Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: A Reluctant Criticism of ‘Mad Men’

By  · Published on September 21st, 2010

I really love Mad Men. I talk about it a lot. Since The Wire ended in 2008, and I haven’t seen any episodes of Boardwalk Empire yet, then as far as my knowledge takes me it’s the best damn show currently on television.

Nothing I’m saying here is necessarily new, but Mad Men effectively does a great many things I’ve never seen television do before in that it 1) delivers is an incredibly entertaining and engaging media object while it uses its protagonists to criticize and reveal the potentially manipulative processes of media itself, 2) interrogates any continuous notion of the ever-interpretationally-oscillating “good old days” by showing how they were neither that good nor that long ago, thereby criticizing our culture’s all-too-convenient rotating manufacture of nostalgia, 3) utilizes the past to criticize white male heteronormative hegemony and reveal a systematic culture of sexism, racism, and homophobia, and all the while 4) creates compelling drama as manifested by ambiguous, layered characters with the combination of beautiful cinematography and impeccable production design. Mad Men, in short, is an engrossing, enjoyable, and thought-provoking series in unprecedented ways.

But for a show to engage in such a rare criticism of a cultural moment, a bit of negotiation is required. And it is in this respect that some major problems with the show have arisen recently.

Objective Distance

Nearly every character of Mad Men — well, at least, nearly every male character – possesses personality traits that would be deemed unacceptable today, both in professional and social life, as they inevitably utter something explicitly racist, sexist, or homophobic in a vague or definite way at some point in the series, if not regularly throughout each season. This, in of itself, is not a problem, for Mad Men is unique is its possession of a distinct critical and seemingly distanced relationship with its audience: we as audiences don’t take on – nor do we assume that the show takes on – the same judgments and perceptions of the characters. We are able to tolerate a show in which Roger Sterling frequently (or even in which Don Draper occasionally) utters something greatly offensive because the show provides for us a distance from which we can comfortably watch and judge these characters.

It is this distance that also allows us to revisit characters who frequently do despicable and self-destructive things (philandering, lying, binge drinking, abuses of women both physical and verbal).

Now, I’ve argued before in this column that I’m not interested in characters who are saints, but the show’s distance – as informed by its stylistic strategies as well as its period setting – certainly makes these characters’ many flaws more easily consumable. Of course, in recent movies and television we’ve been more interested in antiheroes than superheroes, and Mad Men certainly follows the “quality television” trend of the antiheroic protagonists. But where Tony Soprano’s vices were explored through a careful and continuous process of empathetic subjectivity, and Jimmy McNulty’s revolving cycle of self-destruction was performed in the name of expert realism, the many sins of Don Draper are not as much forgiven by an occasional redeeming aspect of his personality, but rather by the spatio-temporal, psychological, and stylistic distance Mad Men continually implements and tweaks between its audience and its characters.

Knowing when the show takes place, what the future of American culture may hold for these characters, and knowing the differences in law and, thus, social expectations that determine and embolden the power structures within their social reality (no federal anti-segregation laws, no anti-sexual harassment legislation), we are invited each week to watch Mad Men not only as a series but also as something of a historical anthropological object: an invitation to look at the almost exhaustingly revisited decade of the 60s not on the basis of its most significant historical events, but how the society and culture that housed those events played out in the day-to-day, all removed from the haze of traditional nostalgia.

The Power of Draper Compels You

However, it’s not merely the pseudo-objectivity of intellectual distance that compels us to watch this show, but a strong and integral element of attraction as well. Don Draper might be something of an asshole, but we also admire him for his suaveness and his confidence, from the way he wears a suit to his command of almost any meeting and conversation (no matter the darkness, emptiness, or insecurity that lies behind this compelling demeanor).

As exemplified by the men and women’s fashion of the show that has become celebrated in our contemporary culture anywhere from GQ to hipster Halloween parties, the characters and décor of the show are undeniably attractive and magnetic on a surface level. But taking Mad Men fashion into the contemporary is rather convenient, however, because it is then separated from a narrative and historical context that illustrates how the fashion itself (literally and figuratively) shaped repressive social roles – notably in terms of gender, like the ways in which characters like Joan illustrate how personal taste can be both empowering (as a form of self-expression and a display of self-comfort and confidence) and objectifying (as her presentation is misinterpreted as a sexual invitation – but once again, the objectification supposedly resides with the characters and not with the show which renders Mad Men “safe”).

