Mad Men, Capitalism, and the Schizophrenia of Social Class

For most of the first five seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper, the super cool, super successful Madison Avenue creative director, has been something of a superhero, with the seemingly infinite ability to reinvent himself: in life, business and marriage. But in season six, which ended last month, Don Draper has been closer to the edge, as his tragic childhood has come back to haunt him, and, perhaps, to destroy him. He was born as Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in childbirth. When Dick was ten, his father was killed by a horse that kicked him in the head. Dick was ultimately raised by his stepmother and an assortment of whores, hobos, and lowlifes.

Dick Whitman, while serving in Korea, swapped dog tags, and hence identity, with a dead soldier named Donald Draper, and started his life anew. In this act, he became the ultimate American, wiping the (tragic) slate clean and then moving up from used car salesman to fur salesman to copy writer to copy chief to adman god. And now he is unhappy, a double self, pathologically unfaithful to each of his wives, and, by the end of this season, unfaithful to his advertising partners as well. In one of the final scenes he loses the Hershey account when he tells a group of Hershey executives that as a child he was rewarded with a Hershey bar by a prostitute in return for pilfering money out of the pockets of the men who came to the brothel. “It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

As an advertising historian I’ve always been bothered by the Don Draper rags-to-riches plotline. The vast majority of admen of Draper’s generation were not only wealthy WASPS like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, they were the sons of Episcopalian ministers. Jews, Italians, and other ethnic, working-class interlopers were successful in Hollywood and elsewhere in the culture industry. But the doxology of the advertising industry at mid-century was Protestantism, whiteness, and privilege.

Matthew Weiner has been a fanatic for verisimilitude when it comes to Mad Men, explaining in interviews how carefully he places period appropriate political events, songs, toys, and fashion in the historical timeline of the show. But no one, to my knowledge, has questioned whether or not someone with Dick Whitman’s impoverished and abusive upbringing could “pass” among the most elite members of American society and, eventually, become their conquering hero.
On the other hand it is always unsatisfying, and possibly a bit silly, to criticize a work of historical fiction for being inaccurate. Mad Men is much more about “us” than it is about “them.” So what can we learn by reading Mad Men as a parable about the present, rather than the past?

One African American critic, Steven Boone, has argued that Mad Men is Roots for white people. This is pretty astute. Mad Men has the highest percentage of viewers who make over $100,000 per year of any show on cable television—about 50% when the show debuted in 2007. Maybe we are looking for a mythology to justify our privilege and reassure ourselves that we have earned our elite status? Another interpretation reinforces this view. Another critic, Ron Ben Tovim, reads Mad Men as a new American classic in the tradition of Melville’s Moby Dick. According to this reading Dick Whitman is one part Moby Dick and one part Walt Whitman—an American superhero who creates himself out of the existential black hole of the Korean War. Of course, real life WWII and Korean War veterans had considerable help in moving up, from the GI bill, federal housing assistance, and veteran health benefits.

I would like to think that Don Draper’s morbid past as Dick Whitman appeals to viewers because it acknowledges that class inequality exists. Things are bleaker now in the US than ever before. While a real life Dick Whitman would have had about a 10% chance of making it into the super elite, today a child born in similar circumstances would have only a 5% chance of becoming Don Draper.  Perhaps we can read Mad Men as a commentary on today’s class inequality, which produces the schizophrenia of modern day capitalism. It seems clear that Don’s split personality is becoming less functional, and that he is teetering on the edge of a psychotic break.

But in the end, does Mad Men have a progressive message? Quite the contrary: the message of the show is that consumerism is the key to a better life, and audiences seem to respond. After AMC started airing Lincoln commercials during Mad Men, Ford sold “more Lincoln MKZ sedans in April than in the first three months of the year combined.” Over the last eighteen months, Banana Republic has been successfully marketing a line of Mad Men inspired clothing to its customers. Of course, only the show’s upscale demographic can afford the Banana Republic Mad Men Collection Tipped Shift Dress, now selling for $140.00 on Ebay—not to mention a brand new Lincoln MKZ.

Ironically, perhaps, most of us in the $100,000+ demographic of the show have not achieved the heights, penthouse included, of Mad Men’s most successful characters. At the end of the day most of us wish we could duck into a phone booth and come out wearing the grey flannel suits, shape wear, and sexy confidence of an era that exists only in the beautiful, twisted, and tragic imagination of Matthew Weiner and his fellow Mad Men creators. The world of Mad Men is ultimately a fiction—a fiction so compelling that we will have to wait one final season to learn the fate of the whorehouse foundling, Dick Whitman/Don Draper, and to find out what knit print is going to be all the rage at Banana Republic.

Kathy M. Newman

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10 Responses to Mad Men, Capitalism, and the Schizophrenia of Social Class

  1. Pingback: Friday Reads: On Becoming and Unbecoming Walt Whitman - Critical Margins

  2. Susanne Slavick says:

    As a fan of this show, I enjoyed reading your analysis. But I, too, disagree that its message is “that consumerism is the key to a better life.” The rampant unhappiness throughout reveals the emptiness and lack of fulfillment in most of the characters’ lives….

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    • Kathy M. Newman says:

      Thanks Susanne. I think your critique of my argument is correct. What I was driving at was that the appeal of Mad Men—-the beauty of the clothes, furniture, etc.—-is more powerful than the message that capitalism is a bottomless, soulless pit! I cut out a paragraph in which I talk about how both Dow Chemical and Chevy saw huge boosts in their sales numbers after the episodes in which those companies were featured in the narrative of the show. So I guess I think that the “meta message” of the show, the show plus what it advertises, is more powerful than the deep, dark, nothingness that the characters wrestle with! Room for debate, of course! Thanks so much for commenting!

