Analyzing Mad Men

Maya Angelou admonished us that when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. But who tells us who we are? Certainly not ourselves, who weave a tangled web to keep outsiders at bay but invariably deceive ourselves utterly.

But that’s why there is art. And while it would be a stretch to call “Mad Men” “art”, when academics dive into it, as they do here, the distinction becomes moot. For they will ask the same questions, measure against the same standards and seek the same insights that they would if they were assessing King Lear, Ulysses or Citizen Kane.

And if that seems like a bit too much for you for a basic cable series about an advertising agency in the 1960s, well, horseman, pass by

But if not, then let’s begin with what Sara Rogers points out in her essay, that television itself is a medium that is in the “showing us who we are” business:

… television is not only a source of entertainment but also an examination of the popular culture of a society at any given time. This means that a society can look to television for an understanding of multiple aspects of culture.

In other words, the very things sitcoms and dramas use as the vehicles for telling their stories say as much about us as the stories they’re actually telling. Television says “these are our assumptions about your assumptions” and then, like any art, invites the viewer to compare themselves to the television version to decide where they, or the show, are lacking.

Of course this idea of a trigger for examining what’s lacking in one’s own life is the bread-and-butter of advertising, isn’t it? Whether it’s Listerine’s ads that you were unpopular because you had bad breath, or Pepsodent terrifying people about what the “film” on their teeth meant, to the more modern sexual allure of cars, cigarettes, and everything – advertising has always prompted people to compare themselves to something.

Therefore, a television show about advertising would seem doubly perfect to show us the truth about ourselves, right?

Except, who listens to advertising? And who listens to television?

But we did listen to “Mad Men”. And not just in the advertising industry. When Sterling Cooper pitched the “Jackie or Marilyn” concept to Maidenform, online quizzes at HelloQuizzy and OkCupid immediately sprang up so women could see which icon they were most like, despite the fact that these women flourished long before many of the quiz-takers were alive (a prompt that clearly remains powerful; you can still find similar quizzes at Self and Vanity Fair).

This leads to the third element – the very sum and substance of “Mad Men” itself. The cold eye it cast on the behaviour of the 1960s that was both horrifying and mesmerizing. Betty Draper throwing the detritus of the family picnic carelessly to the four winds. Ken Cosgrove chasing down a secretary to reveal the color of her underwear. Or as Tamar Jeffers McDonald writes in her essay:

Mad Men prompts us to be repelled by the careless institutionalized sexism it shows and then ask ourselves if our times are so different.

And this is the point that these essays illuminate so well. That “Mad Men”, when it was really working, was able to hold up this unique triple mirror to us. A mirror that said, these are your assumptions about us, these are your assumptions about yourself, and this is your chance to decide if any of it has merit now. Which is one of the reasons why the show still resonates throughout the culture – not for nostalgia (a dangerous word for anyone writing about “Mad Men”), but as a continual opportunity to think about what we’re thinking and why.

How it did it has, I think, two answers which several of the essayists here touch on. First, its slavish attention to detail created such an authentic world for the viewer that the actions of the characters did not seem like fictions so much as foreign facts, permitting the improbable and the horrifying to be accepted as a legitimate contrast – and prompt – to the viewer’s own reality. (Or said another way, no one really thinks of the characters in, say, “Big Bang Theory” as real people so how can anyone use their actions to analyze their own?)  

And second because of its distance and placing. The show was from a far decade, well removed from the lives of most of the people who watched it. And it took place in a section of the sixties that was unexplored even by those who were familiar with the decade. This was not the “all you need is love” cartoon hippie anti-Viet Nam civil rights 1960s (although those things all appeared in some form eventually). This was a cold-war, middle class, conservative, post-Eisenhower booming economy business-centric 1960s, which, when combined with the attention to detail mentioned above, made watching it feel like traveling to another country altogether.

Which is why “Mad Men” was able to do something most shows can’t – tell us the stories about ourselves that we cannot tell ourselves when they are happening. Stories that could not be spoken then and if spoken, would not have been heard. Analyzing Mad Men reminds us that shows like “Mad Men” exist to show these stories to us when we have a chance of hearing them. A chance of believing them.

For as show creator Matt Weiner says in Scott Stoddart’s essay:

We feel so smart because we are here and we can look back and we know exactly what happened. We have a sense of superiority, but the truth is it keeps happening over and over again and we should get ready for it to happen to us instead of thinking that we’re over it.

Or as Maya Angelou might say, we need shows like “Mad Men” because we did not believe when we were shown the first time.


Analyzing Mad Men edited by Scott F. Stoddart was published by McFarland & Company on 07/12/2011 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

You May Also Want to Read:

The Ultimate Guide to Mad Men edited by Will Dean
Mad Men Unbuttoned by Natasha Vargas-Cooper
Kings of Madison Avenue by Jesse McLean
Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield