So, Matthew Weiner is asking all the big questions: are we nothing but a consumer society, morally bankrupt, spiritually empty, valuing money and acquisitions over relationship? Does groupthink always cause a mass of people to devolve until they are acting in the basest possible way? And when it does, how do you navigate a universe populated by those completely lacking in morals? Are we one step away from realizing the dystopian view that women have been subjugated and stripped of power—even that over their own bodies?
Last week’s Mad Men episode (511, “The Other Woman”) took me back to all of those college English courses I used to love. Thackeray was right after all; in his bitingly satirical novel Vanity Fair he makes clear that acquisition and material possessions do not pave the royal road to happiness. Golding too. In Lord of the Flies his adolescents stumble through attempts to govern themselves, regressing and crossing all boundaries- — even those most unspeakable—and raising some pretty tough questions about the nature of right and wrong, and what it means to be human.
Some other themes this episode calls to mind: questions of class, social status, and the nature of good versus evil (just like Melville’s Moby Dick, but without the preoccupation with revenge; perhaps the writers will go there at some future point in time?). And the most prominent dilemma of all: what do we make of a society in which women are dehumanized and placed in positions of abject humiliation (a conundrum reminiscent of those with which Atwood wrestled in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale). And to think I never believed my professors when they told me that being an English major would come in handy!
Snark aside, the events in Mad Men really got me thinking. Many of the show’s characters appear to be morally bankrupt; they don’t value relationships, just wealth and power—and for this reason the future does not bode well for the gang at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Choosing material goods over people, devaluing others and treating them like objects, is a recipe for certain disaster, at least psychologically. Those who eternally chase the high of acquisition, those who seek meaning in possessing the most expensive and elusive things at the expense of all else, almost always wind up feeling desperate and empty inside. Their relationships are shallow, and they often feel lonely in the long run. Take Roger Sterling. He chases skirt after skirt, but is never happy or satisfied.
Roger’s partner, Don Draper, does not get trapped in the consumer rat race. He might have pimped himself out to please female clients (didn’t he sleep with an insistent Bobby Barrett, wife of an entertainer hired by Utz potato chips because she gave him an ultimatum?). But that dalliance occurred at the expense of Don’s own hide. He is less inclined to take a liberty when it comes to adverse consequences for others. This is evident when he puts his relationship with Joan above his business interests, for example. And Don is the only partner that objects to the trade- sex- for- business- arrangement Pete Campbell is brokering. One reason he is having none of it: Don is not bound by group think. The others vote with the herd, not with their consciences. But Don has a personal code of ethics. Army desertion, identity stealing, and adulterous acts aside, he is undoubtedly the moral center of the show.
Peggy Olson, too, has her own moral compass. She shows herself as someone who values relationships. She views Don as a mentor. It is only when she sees her hard work will only go so far--she will have to leave the agency if she is to make it to the next level—that she decides to join a rival firm. And leaving (and giving notice) does not come easily for Peggy. Which brings us to Joan. She’s just doing what she feels she has to with the only asset(s) that seem to get her anywhere in the mid-1960s. Joan’s decision to sell herself for a share in the partnership comes out of a desire to support her child—she is choosing that relationship over all else. With limited options she takes the only avenue open that allows her to control her own future. Wonder what Atwood would have to say about that?
Stephanie Newman, PhD, is the author of Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the hit TV show, which can be purchased from Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and Amazon.
Atwood, M. The Handmaid's Tale. Fawcet Crest, 1985: New York.
Melville, H. Moby Dick: The Whale (Delux Penguin Edition). Northwestern University Press, 2001: Evanston IL
Thackeray, WM. Vanity Fair. Modern Library Editon. 1999: New York