Old Fashioned Hangover

August 7, 2010

  • Jon Hamm is in a new movie that looks kind of like The Departed:
  • Why do Miller Light ads have to make women seem like they uniformly don’t like to have fun?
  • Speaking of bad ads, will Olive Garden ever actually start trying to advertise?
  • Here‘s the sneak peak of tomorrow’s episode.
  • Not all the fashion inspired by Mad Men is a good idea.
  • Christina Hendricks on the cover of the Britain’s GQ this month. Read the interview here.
  • There’s a lot of detail that goes into warddrobe and set design on Mad Men notes the New York Review of Books blog.
  • New York, arguably the best magazine on the Mad Men beat, has a Q&A with Alexa Alemanni, who plays Don’s new secretary.
  • Brazilian ad agency Moma tries out a 60s style ad campaign for the web:

What else deserves a link?



The new season of Mad Men has brought with it a flood of new pop criticism and commentary, but most of it has been fairly shallow, even execrable. A series of particularly lame attempts from the Atlantic, the National Review and Katie Roiphe at the New York Times left Dara and me scratching our heads. Why was it all so bad?

Here’s our attempt at an answer.

Dara: So, first things first. Are we in basic agreement that criticism of Mad Men needs to move beyond the question of whether or not the early 1960s sucked?

Ned: Good god yes. Although I’d say the problem is a little broader than that: it’s more that pretty much any political reading of Mad Men, whether it is specific to the decade or not, ends up being a dull culture war retread. Take that article you shared with me from the Atlantic, for example. You coined (or at least I think you did) the great term “anti-aesthetic representationalism” to describe that piece, so I was wondering if you might want to talk a bit about what that means.

Dara: It was actually “anti-aesthetic presentism,” but I’d be interested to see why you went for representationalism instead.

I’ve actually concluded that the critics who are obsessed with discussing Mad Men for its politics are doing so with really good intentions. They’re trying to answer the question of “Why do we, collectively, enjoy this show so much? What does it say about us?” which is the end of cultural criticism (or one of them). But it’s the end for a reason–that’s supposed to come after you’ve actually watched the thing, and related to the characters, and thought about their choices, and do all the things you’re supposed to do with drama. Not assuming that it’s some sort of medieval morality play and that, for instance, Betty is a stand-in for the Feminine Mystique, and any choices she makes that Friedan couldn’t have predicted are wrong.

So for me it comes down to letting the characters be individuals–which is why your use of “representation” is so interesting! Explain?

Ned: Slip of the tongue. Although I think it had a lot to do with all of this discussion about what characters represent. The “medieval morality play” sensibility is a good way of putting it, because it seems like a lot of these articles are predicated on the notion that these characters are Brechtian stand-ins for different ideologies and worldviews.

And sure, some of them function like that to an extent–I’m thinking of Bert Cooper’s Randianism specifically–but it doesn’t exhaust who they are. That’s simply not how interesting literary characters tend to work.

Dara: And even Cooper lets go of the Randianism when it suits him–manipulating Don to sign a contract at the end of Season Two, for example, right?

Ned: Right, exactly.

Dara: But yes. I think you’re absolutely right about Brecht. The irony is that Weiner’s so public about Mad Men being about immersing the viewer in a different world–about as far from Brecht as you can get. Which is how you have, for example, Jon Hamm coming off as really curt and flippant in that TIME interview when he dismissed criticism of the show’s exploration of race and gender.

Ned: I haven’t read that. What was the gist?

Dara: He basically said “Look, we’re not making a documentary of the 60s, this is an exploration of these particular people’s lives”

Ned: Exactly! Yes! And I think the National Review column is particularly egregious about this. The author concedes that some of Don’s philosophical contradictions could be part of his character development, but then immediately dismisses that idea, because she has a thesis to pursue, dammit.

Dara: YES. The notion that Don is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is just idiotic. Don was weird to everyone else on the show from the first episode!

Though to their credit, I’m beginning to see a little more recognition among the critics that Don and Betty, at least, are actually just strange people.

