Mary-Joan Gerson PhD

Mary-Joan Gerson Ph.D.

The Cyberspace Connection

Mad Men: A Timeless Existential Social Drama

Why does “Mad Men” attract yet disturb us all at once?

Posted Jan 03, 2012

Don and Betty Draper

Mad Men has entered the culture on every level. Sesame Street had a junior version at one point, and a politician was recently described as behaving in a "Mad Men" fashion.

What is so penetrating about this TV series? I recently gave a talk at a psychoanalytic conference in which I focused on the clutch of the Mad Men series. I think it grips us because of its special mixture of nostalgia (with a big dose of superiority), combined with a haunting sense that not that much has changed in five decades!

Mad Men is sometimes disturbing to post-millennium viewers, particularly to those of a "certain" age, on three counts. Indeed, a psychoanalytic colleague told me that she suffered a panic reaction during her first viewed episode and desisted thereafter. Firstly, it captures the post-War rule of avoiding emotional distress due to its distasteful nature. Secondly, it captures the era's celebration of surface over substance in relationships. Lastly, it brings to life a culture of gender oppression, racism and homophobia. However, there is a superficial reassurance that watching the series offers many viewers: a smug sense that we have completely surpassed the narrowness and proscribed role-taking that characterized this period of American culture.

I think that we still lack tolerance for deep emotional distress and that every problem in human existence can be googled for a solution. We can smirk at the advertising pitches and at the purchasing greed of that generation, but we are ever more trapped by the consumerism of today; electronically we're prisoners of the latest release by Apple or Amazon. In addition, though relationships today are more gender equal, we still avoid intimacy by talking to our devices more than to each other, all the while expecting our partners to deliver excitement, passion and novelty, no matter how complicated and demanding modern life can be.

I believe that though we watch this series and think, "How awful it was to be person, woman, man, American, in that era...before feminism, before sexual liberation, before the Civil Rights movement," we are nevertheless haunted by the existential timelessness of the psychological drama revealed.

Reference to Mary-Joan's Mad Men article:

M.J. Gerson. (2011). "The World of Mad Men: Power, Surface and Passion." The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 2011, 71, (370-375).

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