Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stark Craving for Mad Men

The past couple of months, I have been watching Seasons One and Two of AMC's excellent series Mad Men. I don't know why I didn't make a point to watch this show when the first season was freshly released on DVD a couple years ago, but I was hooked from the first episode. It was a culture shock at first, as I got immersed into what life was like in 1960s America...where women had their place as secretaries who are often told what clothing they should wear to work by the men, so that the men could have something more appealing to ogle. Asians are referred to as "Chinaman", jokes about Jews are commonplace, and gender roles were clearly defined.

I'm not a big fan of the 1950s-era, though I liked the clothing styles that people wore. Women looked especially classy and radiant in their elegant style (I'm a sucker for a lady in an ankle length skirt). The 1950s began our corporate conformist culture, where men wear gray suits and fedoras. I've heard several historians say that President John F. Kennedy single-handedly killed the hat business by refusing to wear a hat during his Inaugural speech in 1961. Hats conveniently hide men's baldness and JFK was proud to show off his full head of hair. Is it any coincidence that we haven't had a bald president since Eisenhower? I like the fedora and have a couple myself, but I rarely wear them because I don't like people staring at me, as people often do if you stand out too sharply from the herd. I usually wear a baseball cap (not of a sports team, though...but of a place I like, such as one with a cool logo of Coeur d'Alene ID or Buckhead in Atlanta) or my black Italian military hat.

In watching the series, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm, who I was shocked to learn was born the same year as me) is the coolest character on TV. He's an advertising executive for a Manhattan firm called Sterling Cooper. When he makes his pitch, he is good. All his charisma and salesmanship come through and he's often able to sway opinions and win clients for the firm. Despite his cool professionalism and almost perfect life (a model beautiful blonde wife, a son and a daughter, and a nice two-story home in the northern suburbs of New York City), he harbours some intriguing secrets, which are revealled quite slowly in flashbacks. He's also the philanderer, as he pursues various women, including a beatnik Bohemian chick in Greenwich Village, a Jewish American Princess who runs her father's department store and aspires to have the wealthy clientele of Chanel or Saks Fifth Avenue, and the wife of an obscene stand-up comedian. What is wrong with this guy?

January Jones plays Betty Draper, the gorgeous housewife and former model who is unfortunately married to Don Draper. Some say that she is an uninteresting character but what does one expect when she lives the typical life of how women were expected to live in mid-twentieth century America? What does one do all day...with two young children and an African American housekeeper? Its not an interesting life because she's confined to this restrictive life while her husband is off working hard to make the sale or promising his beatnik lady that he wants to run away with her. Its pretty sad when Betty feels like she cannot talk to anyone except a young boy who has a crush on her. Those were some of the creepiest moments of the show for me. I personally couldn't understand why someone like Don would cheat on Betty. She's gorgeous, sweet, and a complete catch. In fact, she reminds me of a young lady who worked at my office my first two years here (yes, I had a crush on her and still do). Like my former co-worker, Betty loves riding horses. Hopefully my former co-worker won't find herself in a boring marriage, confined to a life as a suburban mom who lives vicariously through her children's activities.

My favourite character, though, is Joan. Her mannerisms, facial expressions, way she speaks, clothes she wears, way she walks is absolutely mesmerizing. She's seductive to her core. Everything she does is SEXY!!! She is perhaps the most perfectly feminine woman to ever grace the screen. I absolutely love watching her, especially when she puts the other ladies at the office in line. In one episode, she introduces a new lady to her role as Don Draper's secretary. The new girl claims to have psychic ability and sees a happy future for Joan and her fiance. In response, Joan exclaims: "Aren't you darling?! We're going to get along like gangbusters!" I love how she said those comments. However, the first impression didn't last long, as the new girl did something that Joan did not like so she was not shy about firing the girl for acting inappropriately at the office. Go Joan!

Pictured above is Joan in her element. The actress apparently auditioned to play Peggy but was not selected. I can't imagine anyone else as Joan. She's perfect. I wish I could meet a woman like her. She would do an awesome job managing our office and would most likely show School Marm the door. I love that Joan doesn't put up with anyone's shit...though in one episode, you really see how little rights women have in the male world of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The three women of Mad Men: Betty, Joan, and Peggy. I haven't decided what I think about Peggy. There are moments where I'm impressed, while repulsed at other moments. I don't like the way she looks, though. Maybe its her hair and the fact that she doesn't smile much.

One of the impressions men have historically had about women that this show displays so well is the idea that women "aren't serious" and weren't meant to be equals in the workforce. Of course, this idea is considered "sexist" and we can see how much our society has changed since the era this show covers. However, have things changed all that much? One of the criticisms the ladies at the office have about me is that I tend to talk about things they aren't interested in. What do I talk about? Ideas. I'm very much the idea guy and love talking about different ideas and bouncing ideas off of people. To my dismay, I have learned that most people don't talk about ideas.