But I’d like to see that with the rest of the cast as well. You mentioned Bert. I think Joan is a really great example–she’s a very strong woman who for much of the show has been happy, but the critics haven’t focused on that because she uses sex in a way that Ought to be degrading

Ned: True. Although it has been equally frustrating to watch this realization dawn on them four seasons and many years of academic English schooling too late. That was what irked me more about the Atlantic piece more than anything else.

“Betty is hardly an epitome of 1960s feminism.” Wow, you think so?

Dara: The critics seem about as unwilling to let Betty deserve her unhappiness as to let Joan deserve her happiness. It’s good to talk about how characters’ choices are constricted–but you should still take the choices they make seriously.

Ned: Right.

Dara: I know my take on this tends to be focused on the women, maybe because of the blogs I read, and Don is sort of an easy target. What about the rest of the cast?

Ned: Well there’s not a whole lot written about the rest of the cast, sadly. I suppose Pete, Roger and Peggy aren’t as instantly iconic as the Drapers.

Dara: Well, Roger tends to be a stand-in for the “THEY DID NAUGHTY THINGS AND DIDN’T GET JUDGED” subvariety of criticism. The Roiphe strain, if you will

Ned: Ah, true. Can we talk about the Roiphe article for a bit?

It’s basically a sequel to her famous “Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace don’t have enough hot sweaty dicking in their books” article from awhile back. I suppose I can’t fault her for consistency, but it’s an oddly blinkered view through which to tackle literature. In the case of Mad Men, her conclusions are staggeringly banal.

Maybe I’m being unfair here, but I wasn’t able to glean any insight beyond, “People watch Mad Men because they enjoy escapist fantasies about drinking too much and having affairs without consequences.” Which is really weird because, 1) look at what happens to Don this season, and 2) that’s kind of like saying, “People watch Star Trek because they like spaceships and menacing aliens.” I mean, yes. But also, no shit.

Dara: Exactly! Roiphe’s Mad Men is not a show I’d want to watch more than three episodes of. Not with the sound on, at least.

Ned: That show actually exists, though it’s not called “Roiphe’s Mad Men.” I believe the name is Desperate Housewives.

Dara: Thank heavens Desperate Housewives hasn’t captured the imagination of fashion designers. I prefer a nation of would-be Christina Hendrickses to a nation of would-be Eva Longorias.

Ned: Amen.

But back to literary criticism. As much as I’d love to talk more about Christina Hendricks.

I think the common thread running through all of these articles is how remarkably facile their conclusions are, which I blame on two things: One is the standard complaint about the sorry state of mainstream pop culture criticism and the laziness of the people who practice it for major publications.

Dara: Well, you nailed it at the beginning–it’s just another front in the culture wars. There’s no admission that pop culture might not be colored in red and blue

Ned: But the other has to do with Mad Men itself, and it’s not so much a complaint as the show’s greatest strength.

The characters really are truly deeply shaded and almost opaque. You’ve got to do a lot of work to get an impression of these people that can’t be totally upended in a few episodes.

That’s what makes it, in my view, literature.

Of course, doing that work is significantly harder than just roughly mapping the characters onto your understanding of these political archetypes

Dara: This ought to be such a rewarding show for criticism–it should take a few blog posts to understand why Peggy is dating this twerp she’s dating, or whether Don has really hit rock bottom or if he actually has a plan

Ned: Yeah. Which is why I suppose for the good stuff we’ll have to wait until either this season or the whole series ends and someone publishes a book.

Dara: Or we could write real blog posts about it for the rest of the season and hope it catches on.

Ned: Sounds like a plan.

Old Fashioned Hangover

August 3, 2010

Editor’s note: Introducing Mad Men Shrugged’s Old Fashioned Hangover, a roundup of Mad Men and Mad Men related links.

What else is link worthy?


Mad Women

October 10, 2009

And what if it was Mad Women instead of Mad Men?


