Monday, March 26, 2012


I've recently been watching the television series MAD MEN for the first time. Ever since it debuted, friends have been telling me "Oh, it's so good. You should watch it. You'll enjoy it."

Now, I'm definitely a big t.v. fan--I watch way too much in general. I like dramas, I love history, of course I should be watching MAD MEN. But I never got into it. I caught an episode or two over time, and it always struck me as a lot of work, somehow. Not that the show was difficult to follow, but on a deeper level I found it a little bit hard to watch. From an artistic standpoint, it's a strong show, and one that I actually do want to experience...and yet....

I never gave it much thought, figuring, if I can live without getting hooked on yet another t.v. show, that's all the better for my life. But yesterday I caught an episode of Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC in which she brought up the cultural phenomenon of MAD MEN, and she talked about it in a way that finally made my relationship to the show make sense.

She said: MAD MEN romanticizes an era in which women, people of color, Jews, gays, etc. were treated horribly, yet rather than promoting outrage or even opening people's eyes, the show seems to be inspiring nostalgia for "the good old days" when life was so carefree and days were spent drinking and smoking in the office. Sure, she said, it's nice to think about how much has changed since then, but the more important question is why, at this moment in time, when we're all paying so much lipservice to diversity, are Americans wanting to harken back to "the good old days" of rampant sexism, racism, antisemitism and homophobia? Does a show like MAD MEN prove that these -isms still live closer to the surface than we think they do? Are we really comfortable fantasizing about how mean upper and middle class white men used to be to everyone else?

Television is about escapism, at least for me. I feel the same way about books and movies. Sure, non-fiction is great and sometimes I read or watch to be informed and to learn, but my preference is to be swept away into another world, lifted right out of my overly analytical brain and plopped into some fantasy. I can't do that with MAD MEN, because the world it projects is not a fantasy world to me. It's not a place to lose myself, it's a place where I feel guarded and on edge, and maybe that works for some viewers, but I use t.v. to relax and unwind. What scares me about Melissa Harris-Perry's perspective is that maybe others are using this show as escapism, too, and I don't like the feeling that we as a culture may still be fantasizing about this kind of lifestyle.

Now that I know how I feel about MAD MEN and why, I can put the show where it belongs in my own mind, a watch and enjoy it as such. But when I think about some of the political conversations that are going on right now in the real world (how much control should women really be allowed to have over their reproductive rights? is it okay to shoot an unarmed black teenager, no real reason need be given?) I think the question about what kind of society we are pushing toward is pretty valid.

What do you think? Do you watch MAD MEN? What makes it enjoyable for you?

1 comment:

KJ said...

I really enjoy Mad Men. It's not nostalgic for me, quite the contrary. For me, it's a lesson on where we have come from and how far we have come. It is a phenomenal show from a creative standpoint, so it is also entertaining for me ... but I don't find myself wishing we could go back to those days. I more often find myself feeling grateful that things have changed. It is uplifting only in that it reminds me of the progress we have made.

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