As many of you know, April has brought the return of one of television’s best shows - Mad Men - and in the booze drenched spirit of this blessed event, I am bringing you a two part series on my favorite show. Today I analyze the pilot (one of my all time favorite pieces of screenwriting ever) and next week I’ll be looking at what’s going on this current season (the sixth).
But, as a preview for what I’m going to say next week, I will tell you that I am pretty happy with how things are going so far this season, minus some of the hideous style choices (not the fault of the costume designer, only the fault of late 60s fashion…sideburns…yikes) but, what can I say? I’m a huge fan of 50s and early 60s fashion, particularly that Brooks Brothers “Don Draper” swagger we have all come to love. Now on to the rest of the article…
Premiering in mid-2007 to massive critical acclaim on the basic-cable network AMC, Mad Men invites viewers into the high-powered and stylish world of 1960s New York City. The hour-long drama focuses on the mysterious and handsome Don Draper, an advertising executive at the fictional agency Sterling-Cooper, and his world of masculine excess characterized primarily by smoking, drinking, and women.
Beginning with the first episode of the series “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, we are given a glimpse into a not-so-distant past; one that both horrifies and challenges viewers with its unprecedented accuracy of the era’s rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia. The effect of such images and dialogue remains problematic due to prevailing cultural memory of the 1960s as being a time of rapid and most importantly positive social change. In addition, there appears to be a dominating sense of social amnesia present in the postmodern psyche that consistently fights to ignore and forget images of a time before civil, women’s, and gay rights. Mad Men capitalizes on this mental battle and masterfully captures the tension between reality, fiction, and perception through what it depicts on screen.
Queer theorist Heather Love contends with such issues in Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, where she debates the merits of “feeling backward,” a strategy she characterizes as, “a way of calling attention to the temporal splitting at the heart of all modernism; at the same time, I attempt to describe the representational strategies of modern authors who were, in various ways, marked as backward….Still I hope to suggest how attention to backward modernism might be helpful in exploring the aesthetic strategies of modernity’s others” (6).
Love focuses her study on feelings of pain, trauma, and suffering within the queer community, and how such feelings represent a type of forgotten queer history that has been replaced with “a rising tide of gay normalization” within literary and cultural representations (10). Love’s theories prove highly effective as a method of analysis for Mad Men and its problematic content in that she argues for the value of such negative effects and the political discourse they may produce as a result. I will focus the remainder of this article on a reading of aspects of the show’s pilot episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, using Love’s theoretical framework of “feeling backward” to explore the merits of depicting a traumatic past on screen, particularly on mainstream television. While Love focuses her work on queerness as it appears in literature, I will extend her theory to include sexism as well as queerness because both play a prominent role in the show. I will analyze one scene and one character using Love’s methodology to argue that Mad Men represents a powerful tool in articulating the “structures of inequality in the present” in addition to showing us the value of “clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury” (30).
In the first example, the scene, I analyze Peggy’s first moments of work at the agency and the sexism that accompanies them. In the second, the character, which is more in line with Love’s original intent, I explore Mad Men’s depiction of Salvatore (Sal), the closeted art director of Sterling-Cooper and his efforts to pass as a straight man in a climate that does not permit male homosexuality.
Peggy at her typewriter and with Joan
Arguably some of the most jarring and traumatic exchanges (for both a character and the audience) of the pilot involve the sexist initiation and training of Don’s new secretary Peggy, a seemingly wholesome young woman from Brooklyn who appears early in the episode; wide-eyed and disoriented in her new world. Incidents of sexism and misogyny surround Peggy from her first seconds on screen: as she steps into the elevator with a group of men who are young executives at Sterling-Cooper, her body no longer belongs solely to herself. Immediately, one of the men instructs the elevator attendant to “take the long way up” as he and the other men gaze at and comment on her figure loudly despite the fact she is standing inches in front of them, painfully trying to appear as if she is ignoring their words. Love’s concentration on feelings such as “nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, resentment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism, and loneliness” are played out for the audience through Peggy’s experiences within the scene and they are invited to feel her “experience of social exclusion” (6). The tone of the moment in the elevator is not quaint or charming in its depiction of the past; rather, Peggy is isolated.
As viewers, the audience is forced to confront the past and its problematic social relations head-on. They are treated to depictions of a sexist history in order to not only see how far culture as come, but also confront the process of that transformation. Love writes, “The association of progress and regress is a function not only of the failure of so many of modernity’s key projects but also of the reliance of the concept of modernity on excluded, denigrated, or superceded others” (5). Peggy’s scene continues as she is paraded through the office to her desk by the office manager Joan; a confident and voluptuous woman who immediately reminds the viewer of a red-haired Marilyn Monroe. As they walk, Joan instructs Peggy on the ways of the office and tells her, “With the right moves soon you’ll be in the city with the rest of us. Of course, if you really make the right moves you’ll be in the country and you won’t be going to work at all.” Peggy eagerly listens to Joan’s advice and nods nervously through the exchange, especially when Joan comments, “Don’t be alarmed by all this technology, the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.” As Joan is making the comment, the audience sees her bend down and, to their horror, reveal a simple typewriter and intercom system, two items that are not only coded to the audience as obsolete and easy to use tools of the secretarial trade, but also as simple relics of a past that no longer resembles their own lives.