(h/t: Beachwood Reporter)

“The Rest All Look Alike”

September 8, 2009

july 1947 edited2

(x-posted at Social Science Lite)

Last week’s episode of Mad Men was filled with thought provoking social commentary. Daniel wrote an excellent wrap-up, but one point deserves deeper context and discussion.

Roger Sterling’s hilarious rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”—donning sloppily applied blackface—was just one of the episode’s jaw-dropping moments. Sterling’s minstrel performance was timely, airing only a few weeks after rapper Nas and Nick Cannon’s mock minstrel Youtube video went viral.

While Mad Men situates minstrelsy in the late 1950s/early 1960s, blackface remains a staple of American pop culture. Just swing by your local university’s frat row during Halloween and you’ll see my point. And no, this isn’t a false generalization because, yes, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

That’s not to suggest that dressing in blackface carries a maliciously racist intent, however. Indeed, minstrel shows are just one example of what historian David MP. Freund brilliantly refers to as “recreational racism.” Think of it as the ultimate “What do you call a group of black guys running down a hill?” joke: a collective celebration of whiteness and white superiority at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities. Whites that engage in such rituals of racial entitlement often rationalize their behaviors by noting, “It’s all in good fun”—implying that recreational racism is less incendiary than more overt forms of racial prejudice or discrimination.

The image accompanying this post comes from my own research on a Detroit neighborhood—a community I refer to as Woodline Gardens, to preserve anonymity. It was published in the neighborhood’s local newsletter in July of 1947, quite a few years before Roger Sterling’s fictional performance on Mad Men. Woodline residents were exceptionally proud of their new community tradition, including three separate pictures of their inaugural minstrel show in the community newsletter. The caption of this particular picture reads: “The two white mean are C.R. Richards and C.H. Buckwater, interlocuters. The rest all look alike.”

This picture perfectly (and succinctly) articulates the underlying logic of minstrel shows and other forms of recreational racism. The rest all look alike, as if any race other than Caucasian represented a monolithic group worthy of degradation and parody. The logic of this phrase, rooted in privilege, elitism, and social isolation, wipes any semblance of humanity away from African Americans. Do blacks have individual personalities, morals, or feelings? Nope; they all look alike.

Understanding social isolation is paramount to placing minstrel shows in the proper context of American race relations. Residents of Woodline Gardens, like Roger Sterling, were socially and spatially isolated from poor, black, and poor black communities. Part of this isolation stemmed from physical boundaries (residential segregation), but cultural boundaries (styles of life, patterns of consumption) were also important. This isolation fueled racial stereotypes and precipitated the communal embrace of recreational racism.

Your everyday American probably doesn’t know the historical context behind blackface or minstrelsy. Movies like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Nas & Cannon’s awkward public service announcement largely fall on deaf ears as a result. To the average person, blackface appears to be a theatrical device employed sporadically across film and television, whitewashed of its less than wholesome history.

But blackface is not without a history firmly nested in contentious race relations and struggles for racial equality. As David Freund argues, it’s recreational racism, but that doesn’t make its continued use any less problematic. Hopefully, with each reference to minstrelsy in pop culture, we move that much closer to a clearer understanding of blackface in its proper historical context. Widespread, accurate historical knowledge is never a bad thing.

Love Among the Ruins

August 25, 2009

I’ll admit, the second episode of season three left me a little cold. Some of that has to do with how Mad Men seasons are structured: there’s a lot of stuff being dropped on us right now, and it’s hard to tell what the significance is going to be of a lot of it later on. But a lot of it certainly doesn’t feel very significant.

Examples A and B: Peggy’s one night stand, and Roger’s feud with his ex-wife and daughter over whether or not he can bring his new wife to his daughter’s wedding. The one night stand subplot, I can see how that could potentially end up being important later; the guy said he hangs around Madison Avenue a lot, and he’s getting a degree in engineering, so maybe he’s somehow connected to the demolition and reconstruction of Penn Station?

If that’s the case, it will probably play better on DVD. But the whole inter-Sterling family strife subplot … eh. I’m not sure I want to see that crop up in further episodes. We weren’t really made to feel Roger’s pain in those scenes, and it just generally felt like a narrative dead end.

