MAD MEN and the last stereotype left standing

Man_men I got to see the first episode of Mad Men last night.  It’s a new AMC series from Matthew Weiner.  It stars Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, and Christina Hendricks, and runs Thursday nights at 10:00.

Most things about this show are engaging, from its magnificent opening sequence to the casting, music, sets, dialog, and plot lines. 

Ah, plot lines.  Remember when these were the same as sight lines?  We grasped them at a glance, a world made perfectly proportioned and intelligible.  Happily, several of the plot lines in Mad Men are not at all like sight lines.  We don’t know what’s going to happen.  Weiner and director Alan Taylor do not telegraph what’s going to happen.  Our intelligence is respected.  Our participation is invited.

But there is one plot line that works exactly like a sight line.  It is central idea of this series that the ad executive in 1960 was craven, soulless manipulator.  In this first episode, Don Draper, creative director of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, is trying to find a way to sell a product he knows to be dangerous.  But of course he does find a way, because, you see, he is an ad man, and the stereotype tells us that ad men in the post war period were deeply complicit in the enterprise to enlist Americans in a cargo cult of materialism and dumb down American culture. 

Matthew Weiner takes aim at many of the horrors of this period, women treated in a manner that was highhanded, diminishing and abusive, anti-Semitism both casual and ubiquitous,  gay men obliged to conceal their sexual identities, executives who never escaped the Frat house mentality that shaped them in college. 

But he missed one stereotype completely: that ad men prayed upon culture and consumers.  Bad luck, old chum,  otherwise Man Men is great television.

References

The AMC webpage for Mad Men is  here.

For another view of the advertising man in this period, see my own poor effort:

McCracken, Grant. 2007.  When Cars Could Fly.  Pp. 54-90, In Culture and Consumption II: markets, meanings, and brand management.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

post script:

The dialog is pretty wonderful.  Don Draper is taking the advice of the agency head of research, a German trained Freudian psychologist who stands in, one guesses, for Hans Dichter.   Dr. Gutmann says that no health claims may be made on behalf of a cigarette brand, on pain of government intervention. 

She says,

"We must police ourselves."

The art director says,

"There’s your slogan." 

9 thoughts on “MAD MEN and the last stereotype left standing”

  1. I think the line toward the end of the episode when Don tells Rachel (the would-be Jewish & female client) that the reason she has never fallen in love like she expected to (fireworks-when-we-met / can’t-think-stop-thinking-of-you-day-and-night / you’re-the-one-who-completes-me type of love) is because it doesn’t exist, because men like him created that illusion of love to sell pantyhose – is a pretty honest depiction of ad men knowingly praying on the innocent sensibilities of the consumer. That one line suggests; by having been exposed to a wonderful and unrealistic illusion, people’s life will be less good when having to make do with reality (an attack being inflicted unbeknownst to them).

    I agree though – fabulous show. I genuinely can’t wait until next week.

  2. That’s kinda strange — that bit about falling in love. It’s like the show was paraphrasing every reason Frank Zappa ever gave for not singing love songs.

    Also, I think the word we all keep meaning to use is “prey” not “pray.” I could be wrong, though.

  3. Ah yet another show to add to the DVR schedule. Reminds me of a BBC show I used to watch “Absolute Power” with Stephen Fry, I’m sure that show has been discussed here before!

  4. Interesting that Madmen is so meticulous about wardrobe and sets yet the dialogue is filled with anachronisms like “that’s not going to happen”, “this world just drops a bunch of rules…”, even “we must police ourselves” is a contemporary phrase. Sorry, but I don’t buy Madmen.

  5. I was there, and the dates are wrong. The culture shown on Mad Men is more that of the early ’50s than of the early ’60s. By the ’60s the stereotypes portrayed weren’t so much in evidence. We were a lot more aware of our value and power as women, even in 1960. Black culture was more in evidence and accepted in urban settings and on college campuses. Antisemitism was out of style. My goodness….we elected Jack Kennedy in 1960!

    Get the era right, and the show might have more truth.

  6. Elected Jack Kennedy! Not a whiff of booze or womanizing out of the Kennedy Klan thank God! cough Marilyn cough Mary Jo Kopechne cough cough. Oh how progressive.

    And I just read a New York Times review for mad Men that lamented that in that era Madison Avenue was barely accountable the federal government. Thank God again! Wouldn’t want a bunch of liars and illusion artists running wild over the public! A bunch of womanizing alcoholics, soulless and oppurtunistic, and dulling the nation’s senses for their own gain!

    People need to wake the hell up.

  7. “But he missed one stereotype completely: that ad men prayed upon culture and consumers.”

    I must disagree with you on this. If anything, the series makes it clear that its ad men preyed upon culture and consumers.

  8. “I was there, and the dates are wrong. The culture shown on Mad Men is more that of the early ’50s than of the early ’60s. By the ’60s the stereotypes portrayed weren’t so much in evidence. We were a lot more aware of our value and power as women, even in 1960. Black culture was more in evidence and accepted in urban settings and on college campuses.”

    You sound as if you’re describing the mid-to-late 1960s, instead of 1960, in which Season One was set. The series is right now set during a period in which there was a cusp between the 1950s and the 1960s.

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