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What Can 'Mad Men' Tell Us?

Smart TV show recalls when men were men, and women weren't glad.

By Dorothy Woodend and Steve Burgess 21 Sep 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend and Steve Burgess each regularly review films and TV for The Tyee.

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This isn't your parents' Doris and Rock.

[Editor's note: This week, Dorothy Woodend and Steve Burgess trade views on the summer's most critically acclaimed show.]


When I was about eight or nine years old, I spent hours flipping through my grandmother's cache of Life magazines from the '50s and '60s. I never read the articles, it was the ads that fascinated me. The little cartoon storyboards about scalp odour, armpit odour and worst of all, feminine odour. Aside from the inherent mysteriousness of these maladies, it was the drama within the illustrations that enthralled, the sotto voce secrets exchanged between women. The story was always about a beautiful young thing who had been unceremoniously dumped by her recent boyfriend. Her friend, a wiser woman, surreptitiously passed her some product designed to make her less smelly: love blossoms in the absence of feminine odiferousness, and all is well. I pored over these ads, trying to decipher their hidden meaning, their secret code words. What exactly is scalp odour? Watching Mad Men, AMC's new dramatic series, it all came flooding back.

Mad Men takes place in 1960, at a Madison Avenue advertising agency called Sterling Cooper. The year 1960 is pivotal: the birth control pill was introduced and the Nixon/Kennedy contest was just revving up.

The star of Sterling Cooper is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a man who is his own best advertisement. Cary Grant-handsome, cleft of chin and smooth of hair, he is also possessed of many secrets, including a mysterious past, a beatnik mistress, and a beautiful blond wife and two kids stashed in the suburbs. Mad Men reminds you about all the things you barely remember about the days when people smacked their kids, and other people's kids as well. When everyone smoked and drank and drank and smoked. (The show is filled with telling little moments, such as Don and his wife waking up in the morning and spending the first few moments coughing and hacking with the distinct bark of longtime smokers.)

Peeling back the glossy '60s surface

The world of advertising is a masculine bastion, populated by alpha males, beta frat boys and a pool of pliant secretaries on the hunt for a husband. The rules are clear: women are purely ornamental and men are largely cads, partly by nature, but also because, in the postwar era of entitlement, it's simply expected. The Manhattan skyscrapers thrust erectly upwards, so too, the boys of Madison Avenue.

Into this concrete jungle comes Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Don's new secretary, whose biggest sin isn't the fact that she's no longer a virgin, but that she hasn't been paying enough attention to her figure. One of the men likens her to a lobster: "All the meat's in the tail." These are not bodies we've seen on TV for a long while. Christina Hendricks who plays Joan, the queen of the secretarial pool, has a peaches-and-cream complexion and an ass that could stop a mack truck. I believe the term used to be "brickhouse," which suits the redhead, all 36-24-36 inches of her. In the neo-Darwinian battle of the sexes, women have their minds and their bodies, men have money and power. It's not an even playing field, but then, when was it ever? But for all its steamy salaciousness, Mad Men actually seems more forthright about gender politics than many contemporary offerings.

The entire point of the show, according to the series' creator Matthew Weiner (famous for his work as executive producer on The Sopranos) was to peel back the glossy surface, familiar from Doris Day/Rock Hudson vehicles, and show the nitty-gritty stuff underneath. While the show isn't quite in the realm of Hubert Selby Jr., its blunt presentation of men and women engaged in a bare-knuckle brawl of lust and lies is somehow oddly refreshing. We haven't really changed all that much, we simply got better at hiding the truth. Or to borrow some advertising jargon -- "Yesterday is the New Tomorrow!"

The business of lying

Weiner has likened the 1960s time trip to science fiction, a genre in which current cultural mores can be examined in an oblique, but no less scrutinizing, way. There is definitely something about 1960 that lends itself to this; it's distant enough to seem exotic, but close enough that much of the costume and set design, not to mention the behaviour, you'll remember from your parents or grandparents. AMC has apparently spared no expense in recreating the time with near-fetishistic attention to detail, no hair out of place, no stiletto put wrong, but what exactly is the show trying to tell us?

