I’ll admit to being late to the Mad Men party. While the series debuted in 2007, I am still slogging through season 6 on Netflix—emphasis on slogging. From Don Draper’s revolving-door series of sexual conquests to his clichéd childhood trauma (inflicted by the classic Bad Mother, soothed by the Hooker with a Heart of Gold in his inaugural sexual experience), the general thrust of the plotline has gotten old fast. (He’s tortured! He uses women! We get it already!) Mark Greif’s stinging criticism of Mad Men’s first season, especially his characterization of Don’s secret past as “gothic,” rings true in many ways to my ears. What has surprised me, however, in analyses of the series by Greif and others, is how their arguments are grounded in a problematically gendered concept of nostalgia.
Both Greif and Daniel Mendelsohn remark on the show’s melodramatic quality, setting up a dichotomy between the serious historical work the show could be doing and the ahistorical superficial, stylized, soap opera atmosphere the show, in their opinion, actually achieves. Greif’s argument is that Mad Men operates on two levels of nostalgic desire fulfilment: “Now We Know Better” and “Doesn’t That Look Good.” We can all congratulate ourselves on recognizing and standing aghast at the male chauvinism, racism, homophobia, and poor habits the show’s protagonists exhibit, says Greif, while resting content with the knowledge that now we know better than to oppress women and racial and sexual minorities while eating cheeseburgers and throwing the wrapper out the car window. More to the point, we can also enjoy identifying with the protagonists, taking guilt-free pleasure in the racism, sexism, and “soap opera antics” they perform on our behalf.
Daniel Mendelsohn argues that “Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities [with other hits like The Sopranos and The Wire] except its design,” and that its treatment of “social and historical ‘issues’… is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera…” According to Mendelsohn, “social issues” like racism or sexism are resolved within the span of an episode. Mendelsohn prefers the “almost Aeschylean moral textures” of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire, or something like Battlestar Galactica, which he likens to “a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid” (who's the nostalgic one now?). Greif, for his part, would like to see a hard-hitting drama about advertising itself (which, incidentally, would make the show about the male advertisers and their products). It is interesting that both authors invoke the soap opera, a genre traditionally coded as ‘feminine,’ to level their attacks against what they see as a nostalgic text—thus reinforcing the chain of nostalgia : ahistoricity : femininity. (Bonus points to Mendelsohn for his backhanded compliment to Mad Men’s “design,” as opposed, I guess, to its art.)
The gendered divide between the serious and the melodramatic “women’s film” or “weepie” (the lush, Technicolor productions of the 1950s by such auteurs as Douglas Sirk) has been well documented by feminist film and television scholars. What was ostensibly appealing about a number of those films was the backdrop: the well decorated homes of the wealthy and upper middle class, the designer clothes and accessories, in all their glossy glory for female viewers to gaze upon and fantasize about. Such fetishistic elements of design to which Mendelsohn refers are certainly present in Mad Men. In the 1950s women’s film, the scenery often amounts to a thin veneer overlaying the subject matter these films explore (racism, classism, patriarchy, and the bonds between women) in complex, if not always subversive, ways. (Come for the décor, stay for the public mourning of systematic oppression!) Can Mad Men be read as operating on the same level?
Instead of denigrating the show according to gendered categories of high and low art, a more productive question for analysis is the following: Given that Mad Men is trading in the currency of nostalgia, what is the payoff in terms of what this nostalgia reveals about the present moment? As I see it, one of the main desires driving Mad Men’s use of “now we know better” nostalgia is precisely the desire for such knowing better, and the ability to act decisively based on that knowledge. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” the show suggests, “if we had the collective ability to say about our present culture ‘this is wrong’ and ‘this is how we should fix the problem’?" Or, more precisely (since many of us do point out injustices and work to fix them), “Wouldn’t it be nice if our collective statements had greater purchase on our present reality?”
On a superficial or individual level, the show certainly offers a smug “now we know better” viewpoint (a lot of us can agree that smoking, littering, consuming large amounts of alcohol and saturated fats, and smacking our kids in the face are bad ideas). But other areas offer less certain paths to self-congratulation. When we see Don Draper firing art director Salvatore Romano for being gay—without even the willingness to explicitly name Sal’s homosexuality—can we justly make claims to now know better, when it isstill legal in most of the US to fire someone for being gay or transgender? And can we in fact name the “best” course of action for Peggy Olson, Joan Harris, or Megan Draper as each character struggles, in her own way, to ‘make it’ in capitalism, in a male-dominated profession, in a heterosexual relationship? I cannot believe that the troubling continuities between past and present are lost on the entire viewing population of Mad Men—least of all on those of us who are women and/or gay and/or non-white.
Alessandra Stanley raises interesting (if speculative) points about female spectatorship of Mad Men. Stanley sees the series as a way of acknowledging the struggles that led to (and, I would add, remain relevant for) feminist activism, remarking that: “Most of network television nowadays is for women and about women. And these nostalgic series [Mad Men, Pan Am, and The Playboy Club] may be to female audiences what series like ‘Combat!’ and ‘Band of Brothers’ have been for so many men — a chance to relive historic battles in all their glory as well as horror… plenty of women are increasingly curious about their mothers’ struggles with illegal abortion, men-only clubs and mandatory girdles…” Such a reading seems at least as legitimate as those offered by Greif and Mendelsohn.
Nevertheless, while Mad Men points a heavy finger (or waves a heavy hand) at forms of oppression, the audience is still supposed to identify with those doing the oppressing. Most often, oppression is dressed up, quite crisply, as Don. But it has also dressed as Peggy Olson, who, in a self-congratulatory moment of choosing (a little too late) not to be racist, is deeply offensive to Dawn Chambers, Draper’s African American secretary (Season 5, Episode 3 “Mystery Date”). The awkward moment between Peggy and Dawn isn’t resolved for us, because we in fact don’t “know better.” That the “us” is figured here as “white viewers” remains problematic: the show is sometimes critical of a white point-of-view, but the show’s point-of-view always remains white.
I won’t argue that Mad Men’s depictions of racism, sexism, and homophobia are without serious problems—the “now we know better/doesn’t that look like fun” mentality is, I have no doubt, alive and well, on both conscious and unconscious levels among segments of its viewership. Simultaneously, the invocation of nostalgia also speaks to other desires: for knowledge, for a shared understanding of linked oppressions, for the confidence to act, and for the belief that actions will matter. It is worth considering the nostalgic elements Mad Men brings to the screen in all their complexity, rather than dismissing them out of hand as melodrama.