[Update: see the blog written after the series finale: http://clarespark.com/2015/05/18/matthew-weiners-mad-men-and-the-double-audience/%5D
I have been reworking this blog, and will probably do more to make it less fragmented and more focused on a single theme. What I originally wanted to say was that television writers are not so different from the Mad Men satirized in the series; that they too are selling a point of view, a product that competes with other products in the marketplace. Hence their uneasiness about the morality of their characters, which is really about themselves as progressive friends of the people/viewers. The choice of the early 60s as the location of the series is not as important as their roles today as moral beings.
First you should know that I have seen every episode of the first four seasons, some of them twice. Why, if I find it so disappointing? For one thing, Jews, it is said, are the upstart spinmeisters who control advertising. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) But more: Perhaps because I was (almost) fully conscious during those years, had started my twelve-year marriage in 1959, and am by birth at least, a New Yorker educated in the East. I know this class of people, and I also know something about the critical response to this picture-perfect realization of the times, as well as the adulation heaped upon its art direction and attention to details, the greatest of which is the revelation of horrendous gender relations. What makes this soap opera for grown ups interesting and relevant to the concerns of YDS is the very fact of the art direction. Because the paintings, clothes, lamps, ash trays, and furniture are supposed to be so late 1950s-early 1960s, the young viewer may suppose that the characters and situations fall into the 19th century literary tradition of naturalism/realism, and hence everything about the series is trustworthy: i.e., Matthew Weiner, though born in 1965, has a preternatural relationship to the period when his parents were probably married.
I tried to find out about his parents and came across this Rolling Stone interview (http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/17389/198434), which tells you something about Weiner’s unapologetic projection of himself into the characters. For the question that keeps popping up in the endless fascination of the left-liberal hipster press with the series is “Who Is Don Draper?” But the question ought to be, who are the real writers for television and film today, and are they faithful in any sense to the world that they present? Or are some uneasily working out their own identities as chroniclers of our times? Some might argue that their work is close enough to modern life, given the escapist and ideological tendencies of the media, especially the need for heroes–a need that complicates the characterization of Don Draper, about whom the writers seem ambivalent. After all, are they too not living by their wits, trying to capture an audience–a task similar to that of the Mad Men, and for which they are well rewarded when successful? Or to look at the problem from a more Freudian perspective, perhaps writers like Weiner are primarily faithful to the adolescent defiance that mottles every attempt at historical reconstruction: teen agers make the frightful discovery that their parents are not the ideal creatures they took them to be, but are flawed human beings and in many ways, unreliable, even menacing. Could these oscillating characterizations explain the broad appeal of the series?
Remember these lines from act one of The Pirates of Penzance? Young Frederic, a captive of pirates since infancy, has never seen a woman other than the female servant who raised him, and took her assertion that she was young and beautiful at face value.
|Frederic. Oh, false one, you have deceived me! Ruth. I have deceived you? Frederic. Yes, deceived me! (Denouncing her.)|
Frederic. You told me you were fair as gold!
Ruth. (wildly) And, master, am I not so?
Frederic. And now I see you’re plain and old.
Ruth. I’m sure I’m not a jot so.
Frederic. Upon my innocence you play.
Ruth. I’m not the one to plot so.
Frederic. Your face is lined, your hair is grey.
Ruth. It’s gradually got so.
Although I have quoted from a 19th C. comedy, and this next claim will seem like a stretch, I have found (as shown elsewhere on this website) that behind the masked Jew, scheming to control the world, is the hapless, scheming Jewish mother who won’t let go of her sons, even after she is found out. Or, leaping ahead to Mad Men, and just as problematically, Mother may have overpraised her boy, leaving him in doubt as to whether he can ever measure up to her expectations. Given the focus on the murky identity of “Don Draper,” that may be the relevant family history in the case of Matthew Weiner, who does have a Jewish mother.
