Nostalgia and Popular Culture within AMC’s Mad Men
AMC’s Mad Men has without a doubt caught the attention of American society since the year of its airing in July 2007. Claimed to be “the greatest TV drama of all time” by Rolling Stone, viewers get a taste of the 1960s that is unlike any show made ever before. From the sexually appealing Donald Draper to the historical depictions of the time period within the eyes of Manhattanites, the show holds a focus on the culture of big city businesses as well as the power imbalances and imperfections within the relationships between men and women, both in the household and the workplace. The power imbalances depicted within the show, more specifically seen within the actions of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, and other main characters show how popular culture related to the sophistication and scandals within those times make a viewer feel a desire and a sense of reconstructive nostalgia. In some ways, the show relies on a tension between style and the complexity of drama in gender relations that evoke nostalgia for the time period only to further undermine it. Articles from distinguished sources such as the National Post and Time Magazine as well as critic reviews and clips of the show itself furthermore depict the nostalgia and the culture associated with the dynamics of gender inequality and women’s roles in society. With the show holding a unique attention to style and drama correlated to the times, viewers still feel a sense of nostalgia and desire to be in the midst of Draper-like male figures and the flawed culture of the 1960s.
Nostalgia is introduced prominently within the first season of the show. The creator, director, and producer of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, had a vision from the start that would build nostalgia for a time known for dynamically changing societal roles of men and women. He created characters and plots that evolve throughout all six seasons and that depict such cultural changes. From the first episode of the TV series, the protagonist, Donald Draper, is a character with many flaws, mysteries, and ambitions that make him stand out from other individuals in that era. This can be most heavily seen throughout the course of the first season and especially in the last episode titled “The Wheel”. In this episode, Don Draper is having to host a meeting with Kodak clients to pitch a new idea that could bring massive profits for the advertising agency he works for. In short, Draper turns on a projector and goes through a slideshow of him on his wedding day, memories with his children, and photos of a happy family on Christmas morning, while giving a pitch integrated with emotion. The pinnacle moment of the pitch that wins Kodak over is, “Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound....It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called ‘The Wheel.’ It’s called ‘The Carousel’.”
As seen in the video, immediately hearing Draper’s pitch, the Kodak clients canceled their meetings with other agencies and followed through with the product to allow consumers to feel this nostalgic tie to happy moments that Draper so greatly portrayed. The National Post’s article, “Mad Men and the End of Delicate, but potent Nostalgia”, emphasizes how this scene portrays the magnitude of focus the show has on creating nostalgia within the characters and the viewers. They claim that the show itself is a period piece and that the exquisite attention to the style of the time period evokes intense feelings of nostalgia for people who watch, especially young audiences who never experienced the fifties and sixties first hand. It also gives insight to how much nostalgia plays a role in marketing, holding the ability to evoke emotion on potential clients even if the memories created by Don are, in a sense, fraud when it comes to his wife and children. As a viewer, we know that this carousel pitch sells a family that is fantasized since Draper is an alcoholic, sex hungry, and money-driven man. In the pitch, Draper’s wife, Betty, is portrayed as the perfect housewife who does all that her husband needs while viewers know she does quite the opposite and struggles with her own mental health. Although his pitch falsifies reality, the depiction of such a perfect lifestyle and the perfect woman to keep the household and husband happy wins over the Kodak clients and anyone watching the episode and its emotional intensity from their living rooms.
In the same episode, we see the dynamics of men and women in the workforce. Peggy Olson, who started out in the show as Draper’s secretary (which was about the only role a woman had at the time), holds a huge role in the depiction of women climbing up the ladder in society. After winning the Kodak case, Don and his colleagues celebrate both his victory and the Clearasil case won by the young and privileged Pete Campbell. Pete, who often has disagreements and jealousy towards Don, holds women to a lower standard than men. To show his revenge on Pete’s cocky mannerisms and how he often disrespects Peggy, Don states that Peggy would be the perfect writer for the Clearasil account since she is a young girl who probably uses the product. The scene concludes with Peggy Olson excited and newly promoted to be a junior copywriter with her own desk and secretary at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency much to the dismay of Pete Campbell and other men in the company. This furthermore depicts the discrimination of women within large company cultures. Viewers feel excited for Peggy, but also gain further interest on how the next season’s dynamics will incorporate her struggle to fit in her new societal role and the struggles that come with it.
While it is evident that viewers would cheer on Peggy’s successes and get emotional about Don’s speech, there have been various controversies in the eyes of critics when analyzing the show. According to an article by Matthew Wolsen on Salon.com, Mad Men viewers are split into two categories: one claims that the show is focused on the postwar boom transition into the latter half of the 1960s, and the other is that it's an overly dramatic soap opera whose success thrives more so on the needs of what an American viewer wants to see happen versus the show being an artistic drama series with realistic content. Wolsen goes on to critique how the show does not at all depict the era’s true happenings since we only get a glimpse of major events and the accurate representations of the social, cultural, and political happenings. We get an undertone of major movements but we do not know why or how they developed. The main focus is on the romanticism of the culture of those working at Sterling Cooper in the heart of Manhattan: the wealthy, the young, and the ambitious. However, Wolsen also brings to light that despite the error in accurate representation, nostalgia is still evident through Draper’s seriousness and style. He mentions that Banana Republic came out with a line of suits that were “Don-Draper inspired”, and that people like Tony Soprano or Walter White were unable and unlikely to inspire such clothing lines within their own shows. The fashion line would not have been such a hit in major brands had it not been for the sex and scandal that is within the undertone of many episodes. These particular episodes show Draper opening a drawer and pulling out one of the dozens of white collared shirts to put under his classy yet not so clean high-end business suit. Here we see how despite the misogynistic actions of Draper, the dramatic series still affects a viewer’s fascination with the man and the happenings that occur in the show.
