Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mad Men

No spoilers, that I can tell.

This particular post started out as a comment to Historiann's post "Mad men: cutting-edge TV, or an excuse to let racism and sexism run free?" Tom and Lorenzo also have a wonderful post about this show, but this post is a response to Historiann and the comments there.

I confess to loving this show. I didn't watch it at all during the first season because, as some of Historiann mentions, I thought "oh no, just an excuse to revel in white guy sexism and privilege." Then, I got sucked into the first season marathon a few weeks ago. The plot moves slow and the focus is on character development, which is complicated and, I think, appropriate to the characters in the world that the writers have created.

I call it the world that the writers have created rather than to the period for two reasons. First, I don't specialize in mid-20th century history, nor in material culture, so I'm not in a position to judge the historical accuracy (although I would love if they footnoted the show). Second, this show is set in a historical period, but it is ultimately a fictional world.

I approach historical fiction with the understanding that the writers are not so much trying to create a historically accurate world -- although they must adhere to certain rules of history much as science fiction writers must adhere to rules of science -- as they are trying to explore a contemporary subject. Mad Men explores white, middle class gender roles and the tension between facade and authenticity. The early 1960s setting makes the subject seem remote enough for viewers to accept the blatant sexism (and anti-Semitism, they have only barely touched on racism) of the male characters, yet near enough to make the world more recognizable than, say, the 1920s or the nineteenth century. Also, sensitive viewers (or those who can do math) will realize that many of the younger characters are the same people who are now in charge today. The young Peters of the show are now the Old Farts at work.

The historical setting also contributes to the writers' ability to make the characters interesting and complex. Completely likable characters are boring and produce unoriginal stories, as do the "love to hate" characters. By placing the characters in the past, when ugly character traits can be written off by the audience as "of that time," the writers can then create characters who behave badly without demonizing those characters. With all of the characters having unlikeable streaks, you end up becoming more interested in what they will do next and how they will handle a particular situation rather than if they will have happy endings.

The female characters are particularly intriguing because of the limits that have been placed on them socially, sexually, and professionally. The choices that they make within those confines are different, often set them at odds with one another, and aren't always what you might want them to make, especially if you are a feminist.

The character Peggy interests me most for this reason because she has the most potential to be a feminist character. She ends up in a precarious position between the "boys' club" of the advertising professionals, to which she does not have fully admission, and the "girls club" of the administrative assistants, to which she no longer belongs. She is alone and vulnerable, but doesn't always act sympathetically, especially toward other women. I want to see if she becomes nastier, if she adopts the sexism of the men, if she becomes confident enough not to be snotty to the secretaries, if she has a show down with the office manager (although that would be too grandiose for this show). Then, of course, there is her dirty little secret!

Ultimately, many of the scenarios that occur in this show -- the power games, the isolation, the use of sex as a tool to isolate or to gain power, the sexual harassment -- are still around today; but if you set them in a contemporary office, no one would believe them. The audience would wonder why the women didn't go to HR and file a harassment complaint. They would wonder why the wife didn't just dump her cheating husband or sue her doctor for breach of doctor/patient privilege, they would wonder why the characters did not act the way we would want characters to react today, even if actual people today don't react that way at all.

4 comments:

The_Myth said...

Also, fiction actually tells stories about the time in which they are crafted, not just the time they are set in.

I think you make a good point about the typical reaction:

Ultimately, many of the scenarios that occur in this show -- the power games, the isolation, the use of sex as a tool to isolate or to gain power, the sexual harassment -- are still around today; but if you set them in a contemporary office, no one would believe them. The audience would wonder why the women didn't go to HR and file a harassment complaint. They would wonder why the wife didn't just dump her cheating husband or sue her doctor for breach of doctor/patient privilege, they would wonder why the characters did not act the way we would want characters to react today, even if actual people today don't react that way at all.

But, as you say, all this stuff still goes on. And some HR depts. [esp. at colleges!] are unsympathetic to complaints. What you really point to are the typical responses to fictionalized discrimination, prejudice, & harassment. Just think about all the stories about workplace bullying & mobbing found online and you might start to see how this story set in the past might actually be about the present [which still generates some similar situations].

You note the really important point that this is not a historical documentary meant to accurately re-present the past; Mad Men is a contemporary TV drama that uses the past as a setting to tell its story. And I think the story might indeed be about the present.

P.S. Also loving your point about the age of the young upstarts in the show being the age of today's almost-retirees! There's a lot to extrapolate from that observation.

Hahn at Home said...

It's easy to forget that my mother's generation got us going down the right path. Hell, when my folks' divorced in the early 70s, my mom had to have my uncle pretend to be her husband so she could get a lease in her name. No one would rent to a divorced woman.

When she remarried, it was years before she could get a credit card that didn't say, "Mrs. John Doe."

One thing that strikes me is that in my old office, which was made up of women under 30 primarily - they had no clue what it was like and paid no homage to those who tried to bring us into some semblance of equity.

Now - so many years later, there are still gaps and flagrant disregard of equitable treatment, but for them - wow, I'm just glad they were tough and strong and at least got us this far.

Ann said...

This is a great post, Clio B. I watched a little bit more of the show and I personally don't find it that interesting, but I think your points about historical dramas being more about today than whatever period they're set in are spot-on. Mad Men is clearly all about the 2000s, which is why I don't find it as interesting as I might have if it were more convincingly about the early 1960s!

Your comment raises questions about pedagogy, specifically, if period TV shows and movies are really more about the period in which they are made, how can we ever in good conscience use them as teaching tools (as many of us do? I don't so much as a colonialist, but I'm in the minority among women's historians fer sure.) It may be interesting to use them to talk about how people of today use ideas about the past to talk about the present, but in the end, how much time do we really have to pursue those ideas in class versus trying to get our studens to understand the strangeness of the past and the fact that people in history were fundamentally different from us? (That anyway is a struggle for me--to get students to stop saying, "oh, this is just like today" when reading about early American history.)

Historiann.com

dykewife said...

another interesting side note is that many people, men in particular, are nostalgic for that time.

the only thing i would want from that time would be the joy and wonder of discovering indoor flush toilets.

 

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