Having heard so much about the wonderfulness of the TV series Mad Men, we settled down eagerly and watched the first few episodes, waiting to have our socks knocked off. Well, they are still well and truly on.
A disclaimer at this point: I only watched the first three or four episodes of the first series so I don’t know where it goes from there, but judging from snippets read about various later episodes, it doesn’t really change much in its general point of view.
Sure, it looked great and the period detail I am sure was up to the mark (though there was a scented candle in Don Draper’s office in the first episode). But I couldn’t like it; there was something about it that didn’t quite fit.
So I hunted round and found a couple of reviews that began to answer my question, one overwhelmingly positive, the other negative.
The first, “Why Mad Men is TV’s most feminist show” by Stephanie Coontz in The Washington Post on Sunday, 10 October points out that it is a feminist critique of the 60s, showing how uniformly dreadful and oppressive it was for women back then, and showing what turned people like Betty Friedan into militant feminists.
The second, “You’ll Love the Way It Makes You Feel” by Mark Greif in the London Review of Books on 23 October 2008, says that it looks good but says little of substance, using shallow stereotypes rather than rounded characters. And that it is repulsively smug in its assumption that absolutely everything back then was dreadful compared with the way society is now.
Both are right. Mad Men is a thoroughly, doctrinally correct feminist critique of the era, an apologia for the militant feminism that burst forth in the late 1960s and brought us to our current social nirvana.
Like any polemic, there is no middle ground that might leave a chink for legitimate question. Thus, the men are uniformly, crassly chauvinistic, patronising and generally unpleasant towards women – though I did wonder whether the conventional good manners and rather more polite ways of speaking of the 50s and 60s (like not swearing or making sexual remarks in front of women) might have precluded the extremely blatant, continual and unsubtle sexual harassment depicted in the show. I’m sure it was there, but am not convinced it could have been quite so ‘in your face’.
There are no happy women at all. Full stop. The only women who appear to have any personality or self-awareness are the hard-boiled, single, office girls, the local divorcee, the mistresses and the wealthy single woman. There are no strong married women or mothers; they all sit round gossiping vapidly in the kitchen, slap their kids and plonk them in front of the TV (horror) and quietly have nervous breakdowns.
There is no love, no giving, no generosity of spirit, no determined permanent commitment in action in any of the relationships in those few early episodes, thus setting them up for justifiable failure. Was it really that bad? I do believe there might have been a few happy marriages based on recognition of different roles in an equal partnership with each respecting the other. But hey, I wasn’t in New York in the 60s so I don’t know.
It is disappointing that the writers don’t seem able to look in a balanced way at the last 40 years and say, this and that had to go and thank goodness it did; but this and the other were good and it is a shame we have lost them. Feminism has achieved a mixed bag of things, some very good and some very bad and some somewhere in the middle. Why can’t we see a little more light and shade in the lives of these characters that reflects that?
No, Mad Men is just a shiny, soapy, one-dimensional, modernist, feminist polemic. Given a choice of amusing TV shows about advertising execs in the 60s, I’ll take Bewitched any day.