Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why "Mad Men" is Ultimately Disappointing

Despite its stunning use of period detail and its talented cast, especially the inexplicably appealing lead character Don Draper, Mad Men fails. Or, at least, doesn't quite live up to what is should be, because, in spite of all these tremendous advantages, it, like most American tv, fails to understand what great drama is ultimately about and instead devolves into caricature and simple male fantasy.

In case you aren't familiar with the show, let me backtrack a bit. Mad Men, a show soon to be in its 5th season on AMC and easy enough to find on Netflix, takes its name from a term that was apparently coined in the 1950s or 1960s for the magical talents of the men who populated the high power Madison Avenue advertising world. The show's setting in a very polished 1960s world is a stroke of genius. And its attention to period clothing, music, typewriters, and hairstyles is nothing short of astonishing. If you like the early 60s, this show is worth watching for that reason alone.

Unfortunately, beyond the heady transportation back in time, the show is an example of lost potential -- offering up a far too simplistic and shallow interpretation of gender roles to be able to be taken seriously. Which is sad because I really wanted to take the show seriously! The poorly conceived gender roles are such a huge part of the show, they can't be set off to the side easily.

The office setting is populated with stables of unreasonably jerky sexist men and irrationally simple "girls" who serve them. It is irrational because their interplay is too far beyond what would have been conceivably acceptable in a high-level business environment. The men are beyond sexist -- they are boorish, rude and seriously entitled. The women are worse: simple, shrinking, and servile to the extreme.

I can accept that an office with a male-dominated power structure and pretty young secretaries probably had lots of hanky panky going on in the early 1960s, but it also has to be true that most of the men and women populating that world would have been devoted enough to their jobs and higher life-purposes to have been basically respectful of one another. The problem with Mad Men, as with so many American shows is that is just goes too far toward showing a fantasy male world. If the show were only reasonably balanced in its portrayals I would be in love with it. But instead, it portrays a view of women that is extremely limited.

Disproportionately dismal pictures of the past aren't helpful. Some will watch and say: "oooh, look how bad things used to be and how far we've come" or "well, that's just the way the world was back then." But believing too ill of the recent past diminishes us. Yes, the world was a more limited place in 1960 -- surely women were propositioned at work and treated as less capable than men. But they weren't property. And they did actually have brains, even if many men didn't recognize that. I am disappointed that the women on the show are so accepting of their very limited role. But I am even more dissappointed that the show protrays men as almost uniformly and collectively offensive. I'm not questioning that men had more social licence back then to be horrific to women, but that so many of them would choose it.

A particularly glaring example of this is in an episode where the ad men who are having a difficult time coming up with a slogan for a lipstick promotion gather all the secretaries into a room for a brainstorming session to try out the lipsticks. Although it was their idea to see what the women thought, the men are all extremely condescending. This scene plays out like an X-rated movie with the sexy women all gathered together giggling and talking about how stupid they are -- wondering what it means to “brainstorm” and primping and thrusting themselves about, while putting on lipstick as the men all sit behind a two-way mirror making insulting comments about them.

The part that strains credulity is that the show wants it both ways -- both a vision of women as extremely oppressed and downtrodden (to the point that they don't express opinions or any dissatisfaction) and, at the same time, extremely willing to be sexually promiscuous without much thought as to who with or why. It's not a reasonable interpretation of what people do.

Ironically, it is because the show refuses to allow such an unrealistic fantasy interpretation of one character, Don Draper, that he is the highlight of the program. Unlike Mad Men's treatment of women (painted heavily with a fake male fantasy brush), Draper is painted fairly, and in mottled tones. It would have been very easy to make him a godlike man -- the perfect female fantasy -- if he were also a faithful  and present husband. But he's not. He's real and he's nuanced and he cheats. He's a deeply fallible character and a very real one.

Draper has a Cary Grant-like charm and polish but is also rough and masculine.  At the same time, he is capable of great vulnerability when he's with the women he's with. Its surprising to see such a character be emotional and fleshed out. An interesting and winning combination. And Don Draper has excellent taste in women. He may be horny but he is not shallow or cheap. Even his silly simple blonde wife is very kind, sweet, deep, and sad. She is appealing and likable -- as are his hipster, beatnik, freethinking girlfriend and his intelligent and serious crush.

Oddly enough, I do enjoy the show -- despite its shortcomings, and will probably continue to watch it. I just could have loved it so much better had it made an attempt to produce a more real reality with respect to gender roles. I can't rejoice in a show that makes so little effort to rejoice in women.

I should add the caveat that I'm only halfway in to the first season. For all I know, the producers and writers have learned about and become attentive to these issues -- and addressed them in subsequent episodes or seasons. Because if it simply offered a reasonable mix of happy women and dissatisfied women of loose women and virginal women, as well as men who were boorish and men who were pleasant and respectful, the show would be amazing. As with most things, a reasonable mix really does do the trick.

I can't help but wish that this show had been brought to my screen via my beloved Brits. I am sure they could have done it right. Had Mad Men been produced by people who had a real drama sense underlying it, it could have been amazing.


  1. Have you seen The Hour, a BBC drama set in 1956? I'm sure you'll love it if you like Mad Men! :) It's absolutely brilliant!

    1. Thank you so much for mentioning that! You know I am always looking for good shows. Unfortunately I don't see The Hour on Netflix or at my library - so I'm going to have to work a bit harder (or spend a bit of money) to get it. haha. Anyway, it sounds perfect.

  2. Not sure how old you are, but it really was like that back then, rigid gender roles, & serious consequences if you stepped out of them. Women didn't want to have to act that way, but they were expected to, to keep their jobs. I think it was even more pronounced in the ad agency business where they created the stereotypes for a living. I still see women nearly manic about clean floors in ads today, as then, or God help us "ring around the collar". I recall that in the early '60s, the Help Wanted ads in the newspapers were divided between male & female, really.

  3. I appreciate your comment! And I do agree with you that the early 60s were definitely a sexist era. I don't disagree that there were rigid gender roles that trapped both men and women and that those roles were institutionalized in a way that is hard to imagine by today's standards. My complaint about the show (especially season one) is that it depicts a reality that just didn't exist, couldn't have existed -- one that combines the sexism of the time with a level of boorishness that is too rude and unprofessional in such a high-power industry, combined (yet still) with impossibly oversexed secretaries (prior to the sexual revolution of the late 60s/early 70s). It is disappointing to me, given that the show is so incredibly spot on with so many period details, that the gender roles are so overdone.

    Since writing this post, I've now watched the show through most of Season 4 and I do think that it settles into a more appropriate level of boorishness and sexism. Still high, but more believable . . .

    I might have to write more posts on Mad Men because I find that I have a love/hate relationship with the show developing!

    Anyway, thank you for reading the blog and for adding your two-cents!

  4. The open secret about MM is that the culture of that era has to be changed to register as drama and identify with the viewers of this era.

    Not only has femininity changed, so has masculinity. Those hard drinking womanizers had to have the outer trappings of gentlemen to get anywhere back then, and those trappings don't say gentlemanly to us today. They say unmanly, posing, who-are-we-kiding.

    Similarly, women today wouldn't buy the dropping of the ladylike facade to indulge in illicit sex. What was ladylike then is fake now, and what was illicit then, well - it just isn't.

    Finally. The one thing you can't get away with in a drama about the past is to explain the past. You can show it faithfully, which results in wooden, mannered drama, or you can pander to today, which at least adds relevance and dimension. There's really no going back.

    1. Wow, you have an incredible perspective here. I appreciate your sharing it. If you write elsewhere about this or other topics, let me know; I'd love to check out your blog.