeeded in the A-game of modern television - actually being about something without rubbing our noses in it.

1 comment:

  1. 1) As a Baby Boomer I'm fascinated by the depiction of the styles and attitudes of the 60's which are pretty much spot on.
    2) Don Draper is an untrustworthy, cheating, lying, manipulating, criminal, male chauvinist pig that everyone loves proving once again that style trumps substance.