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Mad About Mad Men

by James Joyner on 15 August 2009

“Mad Men” returns for its third season tomorrow night at 10 Eastern on AMC.


If  “Burn Notice” is the best show on TV, “Mad Men” is the hottest, having somehow captured the zeitgeist with its meticulous portrayal of early 1960s Manhattan.  Pocket squares and tie clips are fashionable again, as are classic cocktails like the martini and the Old Fashioned.   Jon Hamm hosted “Saturday Night Live.”  Everyone’s Twitter icon is a “Mad Men” cartoon owing to the popularity of the recent MadMen Yourself meme.  Everyone’s talking about “Mad Men” even if they’re not watching it.

As is usually the case these days, I came to the show late, watching Season One via Netflix as the second season was underway and catching up to everyone else by season’s end.  (I’m not as far behind as Stephen Green, though, since he insists on waiting for the Blu-Ray release and thus just started Season 2 last month.)  I warmed to the show slowly, not much liking it after the first couple of episodes.  But the critics are right:  It’s great television.  While it lacks both the feel-good vibe and morality play quality of “Burn Notice,” it’s gripping and provocative.

What’s so great about it?

The Men

mad-men-men-photoDon Draper and the rest of the men of Sterling Cooper are misogynistic jerks.  Most of them are cheating on their wives, lying to one another, disloyal to their friends and just generally not very good guys.  But there’s nonetheless something decidedly manly about most of them, especially Draper.

Men are still decidedly men and women are decidedly women as the show begins.  We’re about to see that crumble.  Mostly for the good. But “Mad Men” inspires a certain nostalgia for bits and pieces of the old days.

Most of these men served in the military; the older ones went to war.  They have strong work ethic and a sense of duty.  They’re stoic.

They work hard and they play hard, often simultaneously.  They’re at the office late into the evening most days but they’re not corporate drones; they’re men on a mission.  They take long lunches, usually involving steaks and cocktails.  They have bars in their offices.  (Yes, offices!  No cubicles for the Mad Men.) They smoke whenever they damned well please.  They have secretaries to do their errands and answer their phones so they can do real work with minimal interruption.  They’re not tied to their BlackBerries or typing up their own correspondence.

The Women

mad-men-womenAs with virtually every show in the history of television, the women of “Mad Men” are beautiful.  Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway) exudes sex in just about every scene and January Jones (Betty Draper) is super model spectacular.   Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson) is intentionally made to appear frumpy but she still manages to be attractive.

But, as I say, that’s not unusual.  Hollywood is so overrun by magnificent looking people that we’re supposed to believe that Sandra Bullock would be thought plain by her fellow FBI agents until she got a makeover.  Drop-dead gorgeous is pretty much the norm on TV.

So, what makes the women of “Mad Men” stand out?

Partly, it’s the period.  These women are amazing despite having to dress quite modestly.  Or, perhaps, because of it. Being sexy without showing a lot of leg or cleavage requires a little more work. While the girdles and stockings and garters and heels and all the rest are ridiculously uncomfortable and impractical for everyday life, they’re undeniably womanly.

Beyond that, while the men are the stars of the show — it’s got “men” right there in the title — and the show was created by and executive produced by a man (Matthew Weiner) most of its writers are women.  And they’ve done a wonderful job of making all of the female characters, including those with bit parts, interesting.  They’re mostly quite smart but forced into supporting roles by virtue of their sex.  Most of them are neurotic and chafing under the burden of their lot in life.

The Style

The clothes are terrific.  Especially, let’s face it, the men’s clothes.

We’re a nation of overweight people who dress for comfort rather than appearance.   Our shirts are untucked and our collars are open.  And, really, that’s not such a bad thing.  I don’t want to go back to wearing wool suits while watching a baseball game in July.

But seeing people dress the way they did back in the day reminds us that we don’t look so hot. I work in downtown DC, which isn’t exactly noted for its sense of style.  But most of us wear dark suits and a tie to work every day, which is unusual in our casual age. Even so, few of us look as good as the Mad Men.

Partly, of course, because we’re not dressed by professional costumers with unlimited budgets.  But men’s clothing was simply better in the old days.  Whether we’re talking about military uniforms or men’s suits, the material and tailoring were far better in the 1940s and 1950s than they are today.