“When God closes a door, he opens a dress.”

-Roger Sterling (episode 1.10, “The Long Weekend”)

But there are other ways in which these characters become, in a sense, “entertaining” (though not admirable), which is in the sexist, racist, and homophobic utterances mentioned earlier. Characters like Roger Sterling (and side characters like Ms. Blankenship, may she rest in peace) are afforded overtly bigoted quips throughout the series, quips that are acceptably consumed by the show’s followers because of their overt nature and the objective distance the show allows the audience to have from such statements. In other words, we are okay with hearing such offensive things because we are asked as viewers to criticize, judge, or at least maintain a distance from them. Yet at the same time there is an undeniable comic timing in the way in which much of this dialogue is delivered, especially through Sterling.

An undeniable sense of enjoyment operates here on two tiers: 1) an enjoyment in terms of the performance and delivery of these offensive quips (the Emmys each year, after all, are distanced enough to be able to separate the despicable words of Sterling from his captivating embodiment by John Slattery to the tune of multiple nominations, and for fans on the Internet it is Sterling’s quotes which are often the most celebrated), and 2) the self-satisfied entertainment value in feeling aghast or denouncing these character traits. After all, shock and offense in many forms often contains entertainment value in of itself.

“What do you do around here besides walk around like you’re trying to get raped?”

-Joey Baird (episode 4.08, “The Summer Man”)

Through the forgiving safety net of distance, we as viewers are permitted to, one way or another, “enjoy” racist and sexist quips and insults, especially those that are delivered with Sterling’s comic timing. We are permitted because we are situated to laugh at the audacity and ignorance of the characters rather than at the show itself.

That the show presents 1960s prejudices in order to criticize nostalgia renders us equipped to take pleasure in watching despicable people say and do despicable things without feeling as an audience like our enjoyment of it makes us complicit in the feelings, actions, and utterances onscreen. But when we do so, we don’t take into account that there are present-day writers putting the magnetically offensive dialogue in these characters’ mouths, so it is in this way that Mad Men’s vantage point allows the show to get away with something that television hasn’t since the days of Archie Bunker, and I’m not certain this is a good thing. (Could we watch any other modern show where a major character dons blackface – 3.03, “My Old Kentucky Home” – and continue to feel like it should be taken seriously?) The show obviously needs some dialogue of this type to be a convincing portrait of its time, but lately as the show has amped up its Sterling-isms and its sexist insults which exist miles away from subtlety, such dialogue comes across more like a creative indulgence than a careful choice.

We laugh at it critically, as if a routine condescension of the characters whose lives we divulge in for thirteen weeks a year is necessary in order to consume it with a clear conscience, but does the show by these means also act as a politically incorrect release of sorts, or a way that we are permitted to enjoy something that we feel shouldn’t be enjoyed without the less “mature” trappings of provocation characteristic of hot-button shows that aren’t categorized as quality television, like Family Guy or South Park?

“If I wanted to see two Negroes fight, I’d throw a dollar bill out my window.”

– Ms. Blankenship (episode 4.07, “The Suitcase”)

Mad Men functions in some ways for its predominantly liberal audience the way movies like Remember the Titans function for conservatives. Mad Men doesn’t propose that such histories of adversity have ended like the post-racial-wish-fulfillment tone that characterizes Hollywood films that look back on the Civil Rights era employ, but it does provide audiences a false sense of self-satisfaction in their repeated denunciation of antiquated displays of overt bigotry.

It makes us feel like we’re on the right side of history, but the means with which it establishes its perspective and the pleasure we get in this act of denunciation is a rarely acknowledged source of problems regarding our routine experience of the show. Mad Men requires a carefully negotiated if not quite tenuous relationship with its audience, one that provides fascinating results in a drama with unparalleled social awareness and insight. But at what price?

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