Sunday, August 26, 2007

Selling America to Americans ~ ~ or How America Became Disney Land & Its Inhabitants Cartoon Characters, Even to Themselves

Betty & Don enjoy matrimonial bliss
Still from the AMC series Mad Men
“Where the truth lies” ~America’s Troubled Relationship with Advertising & Spin ~
(Can “Bread & Circus” Ever Be Good for You?)

In today's Demonic musings, from the Department of She Knows There are More Important Things to Talk About ~ or Maybe Not," your Demon wishes to visit upon you an entertaining (hopefully) tirade about & analysis of frivolous pop culture. Or maybe not. In any event, she's sure all the same ol' Bushco shenanigans will be there tomorrow, & maybe we'll get back to them, exhausting & draining as they are wont to be. "Consistency," after all, is the hobgoblin of little minds."
Your Demon has recently become captivated by the new AMC TV series Mad Men, & although I’ve only managed to catch two episodes, the most recent quite by accident (not being one to internalize TV schedules, since I rarely watch it), this series hooked me first with its period detail & keeps me coming back because it tantalizes me with the possibility that it could speak volumes about how we, as a country, ended up this way, & the fact that we rarely notice the culture that has so decidedly shaped us.

What we live everyday is often invisible to us.

A period piece which is more or less faithful to its time, Mad Men is set in the “golden age” of American advertising, & re-creates the world of high-flying advertising execs in a fictional Madison Avenue agency circa 1960 (&, incidentally, was written by the same guy who brought us Sopranos).

We know now that in the particulars of the details, the era was a time capsule, not destined to last, but that’s precisely what’s fascinating about it, & why the writer chose it.

Viewers’ reactions (judging by blogs devoted to it) range from love to hate ~ the latter, as far as I can tell, because there are no explosions, gunfire, or grisly murders. (“Nothing happens!”)

Rather, it’s more of a character study, albeit confined as it is to a limited time slot, with the predictable result that many of the characters, & the series’ apparent dedication to treating them as fully-dimensional human beings, neither wholly bad nor wholly good, takes time to unfold (as in real life), but is occasionally rushed, with the result that when we first meet them, they seem to be predictable archetypes & not much more.

But they have their surprises built in, as do we all. We rapidly get glimmers that all is not as it appears on the surface.

The focal point of much of the action so far is the character of Don Draper, the creative head of the agency, & his beautiful young blonde wife Betty. They personify the ideal American couple for whom everything falls into place just so ~ big beautiful home, two children, the right (meaning white & middle class) background. Betty is one of those fortunate women of whom it was said contemporaneously that she got a college education ~ her M.R.S. degree ~ & has the luxury of being a full-time homemaker & mother.

So what’s not to love about being Betty? She feels superior to her divorced female neighbor, (divorce was still scandalous in her neighborhood ~ a divorced woman was a harpy & probably of questionable sexual morals out to steal other womens’ husbands, by definition) & seems predisposed to see other women’s reactions to her as nothing more than jealousy.

But she’s unhappy & having unexplained physical symptoms that are dismissed by her doctors. It must be all in her head. So she undertakes therapy.

Betty is extremely dependent emotionally on her husband, Don, but the more she expresses how much she needs him, the further he recedes into the distance. He won’t even share information about his childhood with her (hints that Don isn’t really who he represents himself to be, & that somewhere along the line he has reinvented himself), besides the fact that he’s having at least one affair on the side ~ one purely hormonal, with a “loose” bohemian artist/illustrator named Midge, & the other of the heart (we suspect), a Jewish female ad-agency client, Rachel, who inherited & now runs a very successful Fifth Avenue department store & who resists ad men’s suggestions that she settle for clipped coupons as a means to draw more customers. She’s going for upscale chic.

In sexual infidelity, Don is the rule rather than the exception ~ office affairs (& politics) abound ~ so there’s more than enough Peyton-place-style drama in the series so far, but it stops short of being a mindless daytime soap opera by inviting viewers as well as the characters themselves to think about it.

