MAD WORLD: Reading Mad Men from the Margins (Panel One)
Guest Writer: Ana Vivancos

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The next in our series of blog posts from the Unit's 2/19 symposium, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, describes the first panel which featured papers by Clarence Lang, Leslie Reagan, and Alexander Doty.]

Written by Ana Vivancos (Comparative & World Literature)

In these wintry and bleak times of furloughs, dwindling salaries, and job markets, the Unit’s MAD WORLD symposium was an eagerly awaited event at the University of Illinois, if we can judge by the enthusiastic participation –and in some cases great outfits—of its attendants. In periods of economic difficulty it is not rare to find that show business (Fred and Ginger can attest to it) can provide eager audiences with glittery surfaces such as Don and Betty Draper’s impeccable fa├žades, Sterling Cooper’s elegant offices, or the bars where the advertising executives on Mad Men enjoy their after-work cocktails.

From that perspective, the day’s first panel, formed by the papers of Clarence Lang (African American Studies/History, Illinois), Leslie Reagan (History/Gender & Women’s Studies, Illinois) and Alexander Doty (Communications & Culture/Gender Studies, Indiana) did an extraordinary job of deglamourizing the masculine, white, upper-middle class world that the show offers to its viewers. Lang, Reagan and Doty’s presentations analyzed the presence and function of the marginal in the superficially impeccable world of the pre-swinging 60s that Mad Men depicts.

The three papers suggested that while the show portrays sexual and racial minorities as well as the problematic issues their marginalization represents, it limits such characters to structural functions or plot devices. On the one hand, the images of homosexuals, blacks, and sexually active women point to a contemporary—and even politically correct—awareness of their existence and their problems. However, the panelists’ deeper analysis exposed the relative lack of thematic relevance of these minorities to the show’s central narrative, suggesting their use as props. Mad Men’s allusions to homosexuality, race, or assertive female sexuality become another hook for audiences already entranced by the beautiful and eroticized surfaces. As they view the show’s realist representation of a less enlightened past, such spectators are given the relatively easy job of registering the troubles of marginalized sexual and racial minorities. Another reason, then, to enjoy Mad Men in a time of trouble: it offers a nice dose of soma with what Doty aptly described as the show’s "self-congratulatory liberalism."

Panelists Alexander Doty, Leslie Reagan, and Clarence Lang, and moderator Pat Gill.

The panel opened with Lang’s “From the Mad Margins: Approaching the Civil Rights Frontier of the early 1960s.” African-American characters in supportive roles shadow Don Draper, his coworkers, and family as the main characters undergo a range of personal and professional dilemmas. Playing maids, waiters and elevator operators, these characters are usually silent observers, their voices heard when an opinion on the black consumer market is needed.

Lang interprets this absence as consistent with the show’s logic of depicting a white lens consistent with the period. But even within that realist frame, he noted a geographical distortion in the representation of actual African-American social movements. Lang reminds us how the civil rights struggle took part not only in the South (as suggested in the show) but also in Midwestern and Northeastern cities and on the West coast. On the other hand, the attitudes of black characters such as Carla (the Drapers’ maid) and Hollis (the elevator operator) reflect changes taking place in the larger national scale. These are recurrent characters whose silence or telling remarks can be read as something more than inscrutable. Their attitudes should point us to the existence of a black working-class imaginary and what scholar Eddie S. Glaude describes as the “tragic sensibility” of black experience at this time: the ability to cope with a world “fraught with danger, tragedy, and contingency .”

Doty’s presentation, “The Homosexual and the Single Girl” similarly stressed how Mad Men constructs its homosexual characters, closeted or not, through the same tropes (foreignness, stylishness, attachment to the mother) which would have been used in 1960s America and which linger even today. Doty compares Salvatore Romano in Mad Men with Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), to emphasize how the television show uses period tropes to color its representation of queerness.

Doty explained the relationship between homosexual and straight characters, such as Don and Sal’s, as a narrative device useful to complicating heterosexual characters or to illustrating the prejudices of the 1960s. Yet, far from providing a full description of the realities of homosexuality prior to Stonewall, characters like Sal and Kurt are wedged into mainstream narratives, figured for the impact they have on straight lives. In this secondary role, Sal and Kurt match the most common homosexual stereotypes by dutifully serving and supporting advertising’s mad men and aspiring career girls.

Reagan’s paper, “After the Sex: A Feminist Reading of Gender and History in Mad Men illustrated women’s position of inferiority in the patriarchal, white middle- class background of the 1960s. Her emphasis on reproductive practices and technology pointed to women’s lack of control over their sexuality and the difficulty of access birth control methods in the world portrayed by the show.

Reagan stressed the importance of Peggy Olson’s affair with Peter Campbell, a subplot that enabled a nuanced representation of the disempowered position of women in the workplace. Peggy’s misadventures realistically depicted a 1960s-era working girl’s experience of sexual harassment. The show highlights the brashness of gynecological exams and the difficult access to birth control pills, the inevitability of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the lack of options for women dealing with unwanted pregnancies.

This last theme also surfaces in another plot line that sees Betty Draper dealing with an unplanned pregnancy while she is considering leaving her unfaithful husband. Reagan emphasized the show’s ambiguity in dealing with abortion. Although it is presented as a feasible, if complicated option, women on the show do not appear at liberty to choose it. In one important episode of season two, entitled “The Benefactor,” the management of Belle Jolie lipstick consider The Defenders—a real-life show from the 1960s which dared to depict abortion—as an inappropriate program with which to associate their brand. In a sense, by making female characters like Peggy and Betty unable to take control of their reproductive lives, Mad Men reproduces the dominant conservatism of these executives. The show is powerfully descriptive of Peggy’s female experience but ultimately less radical than The Defenders was in the early 1960s.

Lang, Doty and Reagan’s presentations, then, point in eerily similar directions: as they watch the troubled marriage of impossibly beautiful Betty and handsome Don, the harassment of career women, and the silencing of working-class blacks and homosexuals, contemporary audiences may be watching more of themselves—and of their own lingering prejudices and limitations—than they are prepared to recognize.


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Unit for Criticism said...

Thanks, Ana, for such a vivid condensation of the panel! (LG)

Alexander said...

Ana: Great job at capturing the flavor and content of the panel--and I love the picture to go with my "The Homosexual and the Single Girl" paper. I want a copy! (AD)

Lauren said...

Alex, you can find that picture at the AMC gallery; it's a still.