The women in my office, for example, tend to gossip about people and celebrities, or gush about the latest sale at Walmart. They live up to the stereotype of women being more interested in domestic things than serious, work related things. Its sad to see...but as I understand it, most people are not interested in ideas. Most people don't value education or intelligence or ideas. They are concerned with the day-to-day trivial stuff, which I find boring. A big reason why I hate my job is because I am way too smart for these people. I feel like my brain cells are dying the longer I stay here. Its not that they are dumb...its that they don't care about anything beyond the latest celebrity gossip, the latest shows, and the latest sales. Of course, I've also worked in male dominated offices and the conversations also bore me: sex and sports. My internship in D.C. was the best place for me...for I worked in an office with men and women who were politically aware and passionate. Just another reminder that I'm so far out of my natural setting. How did I end up in this hell of having to listen to the boring conversations of high-school educated women who have nothing else going for them?

A couple years ago when I had a falling out with the CyberCommunity webboard because the man-hating feminists who run the board kept calling me a "sexist" and misogynistic for not agreeing with their politically correct viewpoints and pointing out obvious gender differences, its amazing that someone could think of me as sexist when I treat women equally with men. Two ladies I met on the internship program a decade ago had told me that they were impressed with me because I really valued a woman's opinion on all kinds of topics. I didn't just dismiss them or change the subject when I couldn't "win an argument." Many guys tend to keep their true opinions to themselves when pressed by a woman, but I prefer being honest, even if they don't like my opinions. The last three women that I fell for all had one major criteria in common: they were intelligent and always said something that interested me, and they weren't afraid to disagree with me and make the argument for their point of view. A real intellectual engagement is fireworks in my brain. To interest me, one has to talk about something substantive...not the shallowness that so many engage in these days.

I know why so many prefer to talk about celebrity gossip, the latest television controversy, and the best deal offered at a store, though. It doesn't require any intelligence. You're just a consumer buying a product. It actually takes some intelligence and willpower to want to learn about sustainability issues or the complexity of a situation. Most people don't have time for it. They are busy with work, parenting, paying the bills...that all they want to do is relax in front of the TV rather than pick up a book. I'm not blaming people for those choices...just wishing that I could move on from this place and work in an intellectually engaging office where co-workers care about more than just how far their dollar will go at Walmart.

Pictured above are the men of Mad Men. Look at the conformity of the gray suit. Was it born in the post-World War II era? I noticed the other day when a political leader in Afghanistan was interviewed on the news. He was wearing a suit with a tie. It bothered me...because that's not natural to that region. The clothing men wear in Afghanistan has impressed me since my adolescence. If I was a fashion designer, I would market my own brand of clothing utilizing a lot of the clothing styles that men in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India wear. What is wrong with someone wearing the finest clothing of their culture to a meeting or interview? Why must they dress in a suit and tie before we westerners respect them as equals? Its just amazing to me how conformist people are and what sheep. Let people wear the clothing styles that are natural to their region...and let the western suit model die!

The men of Mad Men are an interesting group. I find Pete Campbell to be annoying (he says "swell" a lot, which is a word that seems forever stuck in the 50s and 60s). I know a guy at work who reminds me of Pete...and let's just say that we rarely speak to one another. My friends fall into a certain type of personality...and the Pete Campbell personality trait is not a compatable one with mine. Sal Romano has creeped me out from the start...with good reason. It'll be interesting to see how his character develops as the show progresses.

The guy who plays Roger Sterling (John Slattery) kind of resembles Florida Governor Charlie Crist and would be the natural to play him in a movie. In Mad Men, though, Sterling is one of the two partners of Sterling Cooper. Despite being married with a teenage daughter, he has an affair with Joan and when she gets engaged, he seeks out other pretty young things at the office. The character I most identify with is Ken Cosgrove, the aspiring writer. When a short story of his is published in a prestigious literary magazine, the other guys get jealous because they all aspire to be published writers themselves.

That's just some of the reasons why I like this show. It really plays with your sense of expectations in every episode and it is probably the smartest show on television. Though it has contributed to my "going retro" (I'm currently in a 50s/60s craze), I am glad that society no longer resembles the world of Mad Men, for the most part. Equality is an important change to the workforce (even if I work among women who prefer to be housewives in the 1950s than to have to work in order to survive in the modern society where dual income is the measure of middle class). Maybe we'll find balance someday soon...or not. At least we can see just how far we've come every time we watch an episode of Mad Men.


musingegret said...

For wonderful, insightful, erudite "discussion" and analysis of Mad Men episodes, characters, the era, the fashions, the mores of the times be sure to explore Deborah and Roberta Lipp's "Basket of Kisses" blog. They even have interviews with Matt Weiner and the principals.

They host a party in NYC at the end of each season and it's quite the bash. The followers of the blog are called "basketcases" and a few even flew out from California for the last soiree.

Check it out!

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

have heard a lot about this show. Will have to try it!

ricky said...

This blog is great!!!!!I like Madmen show very much...I watched many seasons and episodes of this show... All are fantabulous.If you want to watch all episodes of this show or want to grab the list of Madmen episodes so I found a site to get all the episodes of this show from this blog.

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