Semiotics of Mad Men

The appeal of Mad Men is that it allows the viewer to revel in the good old days of gross misogyny and racism and boozeing and harrassing hotte chickes at work, while pretending to be ironic and critical and edgy.


  1. lylebot says

    Mad Men’s creator Matt Weiner had this to say (ellipses are edits by me):

    I’ve always been telling a story, from the beginning of season 2, when the youth culture starts to be the focus of the advertising industry and commerce in general, and then the society. … And the crudening of our culture, it’s a big part of the story. There becomes less irony, and as the manners disappear, there’s less hiding. That’s something that I’ve really tried to tell. … It hasn’t changed for Don and Roger, but I’m trying to tell a story about how we’ve become the way we are now. And I think that being inundated with nihilism, random violence, the rise of subversion in the marketplace … multi-culturalism, this is not a good or bad judgment. It’s just part of how we became more modern, and what people perceive. One of my things is that human behavior doesn’t change, but certainly the manners change, and what you’re watching is the manners changing.

    Maybe I’m reading between the lines a bit, but to me this says that the show really is about how these changes in culture affect affluent white males.

  2. anon says

    I don’t think viewers watch this to “revel in the good old days.” Precisely what viewers are you referring to? Yourself? Maybe it’s true for some people. I wasn’t born then, but I still find it interesting (aside from the drama and stories that go with it) to see it from a historical perspective. My mother watches this show, and had to live through that sexist bullshit herself. She tells me it really was like that for women in the work place, and that we should never forget it. Don’t forget, there is also homophobia, racism, and every other form of oppression in the work place that you can think of that are thankfully no longer practiced (although there is still a ways to go) or acceptable.

  3. KT says

    I don’t revel in anything when I watch Mad Men. I think the show is great because of how disgusted and devastated it makes me feel to see things that were once cultural norms but how “hell yeah” it makes me feel during the rare moments when someone breaks through those norms to something better. I do wish they would spend more time with the African-American character but it rings true to me how little the civil rights movement affects the characters. I tried to talk about it with my dad once only to find that it had not really touched him at all, being a wealthy white male in the west. For him it was as far off and historic as it was for me despite the fact he had lived through that era, as a young person, even.

    I once saw someone say that seeing the sexual harassment and worse aimed at Joan Holloway on the show made him feel ashamed about previous comments he had made about actress Christine Hendricks and her body. If a show can provoke an emotional reaction about the past that also makes people stop and reconsider similar cultural norms now, it’s doing a good job, IMO.

  4. says

    Culturally, these days are much, much better than those days. But for those of us a certain age, there’s still a kind of nostalgia in watching a portrayal of those days. You don’t have to think the times of your youth were better, in order to enjoy seeing dramatic re-creations of them.

  5. David says

    I always looked at it as Penny’s story as much as anyones. None of the men look , or are made to look good, not from my UK’s post equal pay/rights for women in the work place, perspective anyway. Well.. that is, until that bastard Murdoch stole it for pay per view

  6. DrVanNostrand says

    That may be the most ignorant and superficial summary of Mad Men I’ve ever read. Congratulations.

  7. Joel Grant says

    To me, a more interesting discussion would be about how to accurately present behavioral norms in fiction?

    “Mad Men” is set in a period more than 40 years prior to its creation. But fiction set in the current time by definition becomes historical.

    Greek drama was pretty modern at the time, but is now, for us, a window into the distant past.

    If “Mad Men” allows us to “revel in the good old days” of atrocious behavior, what does “In The Heat of the Night” or “To Kill a Mockingbird” do for us?

    Do we excuse the racism these works because they have explicit anti-racist messages while “Mad Men” has (or seems to me to have) a different slant altogether?

    Anyway, I like “Mad Men” and it never occurred to me to “revel” in their behavior. The major characters in this show are all seriously flawed and to me, their flaws are revealed in a way that is consistent with their time and place. These same people would have problems today, but would probably act out differently.

    I am 60 years old and I remember when social and workplace norms were very different than they are today. Those were not the good old days, they were, in many ways, the bad old days.

    But I hope we can set dramas in other periods without longing for the days when we could smoke, drink, and sexually harass in the workplace.

  8. yojimbo says

    The appeal of HBO’s Rome is that it allows the viewer to revel in the good old days of Roman military might and crucifixions and pagan orgies and harrassing hotte slaves back at the domus, while pretending to be ironic and critical and edgy.

  9. says

    Yep. I thought that it was a really eye opening show about how far we had come and that people would get that, but when I actually started talking to people about the show all the white dudes talked about it like it was some kind of nostalgic circle jerk. I said “count me out” at that point, joan had been raped by her fiance and had no recourse and these pieces of shit were going to tell me it was about how great the past was? fuck that.

  10. says

    Oh and also, appeals to the “intent” of the show or the creators or writers is totally irrelevant. Dave Chappelle quit his show because he discovered that a bigoted audience can’t be made to see the humanity of the people being marginalized, if they are entertained it is because the entertainment product reinforces their previously held notions in some way. It is why the colbert report is considered really funny by conservatives.

  11. DrVanNostrand says

    Are you trying to say that we shouldn’t enjoy any good drama or satire that can be negatively interpreted by idiots? If people want to “revel” in the misogyny and racism of Mad Men, fuck ’em. They’ve obviously missed the point. Any show based on anti-hero characters, satire, or social criticism is subject to this problem. I don’t let the stupidest people on the planet ruin good shows for me. Frankly, it’s absurd to suggest I should.

  12. ik says

    I suspect that a lot of people see it that way. I don’t think that is either the intention, or even how most people see it.

    I’ve had pretty minimal contact, but a lot of interest (stupid lack of any method of watching TV!)

    I suspect that there is something that really strikes a chord things that are half-nostalgic and half-just horrible. And you see things like people imagining what an older, interesting culture could be like if the horrible bits were removed.

    All the people I know who like Mad Men are, while not necessarily feminist, are minimally socially just and most of them are women. Most of them love hating on the old horrors even as they enjoy the old glories.

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