The Birth of Neoliberalism: American Realities Individualized and Refracted on Mad Men
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

Peggy and Don at a Bar
Peggy and Don at a Bar (Mad Men, “The Suitcase”)

In Mad Men’s third season finale, Don Draper tries to persuade Peggy Olson to leave their current ad agency and start, with several other partners, something new to avoid being subsumed into a giant corporation. Peggy tells Don it’s “because you can’t work for anyone else,” an explanation he builds upon rather than rejects when he explains Peggy’s value within their profession: “Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me, then something happened, something terrible, and the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands it. But you do. And that’s very valuable.” This moment reveals that both characters self-consciously understand their advertising creatives are, as Don elliptically points out in many pitches throughout the show, essentially historians who tap into and repackage what individuals have lost in order to brand and sell new things. As economic historians, Don and Peggy actually act as generators of the new by reconfiguring older tropes, forms, and forces into new conceptual logics.

Peggy’s stoned triumphalism (Mad Men, “My Old Kentucky Home”)

In focusing on these two characters and their colleagues, Mad Men depicts the early years of American neoliberal economics, a paradigm under which all aspects of society and human behavior, but especially any exercise of political power, came to be analyzed in the terms of the market economy [ (( See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 131, for a discussion of this in relation to German and American neoliberalism. ))]. As a result, Mad Men’s core characters are all defined, narratively and visually, through their professional identities, inverting television’s more frequent privileging of personal, social relationships as their emotional cores. This essay allusively and schematically argues Mad Men offers a televisual genealogy of our dominant economic paradigm, using interpretation to build upon historian-philosopher Michel Foucault’s lectures concerning modern Western economics given between 1977 and 1979 at Collège de France.

Foucault’s lectures are applicable to Mad Men, in part, because of the historical (temporal) intersections and overlaps of the series’ timeline with his and, on the other hand, because of their techniques of presentation. The longer story of Don Draper matures amidst the interventionist policies of the US welfare state, between the New Deal, the Beveridge plan, and Presidents Truman through Johnson’s policies against which Don and American neoliberalism define themselves. Mad Men, however, only tracks its ensemble’s embodied resistance to liberal economics between 1960 and 1970, years during which American economists Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker developed new theories of human capital and scarce means. With the former, American neoliberals rejected classical economics’ abstraction of labor because it didn’t consider, let alone try putting itself in the position of, workers; with the latter, they further changed economic analysis’ object of study from production’s mechanisms to scarce means. These two discursive shifts altered the modes and concepts undergirding economic analysis by basing neoliberalism in workers’ perspectives in order to better understand how enterprises function.

As a serialized historical representation, Mad Men offers new theoretical insights into how and why neoliberalism continues to thrive and literally reinforces the neoliberal market’s call for historical examinations of its workers. Foucault’s lectures self-consciously engage their serialization: the historian cracks, at the end of one 1979 lecture, “like a good serial, this is what I will try to explain next week,” serials that, like Mad Men, are usually in twelve or thirteen parts with the previous week introduced at the beginning and concepts carried throughout [ ((Ibid, 121. ))]. In fact, the word “series” recurs throughout Foucault’s texts, conceptually arguing that histories must always concern multiple networks of specific things and concepts in which they may be comparatively understood and contextualized.

Mad Men especially embodies such a serialized sense of history by interweaving seismic historical events with the mundane details of everyday life and interpenetrating the relationships of advertising work and its professional world with broader American society. When Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in season six, for example, the ensemble is at an industry awards show that only haltingly, temporarily acknowledges this event before moving on with its hermetically-sealed concerns. This plot point suggests the degree to which historical populist social narratives were, at the time they were occurring, peripheral and irrelevant to how the neoliberal economy’s emergence. The television series format allows for many such successive, topically and thematically related events to accumulate and make a general historical argument, using its serialization to continuously test the historical applicability of neoliberalism.

Mad Men – The Suitcase from Josip Kostic on Vimeo.

Peggy and Don wake up to one another (Mad Men, “The Suitcase”)

Peggy’s claim that Don cannot work for anyone else strikes at the core of how neoliberalism redefined the self. The basic unit of American neoliberal analysis is the enterprise, not the individual. However, neoliberal individuals are actually their own enterprises. There’s thus a radical re-definition of class economics’ homo economicus (the ideal type of economic man, or Don Draper) who’s no longer exchanging some thing with another man but who’s now an entrepreneur, becoming his own capital, producer, and earnings source. But neoliberalism looks beyond individual enterprises, or an individual’s life, and insists these singularities must be understood, examined, and replicated within an intricate network of enough other interconnecting, interpenetrating, and overlapping enterprises, or individuals’ lives, to yield a useful understanding of each enterprise independently as well as together, jointly, rather than tracking just Don or Peggy. Mad Men functions so effectively as a piece of neoliberal history because the show is a landscape consisting of such mutually imbricated enterprises. “The Suitcase,” perhaps the most widely lauded episode, tracks Don and Peggy’s relationship as it unfurls during an all-nighter to prepare for a pitch. At the center of the series’ production history, the episode is the show’s neoliberal heart because, after Don discovers “the only person in the world who really knew me” has died, Peggy, who’s come to know Don entirely through work, tells him, “That’s not true,” because, after all, she knows him.