I suspect it’s because we’ve chosen quantity over quality.  Most men, even most ad executives, owned a lot fewer suits — and less clothing, period — then than they do now.  One only has to compare the size of closets in houses built a few decades ago versus those of today to know it’s true.  The Mad Men probably had no more than five or six suits in their closet.  But they were custom tailored and made with much better fabric than is typical of modern suits.  Today, even a $1500 “couture” label suit is likely to be made of thin fabric imported from some third world country and made to fit a standardized mannequin.

Men used to know how to wear a suit, too.  Partly, I think, because military service was mandatory and instilled a sense of fit and uniformity.  They learned how to shine shoes, that a man never needs a haircut (because he’s visited the barber long before he got scruffy) and how to tuck in a shirt properly.

The combination of Mad Men and Tom Ford have finally made a slim fit fashionable again but most American men wear suits that are at least a size too big.  Almost nobody shows cuff anymore. I find that I have to insist that the alterations guy take up the sleeves because the norm is now to have the jacket go all the way to the hand. The result is that most men look like little boys whose moms bought their suits with some room for them to grow into.

The 1960s

Watching the show is like stepping back in time.  The creative team is famously obsessive about their portrayal of the period, down to small details like the plumpness of apples in bowls of fruit.  While “Mad Men” is an idealized view of 1960, it’s not whitewashed in the sense that, say, “Happy Days” or even the contemporaneous “Andy Griffith Show” were.  The prejudices and warts of the day are clearly in view.

But it’s fascinating to watch the characters react to the rapid changes of the period.  The first season opens in 1960, during the closing days of the Eisenhower administration. We’re about to see the election of John F. Kennedy and the dawn of the women’s movement.  The Civil Rights era is a few years away and we haven’t yet escalated our involvement in Vietnam.  Watergate is more than a decade off.  So it’s an American much less cynical about its leaders and its place in the world.  And we’re about to watch all that unfold.


Elsewhere: Everyone’s Talking About “Mad Men”

InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds is hooked on the show but isn’t sure that’s a good thing. “I liked it and thought it was good — in a depressing sort of way. If 1960 was when men were on top of the business world, then this show makes being on top look overrated . . . .”

Over at Big Hollywood, Michael Rulle says the “show somehow touches all my subterranean hot buttons.”

The show has an uncanny ability to convince the audience it is watching people as they were then, with no intrusion of modern sensibilities and judgments. The show’s appearance is a gauzy impressionism, which helps create a nostalgic effect. There seems to be less dialogue than most shows. Characters are developed as much through facial reactions to events as with dialogue and plot lines. When watching the show, it feels like 1962, as I nostalgically remember it, even though I never heard of Madison Avenue until years later. Plot lines are about getting and losing clients, and they can be amusing. But plots are primarily designed to create interest in each character.


The show is focused on “inner life.” The characters seem like “prisoners” of background and circumstance. Yet they have free will and the power to transcend circumstances, if existentially aware. We, and they, have limits too. Each person needs to find their way. The show’s two “protagonists,” Draper and Olsen, have morally compromised lives. They realize this. They seek redemption, but are also driven to succeed in work, and these two can conflict. They struggle, and as such, are appealing. Is there an implicit political message in this show, a bias perhaps, a hidden jab at the left, or right? Not that I can see. However, what is not seen may be as interesting or telling.

What is not seen? Government. The Nixon/Kennedy election takes up one episode. They all want Nixon to win, but it is not clear why. Perhaps they expect a more friendly business environment. One Mad Man, who fancies himself an intellectual, marches in Mississippi with his black girlfriend (who then blows him off, amusingly). That’s about it. Government policies and politics simply are absent, accept as it might relate to business. No political correctness or anti-political correctness is visible. Just people living day-to-day, trying to make it. Some have broader imaginations than others. Some are nasty, some are brilliant, some are dopes or comical.

Yet no one is looking to “leaders” for salvation. Refreshing.

Amanda Marcotte, writting at TAP, has no trouble seeing the politics.

Mad Men actively runs against the stale narratives that posit the 1960s as driven by young hippies going against their parents’ staid lifestyles after being disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the battles over civil rights. Instead, the show tells a story of how the changes of the 1960s emerged gradually from various historical shifts. Progress wasn’t solely affected by the demands of Ivy League educated youth and a few civil-rights leaders. The rebellion of the 1960s was only made possible because of economic changes and other cultural developments that happened in the early — and less romanticized — part of the decade.