Although Mad Men has been praised for its defense of women, the female characters are as treacherous as Ruth, though more subtly. Betty Draper, Don’s ex-wife, the Bryn Mawr graduate (no way!), is a cold mother who never got past her bond with daddy. She also can’t tolerate the news that her prying eyes discovered: Don, whose real mother was a prostitute, and who was raised by dirt-poor Midwestern farmers, took the identity of his officer when they were in Korea, which sets him up as a social climber [realism? no one noticed?].The other women are also dubious parents or mates: Peggy, the up and coming Catholic copywriter from Brooklyn, doesn’t seem all that flustered when she gives away her baby, conceived through a quick roll on the sofa with Pete Campbell, one of her bosses. [A note on realism: this happened during season one, and Elizabeth Moss looked a bit heavy, but not pregnant.] The very “Jewish” Bobby Barrett, one of Don’s favorite sex partners in an earlier season, betrayed her husband, as does voluptuous Joanie, everyone’s favorite female character. Will she tell her husband, serving in Vietnam, that she is carrying Roger’s child? And though she has insisted that the secretaries behave themselves as subordinate to the guys who run the agency, she has been having a wild affair with Roger Sterling, who much prefers her to his first two wives. All the women are bizarre: Faye, the Ph.D. expert in motivational psychology, can’t relate to children at all, and is discarded at the end of season four, while Meghan, Don’s new secretary, seems to have telepathic ease with Don’s three children, and they are now engaged, Don’s having known her for about three episodes. Perhaps the most likable female character is Don’s daughter Sally, a precocious child of uncertain age, who runs away from her hated new home (an environment as badly furnished as the one decorated by the tasteless Bryn Mawr grad), but is easily bought off and pacified, perhaps like many television writers themselves.
Finally, we get to the most fatal flaw of all in Weiner’s conception of the series. If Don Draper is supposed to be a genius, then the writer has to put dialogue in his mouth that suggests both the psychological and artistic qualities of his trade, practiced at peak effectiveness. There was only one moment that I remember when Don shows any particular brilliance. It was in the dazzling finale to season one, during the famous “Carousel” sequence, but even here, the pathos comes from the contrast between the family pictures that Don demonstrates in his pitch to the Kodak executives and his real rapidly deteriorating family relationships, as he comes home to an empty house on Thanksgiving.What does this have to do with pre-election week in 2010? Mad Men is supposedly interrogating and exposing the bogus “mad” culture created by persons not at all like Weiner, but rather the kind of person who would later vote for Nixon (a character Weiner has worked on) and would be unmoved by the civil rights and feminist movements. Example, in the last episode of season four, Betty fires her black nanny and maid, Carla, for a trivial incident of insubordination. Don weakly protests: will he do anything about it? True, several minor characters sleep with black women. Is this a comment on 60s bohemianism? Does it have anything to do with the MLK Jr. branch of the movement?
Weiner does not know this period from either life experience or from historical research. Rather, Weiner has hinted that Mad Men is a “parable” like The Sopranos. In which case one may infer the moral lesson in both these lauded television dramas: in Weiner’s view, this country is now run by thugs and boozing, sex-crazed degenerates, clumsy displacers of those with gentler birth (like his ideal self?), hence greater social vision and finesse. How does he know? Read the Rolling Stone interview: Weiner says that he gets his Weltanschauung from Paul Newman’s characterization of a corporation lawyer in The Young Philadelphians, from Catcher in the Rye, and from the bleakest of short story writers, John Cheever (author of “The Swimmer”). Holden Caulfield should not be the mentor for an artist laying claim (implicitly) to the socio-literary tradition of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Zola.
[Added, 10-27-10; updated 9-26-11: A scholar sent me this piece by feminist journalist Stephanie Coontz, which asserts that Mad Men is a true depiction of the period. See http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10290/1095486-109.stm. The piece was originally written for the Washington Post. Coontz was born in 1944, and has made a remarkable career out of writing on marriage and the family, in this review, hinting that she is a historian, with the authority that profession usually conveys to readers. She did not, however, complete her doctorate. See also http://imprint.printmag.com/design-thinking/why-george-lois-is-wrong-about-mad-men-a-conversation-with-mel-abert/].