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  3. Bob says:

    With the array of channels available, and narrowcasting the primary rule of television, why is it problematic for there to be a show that aim at a high income demographic? If it works, it works. If people don’t want to watch it, there are hundreds of other channels. If enough people don’t watch, the show will be cancelled.

    Television is about the only true capitalistic medium left. While movies have immediate box office results, most of the costs have been sunk by the time you learn how bad it is (see also The Lone Ranger). In radio, the numbers are so small, it is hard to figure out if anybody is listening anyway. Forget newspaper. We should only be wondering what we will line our bird cages with.in the not too distant future.

    With TV, shows get cancelled left and right. Mad Men hasn’t despite what, at least according to the writer, is a finely tuned market demographic.

    Mad Men is a well written, well researched show with a story line that is compelling. It is like watching a NASCAR event for the crashes, which is about all NASCAR is good for.

    Get over it. History can be ugly. It exposes flaws that were either best kept hidden or look awful under present lighting conditions.

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  4. Kris Warner says:

    “One African American critic, Steven Boone, has argued that Mad Men is Roots for white people. This is pretty astute. Mad Men has the highest percentage of viewers who make over $100,000 per year of any show on cable television—about 50% when the show debuted in 2007. Maybe we are looking for a mythology to justify our privilege and reassure ourselves that we have earned our elite status?”

    This conflates class and race. Most white people don’t make over $100,000, even if white people are the majority of those making over $100,000.

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  5. Andrew Colville says:

    How can Mad Men be both a “commentary on today’s social inequality” yet the message of the show is “consumerism is the key to a better life”? Those things would presumably be contradictory but for the fact that neither of them is in fact true.

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  6. Kelly Ohler says:

    Roots? Moby Dick? What show are you watching? Josh is spot on. Mad Men is Gatsby. Don Draper/Gatsby IS F. Scott Fitzgerald, who WAS in advertising and who did try to live Draper’s/Gatsby’s life, a working-class man making it, or pretending to make it as an elite.

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  7. Roy Wilson says:

    Kathy,

    An excellent blog entry.

    You say:
    But no one, to my knowledge, has questioned whether or not someone with Dick Whitman’s impoverished and abusive upbringing could “pass” among the most elite members of American society and, eventually, become their conquering hero.

    I wonder:
    How do we account for the few who do (at least for a while) “pass”? Luck? How much of “passing” is due to “structure” and how much to “agency” (to use the almost anachronistic language of the sociologists)?

    Like

  8. Josh says:

    Hi Kathy,

    Really enjoyed this essay and mostly agree with your conclusions, but I have to question whether “the message of the show is that consumerism is the key to a better life.” Maybe in some meta-McLuhan sense, as you seem to suggest with those illuminating details about Lincoln and Banana Republic. But taken on its own terms, Weiner’s “message” is overwhelmingly — I’m tempted to say overbearingly — to the contrary: advertisements are lies, and admen are liars (admittedly, glamorous and sophisticated ones).

    That point gets driven home constantly in the emptiness of what Draper and colleagues are selling — or more precisely, in the contrast between the banality of the products and the transcendent values attached to them, particularly as reflected in the spiritual and sometimes moral vacuity of the admen themselves. To cite just one recent example, which you also mention: little Dick Whitman, alone in a whorehouse, deploys the Hershey brand as locus for his miserable fantasies of a normal childhood. But grownup Don Draper, spectacularly melting down in front of horrified colleagues and prospective clients, doesn’t romanticize that identification or see anything ultimately redemptive or uplifting in it. The Hershey people certainly don’t. Isn’t that the point?

    The “consumerism as salvation” reading presupposes that in his contemplation of the fetishized chocolate young Dick was inspired, Gatsby-like, to transform himself into Draper. That’s debatable; but more to the point, it assumes the show and its viewers will necessarily recognize such a self-constructed life as somehow “better.” Though his material circumstances have improved, Draper himself openly doubts whether this is the case, which costs him both the account and his job.

    I think you’re spot-on that the popularity of the show, especially among more affluent viewers, probably indicates some serious, unresolved cultural anxiety about income inequality and the sorry state of the American Dream. But if anything, it’s an indictment of upward mobility as a concept — not just as a workable prospect for working-class people, but as a sane and desirable mode of aspiration.

    Having said that, I don’t know what to make of the fact that it’s apparently also a point-of-view that moves luxury cars and high-end clothing. But whatever that’s about, it’s not Weiner’s fault.

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  9. Jack Labusch says:

    Entertaining business procedural and period show. I’ve Netflixed the available seasons. Best line(s) of show, repeated, I think, with variations: “We do something (advertising) they (our clients) can’t do.” Translation: Our client produces crap. How do we sell it?

    Even low-end ad research and sales, where I worked, can be fun, occasionally rewarding, especially for younger folks who’ve yet to be cheated of commissions, bonuses, and promised stock, and finally replaced by a telemarketer working a repeat sales gig.

    FWIW–America’s universal health care movement could have benefited from a cold-blooded “Mad Men” analysis. Maybe, for starters, something like, “These SOBs (voter-customers of universal health care) don’t give a rat’s hindquarters about their sick Moms, or sick friends, or sick neighbors. All they do is whine about their friggin’ co-pays, and what-not. What is it that’s telling them to toss every ounce of human feeling out the window?” The thing is the Rorem-Kimball model of group health insurance, which is unique to the U. S., because no other country is stupid enough to use it.

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