Film and TV

Five academic theories about Mad Men culture

Just as Mad Men charms its viewers by using sex, drugs, snappy banter and pretty people to make heavy topics (sexism, racism, dreams diffused) palatable, the editors of Mad Men, Mad World trust that some TV glamour will get readers interested in digesting academic theories. It's not wrong. Full of dense, fascinating writing, Mad Men, Mad World, from Duke University Press, takes stock of "sex, politics, style & the 1960s" in a series of essays by academics, theorizing about Mad Men. Here are five theories you ought to pick up before hunkering down to watch next week's episode (and re-watching all the old ones):

The Betty Draper Bubble:

It's impossible to ignore that Mad Men is set in a specific socio-historical context: white, wealthy, East Coast, of its time; you could call this "The Betty Friedan Bubble." Betty Friedan is, of course, known for tearing open the repression of the society that is depicted on Mad Men in The Feminist Mystique, exposing it on the page and starting a national conversation that hasn't let up. In "After the Sex, What? A Feminist Reading of Reproductive History in Mad Men," Leslie J. Regan writes that "Mad Men is unusual and emotionally gripping -- especially for its female viewers -- when it depicts gynecological and obstetrical scenes as moments of blatant and often coercive male medical authority. … Few women objected directly; they lived with it." She's referring to the male dominance of women's medical and political spaces in the 1960s, but she could just as easily be describing the stories we tell today about women and what they need. The problem, Regan points out, was and is that Friedan whitewashed complex layers of class and race while obscuring who was actually out protesting and radicalizing (hint: not middle-class white women). It's too easy to say that just because women have the same reproductive organs (which itself is not always true), they've got the same troubles.

Peggy Olson's Ponytail:

"You want to be taken seriously? Stop dressing like a little girl." That's Joan to Peggy in season 1, one woman to another. Sure, maybe Peggy's ponytail and knee-length skirts didn't evoke power and serious business sensibilities, but women policing one another is frustrating when society polices them so thoroughly. Not to mention that Peggy's quite good at her job, regardless of her gender identity or appearance—and even womanhood's not good enough, most of the time. By the end of the first season, Don Draper (star of the show and its paradigm, despite his failings) tells Peggy, "You presented like a man. Now act like one." In "Swing Skirts and Swinging Singles: Mad Men, Fashion, and Cultural Memory," Mabel Rosenheck unpacks the closets and dresser drawers of Mad Men's women, reminding the viewer (reader) that we've been living in an age of personal reinvention for a long time, and that the ease of self-classification can make it dangerously simple to box yourself in.

Creative Capital:

"A successful creative executive, Draper embodies the fantasy that creating a show and running it require the same kinds of labor." In "The Writer as Producer: or, The Hip Figure After HBO," Michael Szalay breaks down how creative work is portrayed on Mad Men and how it's thought of in American society: as something to be contained within a nine-to-five workday and paid by the hour. Don Draper is part of an advertising company, but he's not a square; he works in "creative," on the fine line between making and taking. Szalay argues that Matthew Weiner, as a producer of a very successful television show, does the same, which means that viewers ought to be conscious of what they're being coerced into -- including purchasing tie-in critical theory anthologies.

The "Helper Homosexual":

In "The Homosexual and the Single Girl," Alexander Doty identifies an unfortunate and familiar contemporary archetype: the token gay character who acts as plot point more than person. In season 4, Zosia Mamet, now better known as Shoshanna on Girls, plays Joyce, a new friend of Peggy's who's also a butch lesbian (you can tell by the tweed). Joyce introduces Peggy to a queer underground arts scene, and in return sees her crush hook up with a radical leftist dude. Despite taking up later with a very pretty model, Joyce never gets a real character arc of her own, and she disappears at the end of the season. Meanwhile, resolutely straight Peggy lives a queered life (acting as one of the men at the ad agency because of her position, distant from the female secretaries but not quite welcome in the world of male corporate privilege). Don's recognition of Peggy's talents is what landed her the creative job; Doty suggests that Don has no problem threatening the masculine order of things because he recognizes that it's all an act anyway -- one Don excels at. In the world of Mad Men, queering the status quo gets you ahead, but being outright queer gets you nowhere.

Blue Collar Is Blues Collar:

For all that Mad Men operates in a super-rarefied white world, there are a few moments when the characters step outside of their glassed-in Madison Avenue lives. As Clarence Lang writes in "Representing the Mad Margins of the Early 1960s," Don Draper is foremost among them. Don embodies the suave corporate man, but he has an easier time slipping out of that identity than almost anyone -- because it isn't his. He's the closest to the hip blues/beat subculture of the early 1960s and its African-American roots. Lang suggests that Don has access to these subcultures because he's a pretender, too -- a poor farm boy masquerading in high society under someone else's name. This linkage between race and class is important to consider in light of the 1960s, when American identity politics first commandeered the conversation, and it's no less important now, when the financial gaps between Americans are getting ever wider. White collar might as well say white face.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Diana Clarke is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.