Since the series is ostensibly about the business of lying (smoking won't kill you, a new lipstick can really change your life, trust Dick Nixon), what it has to say about human behaviour is that we're all born liars and suckers. We've simply gotten better at lying and suckering.

Watching it, I found myself thinking about Laura Kipnis's recent review for Harper's Magazine entitled "Lust and Disgust: A Short History of Prudery, Feminist and Otherwise." Kipnis compares the 20th anniversary edition of Andrea Dworkin's book Intercourse to the modern advice offered in Laura Sessions Stepp's Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both and Wendy Shalit's Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect, and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good. If you can stop vomiting long enough to read these latter two titles, you'll discover both books advocate a return to days when women only gave it up in return for love and marriage.

Everything old is new again, apparently. Dworkin, whom Kipnis likens to "a stampeding dinosaur in our era of bubbly pro-sex post-feminism," at least had the courage of her convictions. It is doubtful if the same can be said about Shalit and Sessions Stepp, whose books simply smack of marketing. (Marketing is the new advertising! Women are the new men!) The golden age of modesty, the time before the sexual revolution and the pill, has long been disabused, even before Betty Friedan fired her first shot with Feminine Mystique (published in 1963). In Mad Men, the era is presented as a time of almost rampant promiscuity, despite the copy about women being good and sanitary. The traditional construction of femininity is just that, from the foundation up -- girdle to eyeliner, it's simply easier to see through the slant of history.

STEVE BURGESS: '1960s Male Fortress Was Impregnable'

Turner Classic Movies recently ran the 1962 movie Lover Come Back. Rock Hudson and Doris Day play rival advertising executives on Madison Avenue. When the first season of Mad Men comes out on DVD, they ought to include Lover Come Back as an extra. The new American Movie Channel TV series explores the same turf and the same themes, but without the ironic historical perspective. Instead of Doris Day, you get stay-at-home wives, compliant secretaries, and a bunch of hard-drinking ad guys who know that a dame only gets to be a Madison Avenue executive in the movies.

Mad Men looks at that world from the other end of the telescope. It deserves tremendous credit for getting the era -- early 1960s -- right. In addition to weaving an intriguing story around its central characters, Mad Men works on another level as a time capsule. Piling up a wealth of small, telling details, Mad Men shows us the male fortress -- impregnable by definition -- that faced the likes of early feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

Mad Men has not pandered to modern sensibilities by having characters question prevailing 1960s values. Advertising is a boy's club, attended by a staff of women, most of whom are too busy playing their own intramural games to waste time wondering why they aren't climbing the same ladder as their male bosses.

Lover Come Back paints that era pretty well, too. "I'm not married," Day tells Hudson early in the film.

"That figures," Hudson replies. "A husband would be too much competition. There's only room for one man in a family."

Ha! Dames! Rock was probably just joking about the "only room for one man" part. But in the manly world of 1960 Madison Avenue, the real-life Hudson would have stayed in the closet, just as he did in Hollywood. In fact, the gay character on Mad Men doesn't even admit the truth to himself.

'Mad Men' characters

So far, Mad Men has been compelling television (and a pleasant surprise coming from AMC, a so-called movie lovers' channel that has the ugly habit of editing movies for content). Will it keep up the good work? Although top exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is Mad Men's central figure, the key could be watching Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a weaselly little creep who is also a surprisingly fascinating character. A rich kid on the make, an insecure social klutz, a scheming little Nixon, a naïve newlywed, a young man in love (not with his wife), and a misogynist, Campbell is a complex creation. Occasionally though, the writers threaten to turn him into a stock villain. He could be a weathervane for the show's future. Draper's wife Betty (January Jones) is obviously pegged for interesting things -- in recent episodes the docile young housewife has been seen slapping a neighbour and shooting at another neighbour's pigeons.

Meanwhile, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is the only female staffer who is on a path to the future, slowing gaining awareness of her own abilities and the opportunities they imply. Will Mad Men simply become a self-referential soap? Or does it have a long-term plan? So far, the show is succeeding as a novel period piece and an intriguing ensemble drama. Here's hoping the '60s will continue to be an exciting decade.

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