Within a matter of moments the show has both alienated and relieved the audience from any responsibilities of what is shown on screen. We no longer work on typewriters, smoke in the office, or make open claims of women’s lesser intelligence, particularly if we are ourselves women. We are free to examine the past as objective viewers, mindful that the past is not too far behind us via our affective response to the scene. The affect of shame stings the audience as they begin to wonder how men were ever permitted to act in such abhorrent ways and if women were indeed culturally trained to only desire marriage and a life of leisure activities. Embarrassment serves as a powerful tool in viewing and experiencing the show’s message of broken nostalgia and cultural memory. Using Love’s strategy of “feeling backward”, we are able to feel the trauma present within the time period as it manifests on screen through Peggy’s character and gendered experiences, rather than creating an idealized false past. We must watch Peggy and her painful experiences and truly see what the past was like to women, but not become lost in that reality because it is not our own. Mad Men becomes a powerful tool for “feeling backward” in that we are constantly forced to negotiate our own feelings of hurt with those felt by the characters on screen. We must learn to use painful experiences in a positive way to move on and learn.
The stylish Sal
In addition to the sexist and hurtful beginnings Peggy has at the Sterling-Cooper office, the viewer is also introduced to another aspect of the historic, yet identifiable past: closeted male homosexuality, in the character of Sal. Unlike Peggy’s character who the audience meets by her interactions with other, more dominant characters, Sal is introduced as autonomous and confident as he himself is an executive along the lines of the other men in the show. Though not as young as the men in the elevator with Peggy, Sal is barely into middle age and still shows signs of spunk and excitement for his work as art director. Sal’s first meeting with the audience takes place when he enters Don’s office to discuss artwork for the upcoming Lucky Strike campaign for which they are at a loss for words. Sal is immediately coded as a gay man to a modern audience: his mannerisms, speech, and popular culture references are all culturally encrypted with markers of flamboyance, plus given the audience’s cultural assumptions about the time period and homosexuality, the show is able to insert such a character with no problem.
The artwork he brings for the campaign features a shirtless man (a drawing of Sal’s attractive neighbor, who Sal says posed for the picture), to which Don replies that the client would like“sex appeal” in the form of a girl in a bikini. Sal laughs and says he loves his work, implying a desire to pass as straight, at least on the business level. Later in the scene along the same lines, when discussing the possibility of attending a bachelor party with strippers he says, “If a girl is going to shake it in my face I want to be alone so I can do something about it.” In addition, when confronted with the concept of death drive and secret desires by the psychologist who visits to present information on cigarette advertising, Sal looks straight at the camera and scoffs in disbelief, saying, “So, people are living one way and secretly thinking another way, ridiculous.” In many ways the modern viewer desires to save Sal from a life of closeted misery. One of the first feelings the viewer has for Sal is affection, and a hope that in the show’s run he will have the courage and ability to live openly as a gay man.
Sal’s depiction on screen closely resembles “what we might call a trauma of queer spectatorship—most often articulated as an isolated and uninformed viewing of negative images of homosexuality” (15). However, given this “trauma of queer spectatorship”, we must avoid burying circumstances like Sal’s as only a part of a distant, no longer relevant past because such a reading does not allow for the possibility others in our own world may be suffering in similar ways.
The bachelor party
In his final last scene of the episode, Sal’s homosexuality peeks through his facade of straight masculinity most drastically at a visit to the strip club for Pete’s (a young executive who was in the elevator with Peggy) bachelor party. As the group of men sit in a corner booth in the smoky club watching the stripper perform (a stripper, who by today’s standards would be considered unattractive and overweight due to her smaller breasts and more curvaceous figure), Ken, another young executive from Sterling-Cooper, appears with three young women, one of whom says, “I love this place. It’s hot, loud, and full of men.” In what is most likely a drunken moment of honesty, Sal says, “I know what you mean,” as he lustfully smiles and gazes around the club. To this comment, the woman makes an odd face and turns the other way, ignoring the tiny exchange. In this highly charged situation, Love’s strategy is particularly useful, she notes:
“Early gay and lesbian criticism tended to ignore the difficulties of the past in order to construct a positive history; queer criticism by contract has focused on negative aspects of the past in order to use them for positive political purposes. Given that issues like gay shame and self-hatred are charged with the weight of difficult personal and collective histories, it is understandable that critics are eager to turn them to good use” (18-19).
Love is careful to point to the personal nature of queer experiences and the precarious method of using past experiences of others to construct a positive history. Ideally, such experiences should become pieces of the past, which we are able to learn from rather than manipulate for our own political gain and agendas of positivism. We must remember Sal’s experience reflects a type of queer experience, but does not stand in for all queer experiences of the past. It is one that is not grounded in concrete fact, but certain feelings and effects. Through these, Mad Men’s writers are able to create a character who resonates with a modern audience despite his difficult experiences. Because Sal speaks to the audience via affect (his and the audience’s) he escapes the fate of being static and irrelevant, a powerful position for a queer character in mainstream television as well as in our own understanding of the queer history of trauma.
In using Heather Love’s theoretical model we are able to analyze Mad Men as a reminder of a sexist and problematic queer moment in our own history, but one whose examination results in an enrichment of our own struggles and political climate. Peggy and Sal serve as signposts in our struggle for personal and collective freedom: there is no “before” and “after” as Love fears; only a continuation of a quest for humane treatment and civil rights. Mad Men presents initially as a period-piece and in many ways it is just that – a snapshot of America fifty years prior to our contemporary moment – but, most importantly, it is also a reminder of how such “memories” continue to inform our current private and public lives, queer or otherwise.
Don Draper is cooler than you
And, yo, my citations are from the following source:
Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
So, readers, is anyone else excited Mad Men is back?