A more evident piece of nostalgia can be seen within Wolsen’s article is that viewers get their desired fantasies without the guilt associated with them. His example is of an episode where Don yells at a Jewish female client for questioning his ideas and claims, “I’m not going to let a woman talk to me like this. This meeting is over.”
Viewers, despite the disrespect and prejudice within the scene, still admire the sexual appetite and seriousness of a dominant businessman. According to Wolsen, Weiner has created a show that is twisted and dark but wants to be “bought” by viewers despite cultural fantasy. It is important to note, however, that not all segments of the show are “fantasy”. The differences within men and women in society at the times, and the popularity of having personal “secretaries” to do more than just file papers and lead clients to the conference room was no made up fairy tale. The argument lies more with how this idea is portrayed. At the Harry Ransom Center, renowned humanity and research library and museum in Austin, Texas, there is an exhibit for some of the artifacts from Mad Men. One of these is Draper’s classic white collared shirt with a lipstick stain in the corner that depicts the scandal in this so-called twisted era. Yet, when looking at this artifact, as well as many others in the museum, viewers, and fans of the show are in awe. Once again, despite the wrong and the mistreatment of women, nostalgia for the Draper-like figure is evident.
Time Magazine holds a far different perspective as to the show’s overall portrayal. James Poniewozik writes an article titled “The Time Machine” which focuses more on how similar the show’s span of time is related to today’s society. He writes that throughout the decade of the show, we see the main characters’ hair get whiter, bodies get plumper, and the younger culture becoming more creative with the innovate changes that are underway. Society is shifting, people are changing, and the dissatisfied man called Donald Draper who seemed to have it all was losing his sanity now that he no longer was able to find himself coping with such change. This is not so similar to American society in the present day generation, and Matthew Weiner purposefully created the show to portray that. When looking back on the past decade, people’s features change, people in our present day America may have gained pounds, and the young and creative seem to dominate the newest technologies and businesses. It is not until society today is looking a little backward that they recognize how easy it may be to feel nostalgic about the past. The difference in Mad Men is simply that Draper experiences this in the sixties, the revolution of women moving upward and power imbalance moving downward, and he no longer holds the dominance he once held.
In a different article for Time by the same writer, Poniewozik writes that the last days of Mad Men, meaning the time of the last season’s airing, leaves a viewer with a desire for this re-animated time period and the “obsession of modern style”. It is evident that the reflection of the culture change that Mad Men viewers have experienced certainly caused a level of want for such a time. From the props of the show, the glimpses of history that are controversially accurate or inaccurate, the wardrobe of both men and women, and the figures that dominated the time period, fans of the show are mournful to see the ending that satisfied their desires of having watched something that gave them a guilty pleasure. From the scenes of “The Wheel”, Peggy’s movement up the social ladder and the change in the culture seen throughout the seven seasons of the show, Mad Men watchers have developed a sense of nostalgia for the depiction of the fifties and sixties that they got a taste of. Additionally, Mad Men’s main character gives viewers the ability to end up rooting for a man who is without a doubt full of flaws because of his sexual appetite, success, and influence on his company. The show itself is one that is unlike any other before its time and would be hard to replicate or replace in its’ niche of a highly rated TV drama series. While Mad Men is a twisted, dark depiction of a very specific segment of wealthy and ambitious Manhattanites in that historical time period, critics cannot argue that individuals do not still buy the show, and in many ways, feel nostalgic about its’ content.
Mad Men, “The Wheel”. Dir. Anthony Weiner. AMC, 2007.
Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. Dir. Anthony Weiner. AMC, 2007.
Poniewozik, James. “Mad Men: The Last Days.” Time, Time, 27 Mar. 2014, time.com/mad-men-last-days/.
Poniewozik, James. “The Time Machine: The History of Mad Men by James Poniewozik.”Time, Time, time.com/mad-men-history/.
Postmedia News. “Mad Men and the End of Delicate, but Potent Nostalgia.” National Post, 17 May 2015, 6:33, nationalpost.com/entertainment/television/mad-men-and-the-end-of-delicate-but-potent-nostalgia
White Collared Shirt with Lipstick, Mad Men Collection, Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX.
Wolfson, Matthew B. “How ‘Mad Men’ Became the Most Controversial Show on TV.”Salon.com, 27 Apr. 2014, 1:00, www.salon.com/2014/04/27/how_mad_men_became_the_most_controversial_show_on_tv/.