So, sadly, the whole “where are they going to stick Betty’s dad” thing ended up being the most compelling part of the episode. That wasn’t a bad subplot to watch, per se; it just wasn’t enough to sustain an episode on its own. I did like Betty’s slimy brother, and it’ll be interesting to see how having her father around will affect other aspects of Don’s home life. But the best exchanges in the episode both happened back at the increasingly neglected Sterling-Cooper offices: first, when Don and Peggy argue over the campaign for Patio soda, and again when Don’s new English overlord informs him that they’re dropping the Penn Station account.

Don’s California trip aside, the most interesting stuff on the show has always happened within the confines of Sterling-Cooper, with all of its palace intrigue and internal power struggles. This episode strayed pretty far from that, but hopefully we’ll be getting back to it soon.

Kinsey, The Sellout

August 24, 2009


Paul Kinsey serves as Mad Men’s obligatory 1960s-era liberal.  Without him, we really have no window into 1960s social history; with him, we learn about the 1961 Freedom Rides, interracial dating, and other “hippie communist radical” things of the era.

In last night’s episode, he voices opposition to Sterling-Cooper’s Madison Square Garden account, agreeing with local New York protesters that the project undermines a core tenet of NYC’s community cohesion: Penn Station.  How could these new architects destroy the station’s beautiful, historic architecture, he publicly laments.  But after he blows up, he regains his composure.  He remembers that he’s an employee, and quickly begs Campbell not to tell Don about his outburst.

As the show wrapped up, Kinsey was sitting in Don’s office, instructed to “keep a low profile” as he worked on the project, so as to not upset Sterling-Cooper’s newest client. Kinsey obliges, with little reluctance or trepidation.  Like many liberals of the time, when push came to shove, he rescinded his lofty claims for social justice.

Don’s Nuanced Misogyny

August 9, 2009


Misogyny and sexism take center stage throughout the first two seasons of Mad Men.  The upstanding men of Sterling-Cooper treat women as little more than sex objects, belittling their independence and assuming their inferiority.  The booze-fueled “boys club” atmosphere of the firm only emboldens and legitimizes their disrespect.

That said, Don is written as having an oddly progressive stance on women.  On the one hand, he readily accepts Betty’s status as cook and cleaner, typically watching TV while she does the dishes or makes dinner.  In Season 1, he initially refuses to work for a female client when she speaks out of turn.  “I won’t sit here and let a woman talk to me like that,” he exclaimed.  Yet he is also the only man at Sterling-Cooper that wholeheartedly respects Peggy and her work as a copywriter.  There’s also the scene in Season 2 in which he is visibly upset on the elevator as two men speak about sexual acts in front of a woman.  It’s like the seeds of chivalry that may grow to become a progressive tree.  Or at least semi-respectable bush.

While the other men at Sterling-Cooper are, for the most part, pretty uniformly despicable in regards to their treatment of women (save, of course, for Paul–the guy dating the black supermarket employee), Don is written in a much more nuanced light.  He cheats on Betty, sure, but he has an abnormally high level of respect for women.  I’m left wondering, though, if developments beginning with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 might prompt a reactionary stance from Don, alienating someone that could have been a powerful ally for women’s rights.


The New Blog

August 9, 2009

This is a blog about the t.v. show Mad Men which begins its third season on August 16th. It’s by a number of Mad Men enthusiasts who like to blog and feel the show has a lot to say about history, culture, and America among other things. The inspiration for this blog came from A Supposedly Fun Blog written by much more famous bloggers. Hopefully this project will be half as good as that one.

The name is inspired by the show (obviously) and also Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged which shows up every once in a while in the show (Don is given the book and then Campbell gets it later too), hence the name “Mad Men Shrugged” although this blog does everything but shrug Mad Men.

I’m Daniel, a news junky and history major at the University of Michigan. In the next few days and the next few months I’ll be posting my thoughts on Mad Men related topics here. I hope you enjoy.