“You can’t go back,” he said once, sighing. “I know that. But you can look back.” – from “Life Studies” by Adam Gopnik
Last night, I watched my first two episodes of Mad Men. Many people I respect love this show, rave about it in fact, and since I watch TV on Netflix while I sew in the evenings, I was excited to see the show available there.
I settled in with a crochet hat and hit play. Then, after 5 minutes, I paused it and breathed. Whew, the sexism. Whew.
Then, I wrote this on Facebook:
I’m five minutes until Season 1 Episode 1 of Mad Men, and the sexism is already killing me.
Why does everyone love this show again?
My question wasn’t asked to question people’s affinity for the program but instead to help me understand whether or not I wanted to subject myself to the very real pain of watching it. Would the merits of the program outweigh my struggle with seeing women treated this way?
I got many thoughtful answers about the writing and about how the show takes an “eyes wide open” look at social problems like sexism and abortion and civil rights. I so appreciated that many people thoughtfully told me why they love the show.
As an artist, I believe that we need to bear witness to pain, to atrocity. I believe we need to look unblinkingly at our history and our stories at our experiences and portray them accurately artfully. I also am utterly opposed to censorship.
So I don’t dispute Mad Men‘s merit as a show. I don’t make any claim that it should be taken off air or that anyone should not watch it. If a person is watching a show or a film, reading a book or listening to music that makes them think and understand something in a deeper, more meaningful way, then, by all means, that person should watch the show.
But as much as I believe that my friends on Facebook are sincere in their appreciation of the show’s social critique, I have to say that these are not the things I have heard most often about Mad Men. More often, I’ve heard, “Oh, Don Draper, he’s so dreamy.” or “The clothes are AMAZING.” or “Holy cow! Did people really smoke like that in the 60s?” I don’t see a lot of discussion about the critique the show is making; instead, what I see is people commenting on Mad Men the way they comment on the latest episode of The Vampire Diaries. (Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid Vampire Diaries fan myself.)
So my concern with the show is not that the writers do not have good intentions, that the show doesn’t provide meaningful perspective on problems that are – still – very real for many of us today. My concern is that most of us don’t watch TV to learn and grow; we watch to forget and escape. (Hence, Damon, Stefan, and Elena’s vampire love triangle.)
And if we watch this show with an eye to forget and escape, what does that say about the people who are so maligned in the program? I wonder if when we watch Mad Men with a passive eye, we don’t forget that women have been and still very much are treated as second-class citizens. That some people still will not work with Jews. That mental health struggles are still stigmatized. If most of us watch TV to escape the real world, maybe Mad Men‘s fiction will not transcend – no matter how well intentioned – our passivity about these problems most days.
Watching this program was very painful to me. In fact, I cried twice in the first episode because I’ve had men say things like that to me, things about how I don’t look like a woman with my short hair or how that dress isn’t very flattering to my curves. I’ve had students tell me that Jews are misers. I’ve watched families act like their child’s depression is just a phase s/he should get over. These are not pretend problems; these are not fiction.
So when I posted my question on Facebook, I wasn’t asking as a naive person who can’t understand context or analyze a visual text. I was asking as a woman for whom this seemed a little too real, a little too painful. I was asking as a person who hoped her friends were the people of taste and integrity she knew them to be. They are . . .
And still, I don’t know what to do with Mad Men. Watch it as an artist who wants to appreciate the skilled writing and the cracking social critique? Watch it was a woman, an ally, a person who studies racism and race relations? I’m not sure I can do both. Do I not watch it at all?
What is your take on Mad Men? Why do you or don’t you watch it? What other texts – written or visual – challenge you in similar ways?