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Mad Men and women

After watching last night’s episode, I thought it would be a good time to unearth Larkspur’s comment on the whole entire show, from a thread on episode six:

What it is, basically, is a horror story.  It’s set in New York in the 1960s, and is NOT ripped from any of those headlines of yesteryear.  It’s about the American advertising industry, and even though it’s set at the beginning of the Vietnam war, World War II is omnipresent.  The United States was different from the other Allied (or Axis) countries in that is suffered virtually no war damage to its own soil or infrastructure.  (Contrary to popular belief, we Boomers did not ruin everything, but god knows there were hordes of us coming of age during the uproar.  And boy oh boy, were we a very fine and enticing demographic.)

The horror part of it is that like most entertaining horror, it takes a familiar world and injects something unspeakably hideous into the narrative.  This horrific element is, in “Mad Men”, primarily (but by no means solely) displayed in the tribulations inflicted upon the women and girls in the story.  (And remember, all female humans were “girls” except the ones who were “ladies”.)

Switchboard workers, steno pool, executive secretaries: stringent traditions of behavior and dress.  To get by, most female humans in the work force had to shut up and take it.  Take his coat and hat upon his arrival, take his colleagues’ undisguised ogling and verbal abuse, take and somehow avoid the presumption that you were a comestible not unlike the liquor and cigars in every exec’s office (kept sparkly and stocked by you).  And what’s more, you were encouraged to hope to marry one of your overlords.

And black people?  Men worked the elevators.  Black women you never saw in the office suite.  They labored elsewhere, sometimes with the offspring of the mad men, often in the laundries and factories.

There weren’t any actual gay people.  There were homosexuals, but they would burst into flame when exposed to the light, so you kept that door closed.

Part of the horror that extends even to the overlords is that some of them kinda sorta get it that they should flee the scene before the scary music gets too loud.  And they know that their jolly, convivial colleagues would happily drink their milkshakes and eat their branes if it’d give them an edge.  They worked scared.

And the socially connected men have been made uneasy, because they feel the country club’s foundations groaning. Stupid war.  Still, the upstart usurpers remain vulnerable to the freeze rays that can be deployed upon them by the aristocrats.

So the mission for an intrepid player in this horrorshow is to somehow navigate the environment and improve one’s lot in life, without getting killed ded, hopefully without killing others ded, thereby retaining discernible souls, all so that they can have interesting work and a chance at higher pay. And maybe fulfillment, or at least intermittent enjoyment.

They’ll keep trying even if they can’t get to the pump before the vandals take the handles.  They’re creative.  Peggy will figure it out.  I just wish I could give Joan superpowers.  But that would take us from horror to alternate universe.

But forget everything I said, because whatever the intentions of the show creators and runners, we are supposed to be blown away by how awesomely cool everything was when men were men, girls could type AND get coffee, and black folks couldn’t possibly ever be president of anything.

And the undergarments that enable the women to look so exotic and delicious?  Were very uncomfortable, left red compression lines all over your body, contained straps and doohickeys that broke or popped open willy-nilly, cost a lot of your paycheck, and did I mention they hurt?  And do not forget: they did not have spandex or other stretchy fabrics, and even though I am the sort of monster who happily rips the wings off of maxipads, the products preceding the adhesive age were worse.

But I enjoy the horror genre, so I’m kind of a fan.

Over at Basket of Kisses, I see that a few commenters are pissed that an episode in which Peggy brings up Fillmore Auto Parts’ refusal to hire Negroes is also an episode in which the guy who robs Roger and Joan at gunpoint is black.  Yes, it would be nice if there were some good, complex roles for African-Americans in this horror show, just as there are good, complex roles for women (one of whom thinks that Negroes should just work their way into hostile businesses, the way she did!  though clearly she’s having second thoughts about that).  But surely the point is that the civil rights movement was an urgent, world-historical thing, and any decent person should have been disturbed by a client’s refusal to hire black folk, regardless of whether any given mugger happened to be black?

A point that was lost on all too many white folk at the time.  “The time” being, oh, roughly then to now.

Posted by on 09/20 at 09:16 AM
  1. What?  No!  That,s not the point at all.  The point, obviously, is that every location on the Earth, except for the poles, describes an ellipsoid helical orbit around the sun.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  11:24 AM
  2. Well, thank God Boardwalk Empire is on now. I’ll see it in about a year, I guess.

    Posted by norbizness  on  09/20  at  11:39 AM
  3. With a fixed axis of helical rotation.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  11:46 AM
  4. MM maps very nicely onto the horror motif. Money (standing in for privilege and its supporting social machinations), like soylent green, is really people.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  12:33 PM
  5. As The World Turns, with an elliptical component.  It’s bound to scramble a few marbles in a fragile system of social privilege.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  02:05 PM
  6. I figured i would reread Conquest of Cool and the Baffler compendium Commodify Your Dissent over the weekend, to rekindle my understanding of the advertising and consumer age in the 1960s.  As expected, i was reminded that i remembered the 60s better than the producers and directors of the MadMen horror picture show (not a surprise).  I was further reminded that this is a very East Coast show indeed. 

