Mad Men and Desire

Apr 25, 2013 | Fiction/Lit/Movies

I’ve been re-binging through AMC’s Mad Men. I caught up, having missed the last season and a half, and then decided to hell with it–I’ll just start over. Watching it now, I think the interplay between desire and condemnation in Mad Men is really where a lot of the meat of the show is, and that’s also where it gets difficult to unpack.

What do I mean here? A common (bad) criticism of Mad Men might be, “Oh, but look at all the drinking, racism, and sexism! That stuff is bad!” to which the obvious response is a somewhat confused, “Uh, okay, but it’s obviously condemning all those things, so I don’t know what your problem is?” The former criticism seems, at first glance, to be a bit like thinking the writers of the Sopranos are pro-murder, or that the writers of Breaking Bad are in favour of drug trafficking, and destroying your family and those around you in order to ensure your ego is satisfied. The criticism is stupid, and it comes up again and again with any form of art that portrays “bad” things, or has an anti-hero, or whatever. Hell, even Dickens received that criticism. But just because a given behavior or ideology is depicted does not mean it is being advocated. Duh.

But with Mad Men there’s more to it than that. Yes, we’re condemning Don Draper’s adultery and lifestyle choices, the drinking, the rampant sexism, the consumerism, and so on, but doesn’t the camera like to play with the fact that we also desire (many aspects of) this lifestyle? Don’t we ogle over those perfectly tailored suits, those perfectly trim haircuts? Even the drinking and the sex in the office? And don’t we admire the “legend of Don Draper” (to quote a character in the show) such that, when the really troubling stuff comes up with him (the racism, the sexism) it’s a bit jarring? (As opposed to when Pete or some minor character shows they’re a massive, privileged bigot, which is just par for the course.)

I’m not just saying there are people who don’t “get” Mad Men, and that these people just sort of tune out the fact that maybe the show isn’t always advocating Don’s lifestyle. (Though I’m sure these people exist.) No, I’m saying that according to the logic of the show, you should feel a bit of desire for everything Don has, for what Dick Whitman has become, the man he has turned himself into. He’s not just something to condemn. If you find yourself, like various characters in the show, occasionally lured in by the myth of Don Draper… well, good. You’re paying attention.

First, Don knows he’s selling something that’s unattainable–the objet petit a, in Lacanian terms. As Don says, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” The fact is, we want to be like Don, we want that lifestyle, even as we condemn it for being ultimately empty. Don understands this, but when Dick Whitman is given a new name, and can construct any identity he wants, what does he pick? Being a successful creative ad man, a partner in a firm, wearing the latest fashions, but without being too obviously a slave to fashion trends (note that in Season Six Don hasn’t yet adopted sideburns, unlike Pete and Roger). Don is fully aware of who and what he is, that he’s totally just a part of the machine, workin’ for the man, or whatever, but at the end of the day that’s exactly where he wants to be.

In 2013 we’re obviously still living in an age very much created by the self-styled “mad men” of Madison Avenue. Now we want to think we’re sophisticated, and that we’re totally aware that all this consumerism stuff is just “phony” (side note: I loved Sally’s recent use of this word, plus her visit to the New York Museum of Natural History — has she been reading her Salinger?), and yet, there we are, all the same, often participating in the very same aspects of our culture we tend to criticize. Ironic distance doesn’t really solve much; it just keeps us in a social position from which we can criticize the thing we don’t really want to change, because if it did change, the social position from which we are free to criticize would be upset. Just look at all those times in Mad Men Season 1 where Don calls out members of the counter-culture for being just as hypocritical as he is, if not more so.

I’m reminded of two Zizekian ideas. First, Zizek’s “subject supposed to believe,” the idea that Oh, no, I don’t really believe X–I just fake it, because that other guy believes X. But if everyone’s pretending, putting on a performance (like, say, Dick Whitman), what’s the difference? Even if you don’t “believe” in X, you’re still enjoying it. You’re still enjoying that position from which you’re free to pretend you don’t believe in it. We all condemn consumerism — seriously, who doesn’t do this, to some extent? Isn’t it even just a bit obscene when someone is fully invested in it, without that bit of self-conscious distancing? — but then, in real life, it’s like, goddamn, look at those sweet jeans! And they’re on sale!

Secondly, I’m reminded of Zizek’s dialectics. First you have the stupid appearance (boy, Don Draper is cool!), then you have the ingenious correction, the contradiction inherent in the initial proposition or appearance (but wait: everything that makes Don cool is ultimately presented as empty!), but then, finally, you have the return to the initial, stupid appearance (I know that lifestyle is supposed to be empty, and yet… I still want to enjoy all of it, and I still go to my hair stylist and ask for “the Mad Men cut”).

One of the solutions to ironic distance (which is really just the occupation of that final position, where we’re free to enjoy) is the New Sincerity, which can be seen in the refreshing earnestness of Parks and Recreation (at least, Parks and Rec is my favourite example; the author of the link above lists Wes Anderson). But maybe, just maybe, it can be seen in Mad Men as well, at least in terms of the way the show calls us out on that which we claim to condemn; it calls us out on the insincerity of our condemnations.