Deconstructing Mad Men: TV's Best Gender-Driven Drama
- Friday, August 14, 2009
If there is conflict in a relationship, it’s ultimately the man’s fault.
There, I said it. Sure it’s an overgeneralization, and coming from a single man it’s likely naïve at best and brownnosing to women at worst. But all things being equal (i.e. the woman’s not literally crazy), my observations tell me there’s a fundamental truth to that sentiment.
Granted, it’s also intentionally provocative. If you have a problem with that, then Mad Men may not be for you—which is too bad because not only has this heralded AMC series provoked thought and discussion about gender issues (singularly, relationally and in society) but it has also unpacked those issues in insightful, challenging ways. Its philosophical deconstruction vis-à-vis a twentieth-century literary icon is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all—but before we get to that, first, a brief primer.
Mad Men is set in the world of Madison Avenue advertising. It’s early 1960s, so American culture is on the cusp of transition between traditional gender roles and the redefining of them (both in liberating and damaging ways). Men and women both know their place, but unfortunately men flaunt theirs while women have to smile and endure.
That description of the show’s basic thematic context is technically fair yet completely inadequate. Rarely has television or film given us such a perceptive depiction of the masculine/feminine dynamic in all its complexities. We see both the strengths and weaknesses, how they coexist in enigmatic tension, and how that tension is suppressed beneath the veneer of “perfect” Suburban Life—a false ideal packaged and sold by, ironically enough, the mad men of Madison Ave.
The hard truth, however, is that the false ideal sells—a fact that tragically reinforces the cynical (though unconscious) gender stereotyping of the time. Sure, stereotypes often exist for a reason, but Mad Men is about the conflict that happens when those stereotypes don’t add up, are challenged (even defied), and are insufficient explanations as to why we do the things we do and want the things we want.
Don Draper—the head of creative at the Sterling/Cooper Ad Agency—serves as a fascinating avatar in which to explore this conflict, both professionally and personally. He’s very talented, has a striking profile, and is a self-made man (indeed, a true Man’s man). Don is The Masculine Ideal, so it makes sense that his wife Betty is The Feminine Ideal (maternal, proper, sweet, with a Grace Kelly beauty). As one character asks of them, “Are you two sold separately or do you come in a set?” Yet beneath the surface perfection, these are tarnished souls.
At work, the office environment of Sterling/Cooper is like a well-mannered frat house where business and play comingle. Even as these men go about their jobs with professional success and the women dutifully fulfill their secretarial roles, vice is also a normal part of the atmosphere. Men drink and smoke as an extension of doing business, and they flirt openly and freely with the women, whether mutual or not.
One can’t help but laugh, gasp or recoil at the antiquated mores of the early sixties, and yet with equal shock we observe how relevant it all is for us today. Yes, the open sexism and systemic racism was more stark then, but there’s also the timeless reality to that fact that humanity is flawed—personally, culturally, and spiritually. We may not be flawed by the same specifics as those from forty years ago, but we are flawed in the same fundamental ways.
So why do these flaws exist? What’s missing in these people? Or perhaps it would be better to come at the question from a different angle. What do these people think they have figured out that keeps them blinded to their flaws? What is the root of self-deception? In the case of Don Draper, it’s a worldview based in a half-truth—and as the Yiddish proverb tells us, a half-truth is a whole lie.
Rather than being didactically overt, creator/producer Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos) prefers making literary references to help flesh out greater psychological underpinnings. The most substantial to the series is found in Season 1; it’s of Ayn Rand, the twentieth-century novelist who developed the philosophy of Objectivism. Rand sums up this worldview best in the 35th Anniversary Edition of her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged:
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
The practical extension of that philosophy is, in many respects, positively American as it can only be lived out when individual rights are secured and honored. Capitalism would be its natural economic expression. Yet for as respectful and empowering of the individual as Objectivism is, the Christian worldview reveals a higher moral purpose than happiness, knows that sacrifice is more noble than achievement, and its faith is in an Absolute that transcends reason.
Don Draper’s boss Bert Cooper is an Objectivist, a Rand accolade, and in Don he sees a kindred psychology. Both face adversity the same way; as Don puts it on more than one occasion, “Move forward. This never happened.” Certainly there’s a strength to be admired in that motto, but there’s also an irresponsibility to that resilience, and it reveals where Rand’s philosophy is lacking. The problem with Objectivism isn’t that it’s inherently immoral but rather amoral. Without God, the vacuum of amorality is eventually filled with immorality.
We see this in Don’s life. It’s what enables him to have affairs (his own happiness is his moral purpose) without feeling guilty about it when he goes home (Reason—which is absolute—tells him that he’s providing a wonderful life for his wife and kids; he’s doing his job). So when, in Season 2, a beautiful young woman tempts Don by asking “Why would you deny yourself something you want?”, his philosophical response is simple: “I won’t.”
Today we call it “compartmentalizing”, and it’s a hubris that coddles sin. This practice of moral separation leaves in its wake two levels of emotional carnage: the lack of integrity hurts others, and the avoidance of moral consequence destroys yourself. Objectivism is like a band-aid over the gaping wound of unrighteousness that only Atonement can surgically heal.
The credit sequence that opens every episode is a well-crafted animation that depicts a silhouetted businessman slowly falling down the side of a skyscraper. Images of idyllic American life as crafted by ad men are reflected in the glass of surrounding towers. Whether the man slipped, jumped or was pushed is not shown (though ultimately that’s inconsequential). Simply, it’s a perfect metaphor for Don Draper: a successful man in total freefall.
But as Mad Men enters its third season (and hopefully several more), I fear whenever this series eventually ends we’ll come to discover that this opening sequence was more than mere metaphor; that it was, in actuality, foreshadowing. I hope I’m wrong about the fate of Don Draper, but whether I am or not I’ll value how much I learn about myself from his journey even if he never does.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Mad Men are now available on DVD. Season 3 premieres on AMC on Sunday night, August 16, 2009. Check your local cable television listings for times.
Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla. He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast,” along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture.
To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here. You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast” through iTunes.
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