In offering a subtle counter narrative to the stories we all know so well about the tumultuous era, Mad Men manages to make the familiar terrain feel fresh again. Part of it is just the unique choices of what to show — lesser writers would make the characters sympathetic by having them support Kennedy and then mourn his death, but on Mad Men, they vote for Nixon and weep for Marilyn Monroe. Legend has it that the 1950s morphed into the 1960s when the Beatles hit American shores. But on Mad Men, we’re reminded that Bob Dylan was already attracting interest with a sound that would define the era well before the British invasion and the rise of psychedelica, and that the beatniks had already defined a counterculture based around drugs and artistic innovation. The most annoying cliché of politically minded ’60s-era films and shows — the noble white person who heroically stands up against racism — is brutally sent up: A self-important white man registers voters to gain street cred and is then summarily dumped by his black girlfriend, for whom this is not a game.

The show’s ability to create historical context is particularly vivid when it comes to the feminist themes. True, Mad Men addresses the issue of the feminine mystique through the character of Betty, the bored and frustrated housewife of lead ad man Don Draper. But Mad Men also shows the other side of the story, how second-wave feminism was made possible only because apolitical working women paved the way out of economic necessity. The character of Peggy Olson, a secretary at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper who moves into copywriting, doesn’t go to work because she’s an overeducated housewife looking to relieve boredom. She is a working-class Catholic girl from Brooklyn who needs the money and then finds herself addicted to ambition. Peggy’s story, and that of all working-class women who held jobs because they had to, is as essential to the history of women’s liberation as The Feminine Mystique or protests against the Miss America contest.

Esquire has an interesting feature by S.T. VanAirsdale called “What’s So Great About the Sixties Anyway?”

There’s something undeniably irresistible about watching that era, its political crisis, misogyny, discrimination, and disloyalty falling on top of each other but still somehow bundled up into one glossy package with Don Draper’s fedora on top.

Indeed, Mad Men succeeds primarily as a dramatic love letter to an utterly unlovable era. But that’s the 1960s for you — even the late ’60s, which culminated at Woodstock forty years ago this week with less a cresting wave of peace, love, and music than one final, white-hot eruption of generational protest. It, too, will soon receive its Hollywood close-up in Taking Woodstock, a film that director Ang Lee claims he took on as a way of lightening up after making two tragedies in a row. Yet, like Mad Men and so much more of the ’60s culture we fetishize today and especially late this summer with so much generational abandon, the nostalgia deflects deeper truths about just how ugly an era it really was. There is nothing particularly “light” about optimism’s dying breath, particularly one choking on mud and suffering from a shortage of food, water, and working toilets.


Which isn’t necessarily to say that Hollywood has duped you with its reliving of the ’60s. You’ve just been kind of sentimentally misled (and that’s something we should have gotten used to earlier in this decade). Sensational as it is, Mad Men is a prime offender here. Think back to late last season, when one of the series’ best episodes placed its characters’ enduring self-interest in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis; the gossip about their ad agency’s buyout harmonized with rampant speculation about the literal end of the world. We know the upshot while we’re watching — the crisis would end, the Soviet Union would fall — but the moment is depicted almost too romantically for its own good, coaxing a sort of glamour from the very real terror of mass panic.

Vanity Fair welcomes the show back with a feature by Bruce Handy (with photos by Annie Leibovitz, no less) called “Don and Betty’s Paradise Lost.”

A more interesting measure of the show’s impact is the fact that its title has become a kind of shorthand: you can now talk about a Mad Men skirt or lampshade or pickup line where once you might have used “space age” or “Kennedy era” or “Neanderthal.” But while the show, like its subject, has many surface pleasures—period design, period bad behavior (if you like high modernism, narrow lapels, bullet bras, smoking, heavy drinking at lunch, good hotel sex, and bad office sex, this is the series for you)—at its core Mad Men is a moving and sometimes profound meditation on the deceptive allure of surface, and on the deeper mysteries of identity. The dialogue is almost invariably witty, but the silences, of which there are many, speak loudest: Mad Men is a series in which an episode’s most memorable scene can be a single shot of a woman at the end of her day, rubbing the sore shoulder where a bra strap has been digging in. There’s really nothing else like it on television.