In all good dramas, as in life, the characters carry the seeds of their own undoing, & here it often appears in hints of the strengths in women that men of the time were all too willing to overlook & dismiss. Look closely, & all the women who are really, truly attractive are the “outside” strong ones.

Case in point, Joan, the office manager, a red-hot single woman who unabashedly wields her sexiness as a blunt weapon in a world filled with dogs & wolves. She advises neophyte office girl Peggy, on her first day, to conduct an honest assessment of herself in the world by cutting two eyeholes in a paper bag, putting the bag over her head, & reviewing what she has to offer.

While the uniformly white middle & above-class men are running things in the office & incidentally shaping the way Americans are enticed not only into buying discrete items, including cigarettes & alcohol, deodorant, nylons, lipstick & other crutches & artifices of the modern age, most of which involve creating markets by exploiting fears & social insecurities, but also, on the way, persuading Americans to define themselves in terms of what they can buy (you have a fear? we have a cure!), there are rumblings deep underground & to which they remain oblivious.

There is nothing inherently evil in capitalism. But capitalism is not merely consumerism. In Mad Men we see its genesis & its journey to becoming far more what it started as. In our day, it has become a world view, a definition of good government (democracy as condition precedent to capitalism,) & a secular religion of sorts. That it takes root in a particular slice of the world at a particular point in American post-war history within the bubbling parameters of a malign stew of sexism, more than occasional misogyny, homophobia, racism & an extreme bias toward all things white & middle class has never surprised anyone historically outside it. The aura & odor of it envelop & permeate the Mad Men, who do not themselves notice. And why should they? They’re at the pinnacle of the food chain.

Defined by the ostensibly squeaky-clean white middle class mores of the period (which included copious amounts of non-PC behavior such as smoking, drinking, smoking & drinking during pregnancy & not restraining children in seatbelts ~ how DID the human race survive, GenX &Y’ers wonder in amazement in the blogs, astonished to find that the marvelous world of the pampered & precious me’s around which all else revolves is just another aspect of consumer culture writ large in their own lives), those of us looking on from a further remove think the series is interesting on a somewhat different level & illuminated by the fact that that we already know what happens next.

The American middle class dream is about to rupture & be forced to reinvent itself, both as a result of pressures within (a fragile center that cannot hold, a dream within a dream that was never real except in American ad-land), as well as without ~ previously ignored & unseen racial strife, women’s lib, student unrest & the war in Vietnam. None of which was inevitable, as I once thought, given the hollowness of what we see here, & which preceded it.

It wasn’t inevitable nor fated to happen that way. It just (I think fortunately) did. It was a reprieve, a bubble in time, as we see from the perspective of the Bush years, looking backwards.
America is still struggling to find its soul beyond the blitz of glitz & the equally ferocious conservative backlash that tries to convince us we should go back there, to a happier, more stable, & by definition, more simplistic time. Problem is, that time exists only in our imaginations.

I’m intrigued by the idea that the view from a retrospect can matter & teach us something about how we came to be who & where we are. That so much in our lives may have been due to conscious manipulation of mass media with the initial aim of separating us from our money (fairly transparent & therefore easy to resist & ridicule) has since morphed into something beyond that is, to me, a hopefully productive & necessary conversation in an age where politix, especially, is dominated by misinformation (formerly trusted media sources who can’t even seem to get their facts straight about the simplest details, never mind conduct a thoughtful investigation, deliberate disinformation (the histrionics of conservative TV & talk radio), & public leadership that plainly believes that there is no problem that the right (manipulative) “spin” can’t cure.

Seems that a relatively unknown politician by the name of Nixon is going to be the Mad Men’s next client. A bizarre idea at the time. (And now very quaint.)

Introductory article from the LA Times Weekly:

If you haven’t been watching, check it out on the show’s website (view clips of previous episodes, review upcoming plots, & set the producers straight on the blog if you spy a detail that isn’t “period,” other than use of IBM Selectrics, non-period telephone dial tones, & references to books that weren’t published yet):

Fun blog where you can vote on what you think is going to happen to a character next. “Betty ends up in looney bin?” I voted “yes.”



Blogger sumo said...

Can't wait until Thursday night!

4:17 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home