If you have a TV, you may have heard of the AMC television show Mad Men. If you have Netflix, while scrolling for TV shows you may have seen the iconic image of a silhouetted man, seated, set against a colorful 60s-esque backdrop (designed by Milton Glaser, something of an icon himself). Or maybe you just know it as the old-timey show your parents watch.
Most of the SLA students I interviewed had heard of the show, although that doesn’t mean they were all fans. Sophomore Mark Gucciardi-Kreigh said “All I know about it is that a lot of people smoke cigarettes, all the time, everywhere, and then people sell things, like ads, right? And then they wear fancy suits.”
Sophomore Harrison Freed said “I’ve heard that it catalogues the misogynistic workplace dealings of the early 60s.”
Throughout the past seven seasons, Mad Men has attracted a little over 2 million viewers, as well as positive attention from many critics who write for newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Vox and Entertainment Weekly.
Until 8th grade, I wasn’t one of the 2 million viewers. My parents, who are not big TV watchers, learned of the show through friends who were hooked. So before streaming became available on Netflix, they borrowed seasons 1 through 3 on DVD from the local library and binge-watched the show.
Sophomores Zoe Andersson and Kai Burton, who both watch Mad Men, along with their parents, agree that the Mad Men is pretty engaging. I asked them why they watched the show,
“Don Draper.” Immediately said Andersson.
“The drama.” Offered Burton.
When I started the show, most of my friends were watching shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” TV shows that were also set in offices. This confused me. I wondered, what was it about TV shows set in offices that were so attractive to teenagers, but furthermore, why was this show I had been watching not popular among my demographic? Why did I like the show?
Mad Men isn’t what you might call a ‘feel-good’ show. Yes, there are moments of victory for characters, but the show is accurate to the time, so often you’re watching sexist men objectifying women, and white office employees making bigoted comments towards African American secretaries. Regardless, it’s important for my generation, especially, to understand the challenges of the 60s, without romanticizing the fashion and music, and to accurately shape their opinion of the era.
With that said, the fashion on the show is one of the primary reasons I watch Mad Men. The show’s seven seasons cover take the viewer from the early ‘60s to ‘70s providing a window on the dramatically changing fashions during these years. With each passing season women’s skirts get shorter, men’s sideburns get longer, and everyone’s boots taller.
I asked Freed what appealed the most to him about Mad Men, “The whole concept sounds appealing, a period piece that lasts during a changing time in the American workplace, it’s appealing in itself.”
Burton, who started the series this past Saturday, said “The time period made me the most interested, the fact that it took place in the 60s, it’s different. And definitely the issues, especially misogyny.”
Andersson said, “The director is really accurate to the time period. He includes a lot of political and social issues that were going on in that era, too.”
Within the first 10 minutes of the first episode, women are clearly the subject of many sexist comments made. Here are a few examples (by both men and women):
“Let her know what kind of man you are, so she can know what kind of woman to be.” And by Joan, who stated without irony, “[The typewriter is] simple enough for a woman to use.”
However, prejudice on Mad Men isn’t limited to gender, but also Jews and homosexuals find themselves the frequent target of oddly casual bigotry. One of the founding partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce–the ad agency at the center of the series–asks the creative director, “Have we hired any Jews?” The response was “No!” delivered with a laugh. One of the show’s main characters, Salvatore Romano, is a closeted homosexual.
The show also has its vices. One of the series’ main characters (and often antagonist), is alcohol. Though more prominent in the first season (every office has a booze cart), drinking and smoking becomes almost invisible throughout the rest of the series due its ubiquity.
My favorite character is the secretary Peggy Olson, who fights her way up to copywriter and, later, to copy chief. Her development is the most fascinating because, unlike many of the men in powerful positions, she is forced to over-prove her worth to be treated equally (that fact that even then she never really develops into one of the series’ richest storylines).
I’m often amazed at the innocence in the show. In the first episode, Peggy visits the doctor to obtain birth control pills. She lays down on the examination table and the doctor enters with a lit cigarette in one hand. First, I admire his progressiveness by providing her with birth control, considering the time. But he then he reminds her to exercise restraint, reminding her “easy women don’t find husbands.”
It’s fascinating to me, with the general knowledge we all currently possess, to be able to witness historical events, such as the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or the Moon Landing in 1969 and to be able to observe the development of social and political issues that I know about but never experienced (as they were during that time, since many of these issues continue in contemporary contexts), and which could never be explained to me through a textbook as vividly as they play out on screen.
In many ways, Mad Men is still relevant today. It is useful to be reminded how recently social norms took forms so offensive to us today. Sexism and Racism continue to exist, though perhaps less blatantly and a series of basic laws to protect people’s rights have been put in place that did not previously exist, which must be seen as evidence of progress.
“[The show Mad Men] can be relevant to some people. With adults, it’s closer to their time period, even if it wasn’t their time period.” Says Burton.
Part two of the last season premiered last month, though you can catch up on seasons 1-7 on Netflix or Comcast On Demand.
Sean Morris says
Wonderful article, I liked the point about seeing the historical events through their eyes rather than hearing about it through a textbook, it was able to make things more real, like I almost cried during the moon landing episode just seeing all those family and friends all across the world gathered for one single event. Beautiful show.