Speaking of baffling Mad Men criticism, it looks like the Atlantic is trying to corner the market. Exhibit B: Sady Doyle’s new blog post, that begins, inauspiciously, by dismissing discussion of the show’s narrative and character development as “pointless” because the show is, ” famous for a look and a mood, not a story,” and doesn’t really rebound from there.

Here’s the takeaway, regarding the show’s treatment of misogyny:

To be fair, Mad Men doesn’t hesitate to show the ugly side of these attitudes; they’re not glamorized in quite the same way as, say, drinking Scotch five times a day. But the show also affords viewers an illusion of moral superiority. We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.

(Aside #1: I’d seriously contest Doyle’s claim that the show “glamorizes” heavy drinking. Don Draper’s drunkenness this season is a big part of what’s made him so pathetic. And don’t get me started on Freddy Rumsen before he hopped on the wagon.)

And here’s some of the evidence (emphasis mine):

But something about the show’s Grand Guignol presentation of discrimination and contempt for women makes it feel unfamiliar: Our own lives, after all, are nowhere near this dramatic. And the fact that it’s all being undergone by people in funny, old-fashioned outfits makes it feel comfortably distant.

I don’t really know what to say to this. Essentially Doyle seems to be criticizing Mad Men for being a work of fiction. Which is pretty much inarguable, so, er, guilty?

I can’t comment on how accurately Mad Men captures the experience of being victimized by sexism, since I’m obviously speaking from a position of privilege. But it seems to me that the purpose of fiction is not the same as documentary; a successful drama does not capture unedited real life, but a fully realized aesthetic vision that should be judged more by its fidelity to the spark of life than to the mundane details of life itself. Otherwise, why even bother with narrative art?

As for Doyle’s larger point: Any good period piece is as much about the time in which it is made (not to mention the timeless human concerns all good fiction must address) as the time in which it is set. I have no doubt that some members of Mad Men’s audience walk away feeling smug and secure in their belief that we have virtually eliminated misogyny in the modern world. But Doyle’s going to have to show more work than she does here to convince me that this is a flaw in the show itself rather than a flaw in interpretation. The casual harassment, coercion and rape that occur on the show are certainly things that can and do happen today, or else the show would not be anywhere near as vital and relevant as a piece of social commentary.

Sure, some of the audience will undoubtedly miss the point. That’s the risk with good art. It doesn’t hold your hand and force a lesson down your throat, because good art is more concerned with questions than answers. Freezing the frame at a moment of patriarchy in action and having Jon Hamm appear onscreen, Rod Serling-style, to say, “And the same thing is going on in America TO THIS VERY DAY,” would sap those scenes of their visceral impact, let alone any of their aesthetic qualities. Besides: It wouldn’t be very realistic, would it?

(Aside #2: For those keeping score at home, yes, writers for the Atlantic have now accused Mad Men of failing to be a totally accurate representation of real life; and also of failing to turn its characters into Brechtian archetypes. Confusing!)

Crossposted at my home blog.

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