Amy Chozich writes on “The Women Behind ‘Mad Men’” for WSJ.

Behind the smooth-talking, chain-smoking, misogynist advertising executives on “Mad Men” is a group of women writers, a rarity in Hollywood television. Seven of the nine members of the writing team are women. Women directed five of the 13 episodes in the third season. The writers, led by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner, are drawing on their experiences and perspectives to create the show’s heady mix: a world where the men are in control and the women are more complex than they seem, or than the male characters realize.

Pajamas Media’s John Boot wonders “Why Do Women Love Mad Men?” given that the men are such jerks.

Though women’s fondness for fictitious sexy rascals has been there forever and will never go away, Don’s misbehavior comes as part of a package that women find hard to resist. In Don’s world, women aren’t likely to rise to the top in the working world but they assume total command of the household. They may not know where their men are in the evenings when they say they’re at “business dinners” (and frequently are, with young models or foxy department-store heiresses) but that leaves them plenty of time to conduct discreet little flirtations of their own.

And if Don and Co. close off large portions of their manly doings behind a wall of omertà, that means the women don’t have to listen to any sniveling about their men’s anxieties, their feelings, their doubts. The men know their mission is to take charge, work hard, and give their families what they need financially, not emotionally. Emotions are women’s work. The astonishing number of women with advanced degrees who today elect to drop their careers and stay home with the children shows that equality did not make women quite as happy as they thought it would. Maybe the working world is what men have always considered it to be: not a source of freedom or self-actualization but a necessary routine, a duty, a bore.

The women who watch the show aren’t just sighing with lust for Don. They’re sighing with relief in contemplation of a world that, though unfair and imperfect, is carefully ordered and stable, at least on the surface. Yet Mad Men is a testament to how important surfaces can be when there is a consensus that the unpleasant parts of the past ought to be enthusiastically buried. There’s no monster of the deep so fearsome that it can’t be chased away for a moment or two with a pitcher of martinis.

Belmont Club‘s Richard Fernandez takes that a step further:

As Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park proved, liberal audiences don’t mind watching powerful and unbridled creatures rippling in action provided the scene is set at a safe distance. The Greatest Generation is admired despite the fact — of perhaps because of the fact — that it incinerated cities, interned alien races and nuked enemy population centers into radioactive ash. The key to understanding the popularity BBC’s historical dramas or science fiction fare is that they provide acceptable action settings for the kind of people politically correct society no longer allows. Like Walter Mitty such societies have a life of secret longings hidden behind their pursed and narrow lips.

It is double-think at its finest, and nobody needs it more than the Left. After all, what committed socialist likes to be reminded that all government money comes from private enterprise? That would take all the fun out of spending it. Who wants to tell the European Union that the only reason it isn’t a nonentity like the African Union is because it stands on the shoulders of a history it despises? Where would all their moral authority go then? Fantasy is an indispensable part of modern political life.  Contradictions must pass unnoticed if the play is to be allowed to continue. Yet the tug of the outside world forces the audience to occasionally glance outside the windows of the theater. Part of the attraction that Left feels for Jihadis and primitive warriors lies is precisely in that they haven’t followed their politically correct instructions. Groucho Marx once said that he would never want to be a member of a club that would accept him as a member. In an analogous kind of way the Left never truly admires someone stupid enough to believe them. Desert raiders are liked exactly because they aren’t timid souls living in council housing staring down at their shoes waiting desperately for the community policeman whenever ‘youths’ come to rob them.

Much more at all the links.

About James Joyner

James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway and the managing editor of a DC think tank. He's a former Army officer, Desert Storm vet, and college professor. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama.

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Manly Thoughts | Outside the Beltway | Online Journal of Politics and Foreign Affairs
15 August 2009 at 08:55
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1 Dodd 18 August 2009 at 23:05

Three more related links:

Footnotes of Mad Men – a “cultural catalogue” of the ads, places, paintings, and events referenced in the show.

Why the Ladies Love Jon Hamm of ‘Mad Men’ – Newsweek quotes one woman as saying, “I love him. He looks like he would know how to throw me to the wall and do me right.”

Mad-Hot Women of Mad Men – self-explanatory.

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