Mad Men: The Medium is the Message

Yes, I’m talking about Mad Men again.  And it’s not even on the air right now.  But my friend Jason Mitchell tweeted an article by the New York Review of Books and I felt the need to respond.  Because the author seemed to miss one of the most brilliant parts of the show, even as he wrote about it painstakingly for three pages.  You can read it in its entirety here (note: there are general spoilers) but here’s the part that made me shake my head in disbelief:

The problem with Mad Men is that it suffers from a hypocrisy of its own. As the camera glides over Joan’s gigantic bust and hourglass hips, as it languorously follows the swirls of cigarette smoke toward the ceiling, as the clinking of ice in the glass of someone’s midday Canadian Club is lovingly enhanced, you can’t help thinking that the creators of this show are indulging in a kind of dramatic having your cake and eating it, too: even as it invites us to be shocked by what it’s showing us (a scene people love to talk about is one in which a hugely pregnant Betty lights up a cigarette in a car), it keeps eroticizing what it’s showing us, too. For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering.

Oh, Daniel Mendelsohn.  Yes. You are correct.  Mad Men is trying to do two things at once:  It is trying to expose the shadow side of life in the 1960’s, and it is trying to do so within the slick and image-conscious aesthetic of advertising.  But honey, this is not sloppy.  It is attempting to do exactly what you said- invite us to be shocked by what it’s showing us, and eroticize it, too.  But this is on purpose, and it is one of the main reasons the show is so brilliant.  The characters are living imperfect, often repulsive, lives.  But they look soooo pretty that we almost —almost— forget.  (Maybe this is why the characters have to be so repulsive.  Otherwise, we’d be sure to forget.)  The viewer is thrown into the deep end and forced to experience two incredibly conflicting questions.  Do we loathe these repulsive people who smoke while pregnant and crack racist jokes, or do we appreciate them (and want to emulate them, even) for their dapper style and cool charm?

This is not contemptuous and pandering.  This is the way our culture IS.  Exhibit A:  Britney Spears.  Do we loathe the mother who can’t strap her child in a carseat or seem to get her act together, or do we appreciate the performer who can mesmerize an entire live audience better than just about anyone?

The 1960’s setting of Mad Men is a great part of the show’s appeal, certainly.  But one of the most powerfully subversive things it does is provide us a cushion of time and space from the present so that we don’t realize it’s exposing exactly what’s wrong with US, right now.  We are the people in the office.  We are the people in those relationships.  We are the people who buy magazines and watch television shows that allow us to peer into celebrities’  lives with a mixture of disgust and desire.  It’s a terrible side of humanity, really.  It’s everything that gets manipulated in advertising when we attempt to falsely bridge a world between reality and the image we want of ourselves.  It’s a disaster.  And Mad Men is the most brilliant show that has ever been written to expose it.  And they do it by placing stories of racist misogynistic people in impeccably decorated rooms and mesmerizing camera angles.  The medium IS the message, Daniel.  DUH.


  1. kristi bennettFebruary 8, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    i LOVE this response! brilliant. i love mad men too, but i have a love/hate relationship with it. and even though i haven’t thought about it nearly as much as you have, this explains why just about every episode i’ve watched at the end i feel angsty, repulsed, and often say “i give up. i don’t want to watch this show anymore.”

    i love how you point out that maybe the characters are so repulsive to keep us from getting too sucked in. that is a great insight.

  2. love this. so true.
    sure don’t want to be a woman of the 50’s, but I sure do want to wear those clothes! :)
    sure don’t want to support drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, but I will laugh my head off at Jersey Shore.
    I’m just saying.

  3. Not only do I totally agree with your response and think you hit the nail on the head, but I am baffled that the point of the show could be missed by anyone educated as Daniel must be.

    The program shows us an intimate glimpse into history, in a way I’ve never seen done in another drama quite so effectively. We see where ‘American Family Values’ started to fall apart (within the culture that hypocritically promoted them) and led to the revolution against that ‘system’ that occurred in the later 60s and 70s. For current 20/30 somethings whose parents were part of the hippy generation, you can see how they emerged from that ethos. One can see that, while I agree Danielle, that we still have many of these flaws, we also have grown some culturally. We are evolving, albeit slowly, from where we were then.

    One of the most glaring underlying themes in ‘Mad Men’ is how women were objectified, but it also shows how abominably children were treated by their parents, schools, and the system back then; where they really were just adornments, meant to be seen and not heard. The daughter, Sally’s development as a character is quite interesting to me, because one can see in her the innate intelligence that is ignored and philosophical sensitivity that is squashed, because she is a girl during that era, with a mother who is in deep inner conflict herself. The reoccurring projection of one generation of female dumping on the next because of living in a culture that sees women as bad, wrong, and a morally weaker sex. One can easily see why women felt the need to rebel against their ‘traditional roles’ and why they went so far in certain ways because of the natural pendulum swing of human reactive nature to oppression and repression.

    Lastly the show is ingenious for its understatement. The writing is brilliant because the dialogue is minimal so the audience has to interpret feelings and intentions, and the acting is superb for those same reasons. The repression of the era is replete.

    I love the show for its depth and nuance. Daniel you need to clean your glasses for all you apparently can’t see.

  4. Kristi- I’m right there with you. Not an episode has gone by that I didn’t want to literally punch Don Draper in the face. For the whole first season I wondered, “Why do I watch these show when I hate these people so much?” And I do. I hate them all, really. They are terrible people. They couldn’t make a good decision if their lives depended on it, probably.

    Christilyn- Yes, it does definitely show the progress we’ve made. I wish I could say it’s all behind us… But it does make me feel better about how far we’ve come in 50 years.

    Also, I absolutely agree with you about the sparse writing. (Another thing Daniel criticized, along with the “deadpan acting,” that I believe he got totally wrong.) I didn’t get the show at first because I tend to be an Aaron Sorkin, 90-words-a-minute dialogue kind of person. But then I realized that for Weiner, every word is really, really important. Every action and camera angle change is telling you something. And then I realized that Mad Men wasn’t a show without a plot, dialogue or action; it’s a show where everything small really matters and you have to pay close attention. (And yes, it’s communicating this deep sense of repression that is often painful to watch. Brilliant.)

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