Saturday, February 27, 2010
[The next in our series of blog posts from the Unit's 2/19 symposium, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, is a response to Lynne Joyrich's afternoon keynote lecture, "Media Madness: Multiple Identity Disorder in Mad Men"]
Written by Claire Barber (English)
Lynne Joyrich’s keynote piqued my interest as I read over the “Mad World” program, since I assumed from her title, “Media Madness: Multiple Identity Disorder in Mad Men,” that she would address disability (or its closeting) in Mad Men—a topic that has not received much analysis. As I listened, however, I was struck by the lack of attention to issues of disability, despite its explicit inclusion in the title. If Mad Men represents the era of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Lucky Strike cigarettes, then it also represents—although not explicitly—that of his sister Rosemary Kennedy, frontal lobotomies, institutions, and electric shock therapy. How, I wondered, did Joyrich understand the relation between disability and the rest of her presentation?
Joyrich’s most poignant analysis, where the specter of disability almost materialized, arrived toward the end of her presentation when she argued that “homosexuality [in Mad Men] appears in its closeting,” a claim she also applied to the series’s representations of race. Disability appeared in her presentation much as it does in the show, as specter. It loomed over and threatened to complicate one of the central arguments Joyrich presented, that Mad Men “demonstrates how media flows”— with flow being a television studies term for the techniques broadcasters employ to maintain viewership over the course of programming—“allow for a certain sort of playfulness with identities.” Accordingly, these identities “can be performed, transformed…ordered, disordered,” a Butlerian claim Joyrich pursued through an analysis of the characters presented in the show, the products advertised in its commercials, and the historical transformation of AMC as a media outlet. But, can this argument account for the actual disabilities evoked in her title?
Joyrich’s analysis of the manipulation of televisual media by both AMC and Mad Men raised two important issues. She argued at length that the show focuses on how advertising makes difference from sameness. Thus, in the very first episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Don Draper, the creative director of the fictional ad agency Sterling Cooper, shows how to distinguish Lucky Strike from its competitors by focusing on a product characteristic not associated with the health issues that threaten to cripple sales: “Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted,” says Draper. Joyrich described this move as “an attempt to mark brand” and represent quality, a process that she also explored in relation to AMC’s development as a channel presenting “quality television.” Its executives needed to differentiate it from TCM, TBS, and HBO, all media outlets offering similar products, just as executives associated with Mad Men must differentiate it from shows appealing to similar demographics.
The second challenge, one I wish Joyrich had pursued in greater detail, is how an ad man—or the show itself—deals with difference that cannot be reduced to sameness. She pointed out that “Mad Men does acknowledge differences across the flow” by representing issues of race and sexuality, though even these identities are reducible to “target demographics” and “market categories.” Joyrich referred to Pete Campbell’s investigation in season two of a new marketing strategy for Admiral Television as an example. Searching for information about an emerging market, Campbell confronts Hollis, the African-American elevator operator. When Hollis attempts to protest Campbell urges, “It’s just us, it’s just Hollis and—” “Mr. Campbell,” Hollis supplies.
Joyrich read this interaction as a conflict between the politics of identity and demographics, but her interpretation left me wondering. Yes, these ad men reduce difference to impersonal demographics, but aren’t there some differences they cannot reduce, and thus cannot sell? Think here about Horace Cook, Jr.’s desire to advertise jai alai as America’s new national pastime (Season 3, Episode 4); the creative team knows that even they cannot make this game successful because of its difference—it began in Spain, and players throw a ball around a three-walled court using wicker baskets— despite Cook’s claim that “in seven years, it’ll eclipse baseball.”
To push Joyrich’s argument further, I turn to an episode she did not examine, “The Color Blue,” as an even more powerful example of inassimilable difference in Mad Men (Season 3, Episode 8). Its title refers to a child’s question that Suzanne Farrell, the teacher with whom Draper is having an affair, repeats: “How do I know if what I see as blue is the same as it is to you?” Draper responds, “My job is about boiling down communication to its essentials. And that I know that there is a blue that at least 45% of the population sees as the same.” The viewer is left pondering the other 55%—and Farrell’s epileptic brother Danny enters the scene to provide an answer.
Draper later tries to counsel Danny, who has difficulty holding a job and supporting himself. He says, “I’m older than you are. It seems bad now, but you can still change things.” Danny scoffs at Draper’s naïveté, providing the following rebuttal:
How do I explain this: I can’t do anything that you can do. Everyone knows sooner or later that there is something wrong with me. They’re kind and they try. But then, when I come to with piss in my pants, they stare at me like I’m from another planet. I am afflicted, okay? It’s not a question of will.
Danny’s difference overwhelms Draper and, I suggest, Joyrich’s argument about the play of identity facilitated by media flow. Ultimately, Danny’s identity always returns to the signifier of his disorder. As an ad man, Draper assumes that all difference can be reduced to sameness, but Danny is part of the 55% who do not see the same color blue. Unlike Draper, who moves between multiple identities, Danny cannot closet his difference. It overwhelms his attempts to appear “the same” as those around him, a limitation also seen in Betty Draper’s depression, Gene Hofstadt’s dementia, and Freddy Rumsen’s alcoholism.
Ultimately, Joyrich laid out a variety of ways to think of Mad Men televisually. She demonstrated a wealth of knowledge about the history of television and introduced a persuasive argument about television flow as a way to make visible important discontinuities. Yet, as Joyrich’s brief attention to homosexuality suggests, some difference cannot be reduced to demographics and must be closeted or it threatens to overwhelm the “perfect” and homogenous world of advertising that the show depicts.
While the mad men of Madison Avenue ably manipulate 45% of the population to desire “a house, a car, a television, the American dream,” an objective Joyrich analyzed in depth, they ultimately lack a window into the minds of many.
For me, Danny Farrell represents just such a discontinuity—those imperfect figures only allowed to enter the world of Mad Men for a short time. The ability to perform or transform identity seems tempting, but some difference, like disability, speaks for itself—even when it is not spoken about.