    Maybe it is more provincially bound than a merely East Coast context; and the horror show trope seems a perfect way to describe it.  Maybe they (producers, directors, writers) are trying too hard to make a singular statement amidst all the rest, and are thus suffering from the probabilities of their audience failing to suspend belief in the proper way?  It is as if the world of Mad Men is artificial except when it wants to make a point, and then the point becomes artificial because it can’t find a setting from which to ground itself.  I am not sure.

    At least in CA on the West Coast:~~ i know for a fact African and Black Americans were part and parcel of the overall culture of the 60s (Black Panthers versus Us happened!).  We shared space on college campuses and in the advertisements of consumer culture (i saw my first Harry Belafonte concert in 1961).  The hippies were making themselves felt, and the response as early as 1964 in the advertising community was to focus some of their energies on rebels and revolution. 

    It was no longer cool to be a square.  It was no longer cool to dys women.  It was no longer cool to pay attention to advertising. It was only cool to be hip.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  02:37 PM
  7. I loved how Peggy was both right and wrong about the civil rights movement and white women.  Right, in that some of the issues were similar, and there wouldn’t have been a feminist movement without the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act.  Wrong, in that no black person could have “fought their way” into her position. 

    I can’t imagine that there won’t be a black employee at SCDP by the end of the series, but it will be interesting to see how they deal with that.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  04:12 PM
  8. Wow, spyder! I don’t even know where to begin on that pile of self-serving historical revisionism. For starters I don’t think that book quite says what you think it says. Second the ‘60s were quite different at their beginning and their end--even in California (and especially California more than 3 miles from the coast).

    i know for a fact African and Black Americans were part and parcel of the overall culture of the 60s

    Sure, who doesn’t remember the celebration in Watts of how groovy it all was.

    It was no longer cool to be a square.  It was no longer cool to dys women*.  It was no longer cool to pay attention to advertising. It was only cool to be hip.

    Spare me.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  08:37 PM
  9. Sorry to be a bit harsh, but the tone of that got under my skin--especially the geographical chauvinism (and hey I’m from Ohio, admittedly the ‘60s did not really get there until the ‘70s). Clearly the more creative parts of the advertising industry were among the first places that some of the beat/"hip" parts of culture began to enter the mainstream (and in subtle ways)--but on the East Coast every bit as much as the West*. There is a large story to be told at the junction of “commerce and counter” and Frank has an interesting story and viewpoint--and nothing in Mad Men is repudiated by it.

    My own favorite story along those lines is Chet Helms giving Joan Didion the “only three significant pieces of data in the world today” at the Avalon.

    The first is, God died last year and was obited by the press [bo-o-oring--JPS]. The second is, fifty percent of the population is or will be under 25. The third is they got twenty billion irresponsible dollars to spend.

    *And yes California did lead the nation in “counterculture” through the latter part of the ‘60s--will not argue that.
    Posted by  on  09/20  at  09:05 PM
  10. JP i don’t deserve your apology, i was snarky harsh and deserved your critique.  Self serving yes, revisionist, i really don’t think so.  And the last bit about being cool was pure snark and satire, but sadly missed the point by…

    As for Watts, i didn’t say that the Africans and Blacks were doing good well in our culture, merely that they were constantly in our sphere of thinking.  My father drove through the Watts riots to make sure a black friend/ employee (at Rocketdyne) of his was safe and that his family was safe, since the rioters were also targeting those that worked for the “man.” He moved the family in with us for two months until the Adams district of Watts settled down.  There were our friends and associates.

    Posted by  on  09/20  at  11:53 PM
  11. Nah, I was a bit over the top, and actually not familiar enough with Mad Men or early ‘60s advertising culture to say whether they are really doing those trends justice.

    Maybe it’s all just the Kesey/Leary Milbrook meeting misunderstandings over and over again-but I guess spyder is saying it is not even being acknowledged.

    Posted by  on  09/21  at  10:40 AM
  12. By this standard, just about everything is a horror story.  As a college freshman I had to read the Iliad - as did you, I presume - which opens of course with the tiff between Achilles and Agammemnon over Briseis. Thirty years later, it occurred to me that it was an argument between two berserkers over which one would get to rape a sex slave.

    Posted by  on  09/21  at  03:05 PM
  13. Well apparently one aspect of MadMen is no longer common in the workplace.

    There will never be enough Kesey / Leary misunderstanding discourse. hehehe

    Posted by  on  09/21  at  03:30 PM
  14. I’ve finally started watching this show, and I find the way the women are treated thoroughly depressing (rather than horrifying).  But as I remarked to the friend who finally got me hooked, “I could probably watch Grey’s Anatomy and feel the same way.” (Yes, I know, the women are actual doctors, etc., but STILL.)

    Posted by  on  09/21  at  04:07 PM
  15. If Sally doesn’t end up going to Woodstock and having a “rap session” with Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Mountain, the Family Stone, and/or Sha Na Na, I’ll eat my hat.

    Posted by  on  09/21  at  07:52 PM
  16. Perhaps Sally could get on the Prankster bus at Woodstock and ride back to the left coast with the band.

    Posted by  on  09/22  at  04:06 PM
  17. From an ellipsoid helical perspective, all objects migrate to the counter-clockwise coast.

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