The popular show “Mad Men” concerns the advertising business in the early 1960’s. It centers on the highly problematic life of Don Draper. It is authentic in its presentation of the time period, which includes its portrayal of gender roles and race relations. Women on the show are largely in search of a man to marry. It is expected that they will give up their jobs to keep house and raise babies. People of color are only portrayed doing menial labour. In a recent scene, Roger Sterling, who is played by John Slattery, dons blackface to entertain a group of his friends. In this sense, “Mad Men” often reveals the ugliness behind the much beloved Camelot era in the United States.
Much has been written about the isolation of the 1960’s housewife. The white second-wave feminist movement launched much of their organizing behind the assertion that women had a right to be to work and be productive members of society. In the process, we have ignored the plight of the grey flannel suit that men of that period wore and its symbol as a form of yet another gender slavery. In Don Draper, we can see a man of great privilege who is nevertheless suffering from a highly conflicted identity.
The grey flannel suit of the 1960’s functioned much like a straightjacket. Men were expected to be the great provider and to present a stiff upper lip at all times. Their identities were totally tied to their jobs, which is why Don Draper does not just work in advertising; he lives and breathes advertising.
In one of the earliest episodes, at his daughter’s birthday party, a neighbour suggests that their suburban way of life constitutes the culmination of the American dream, yet the adults are constantly drinking and smoking. In each office at Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency where Draper is employed, all rooms come with a stocked bar. The amount of alcohol consumed on the show does not represent people drinking as part of a social interaction, but rather an attempt to self-medicate.
Draper has a beautiful wife, a gorgeous home, two healthy kids, and is highly successful at his job, yet perpetual unhappiness pours like sweat from his pores. On several occasions throughout the show, he suggests to the different women that he is involved with that they should leave and start a new life with a clean slate. Though “Mad Men” centers on Don, none of the other characters seem particularly happy or in the least bit content either. Not coincidentally, only two male members of Sterling Cooper office are able to remain faithful to their wives.
We constantly look backward and construct the late 1950’s and the early 1960’s as a time of fulfillment, yet within these quiet suburban neighbourhoods, middle-class men and women were being suffocated by the very same constricting gender roles which were designed to make them happy. Manhood was defined by career success and the ability to provide one’s family with consumer items. Nowhere in this equation did it leave room for emotions or even a small moment of weakness. Draper was clearly hurt throughout his childhood with emotional and physical abuse and even as the images from his past haunt him, he is unable to share them with his closest friend or even his wife.
Beatniks, who were the precursors of the hippies, saw this emotionless life for what it was and steadfastly refused to participate. Even as Don interacts with Beatniks, he is unable to understand their message and views it as a complete rejection of who he is, rather than as an opportunity to rethink the ways in which he is trapped by the very role that supposedly gives his life meaning.
Salvatore Romano, who is played by Bryan Batt, is the only gay man on the show. His wife functions as a beard, while he envelops himself in his own gray flannel disguise. He laughs with the rest of the men as they demean women and he pretends to have an interest in having heterosexual sex. He also rejects the first opportunity he has to sleep with a man. When he does finally act upon his inclinations, he is disturbed by a fire. The symbolism here simply about a fear of a heteronormative world; it is about an understanding that ultimately manhood is defined by performance. To remain part of the working environment, Salvatore has to feign an interest in women and perform all of the other behaviours, like excessive drinking, which are associated with hyper-masculinity.
It is easy to look at a show like “Mad Men” and see only the erasure of bodies of color, or the rampant sexism engaged in by the male characters. It is far more difficult to examine the ways in which hyper-masculinity is damaging to the men who are trapped by such narrowly defined gender roles.
One of the arguments that feminists continually proffer is that sexism hurts men, too, and in television shows like “Mad Men” which examine the rigid gender roles that are now understood with a Utopian-like wonder, we can readily see the real damage that it leads to. Not a single man on that show is happy and yet they all have the successful careers, dominance in the home, financial security, and white male privilege. Perhaps the ability to be yourself is the key to happiness, rather than the ability to oppress others. Power is not without consequence, as the men of “Mad Men” are beginning to understand.