Mad Men: The Carousel from raychancc on Vimeo.

Don Draper’s pitch to Kodak (Mad Men, “The Wheel”)

In Mad Men’s season one finale “The Wheel,” Don Draper displays his virtuosic entrepreneurial skill as a plainspoken poet-philosopher of American capitalism while pitching a campaign for a new circular slide projector to Kodak executives. Don’s pitches double as meditations upon the intersections of economics and history, both public and private, and in his Kodak pitch, Don claims nostalgia represents the consumer’s deep bond with a product, citing the Greek root as “the pain from an old wound.” He goes on to claim Kodak’s projector is a time machine that “goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place we ache to go again,” that is, it takes us home “to a place where we know we are loved.” While Don implies his conception of home is a happy one through using personal photographs of he and his then wife Betty, home, since his childhood, has pushed Don towards cheating and lying to escape an overwhelming sense of abjection and displacement that only advertising helps him escape.

The Kodak pitch, like each one on the show, is intended to promote consumption; however, consumption, following the neoliberal homo economicus, is not process whereby some person makes a monetary exchange for a product but rather a process of production. The homo economicus simultaneously consumes things but also, and more importantly, produces his own satisfaction and, moreover, because this process of production is individualized, he always ultimately satisfies him. With the Kodak Carousel, Don turns his personal history into a tool to advance economic history while explaining both the show and the character’s neoliberal historical vision. Mad Men’s overarching narrative concerns how Don manages to successfully pursue always changing visions of neoliberal self-pleasure to significant fiscal payoffs. The show’s theory of history suggests that neoliberal Americans like Don have succeeded for so many decades because they intentionally constitute themselves by and through economic rather than social historical trends or personal histories. This dissociation enables Don and others to refract and translate their personal mythologies into a generalizable idiom, ironically rendering the personal that they’ve neglected a commodity whose nostalgia eschews context inasmuch as it promises an always happy ending.

OMMMM (Mad Men, “Person to Person”)

Mad Men is often discussed as a show about America’s postwar consumer society when in fact it represents how neoliberal economics redefine mass consumer society. It lampoons and reifies this thematic leitmotif with its series’ final scene. There, we are shown Don at a Northern California New Age retreat center where meditation and chanting “OM” led him to devise the delightfully cynical, ironic, and iconic 1970 Coke commercial, “I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke,” an entrepreneurial neoliberal appropriation of 1960s progressive diversity politics to sell a product to consumers who want to imagine themselves as unique individuals. This moment, of course, represents a happy ending for Don because he has once again reinvented himself, but, more importantly, it represents the ability of the neoliberal economic-historical machine to lead beyond personal blight and towards a gospel of the market in which, as in the commercial, individual enterprises come together to form an intersectional whole whose visible and conceptual togetherness belies neoliberalism’s destructive underbelly.

Joan appropriates the feminist agenda (Mad Men, “Lost Horizon”)

Whither politics admits all this talk of neoliberalism? In conclusion and as exhibited by the Coke commercial and MLK Jr. scene, I propose that Mad Men functions as a political text by advancing an anti-politics wherein its ensemble is so obsessed with work that its enterprises largely remain oblivious or resistant to the final gasp of the welfare state and the hippie, civil rights, feminist revolutions. In season three’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” Peggy gets stoned with her colleagues, but, moments later, when her secretary expresses concern over this risk, Peggy launches into a stoned rant about how she’s going to use her individual professional skills in order to achieve all the successes, ignoring the feminist agenda to privilege herself as an enterprise. Even more telling is Joan Holloway’s moment in “Lost Horizon.” After being sexually harassed by a male coworker, she threatens her new boss with the ALCU and Betty Friedan if he does not give her her financial stake as a partner back. Semi Chellas, who co-wrote this episode, frankly told me that this is not a grand feminist moment, that it’s just about Joan trying to get her money, which could gloss the way the entire series rejects progressive master narratives of the 1960s in favor of depicting the rise of today’s still dominant conservative ideology.

Image Credits

1. Peggy and Don at a Bar (Mad Men, “The Suitcase”)

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The Madness of Angeleno Freeways: Auto Mobility, Futurism, and Masculine Desire
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

Don Draper Driving

Don Draper Driving in his Cadillac

Beginning with the Italian Futurists’ first 1909 Manifesto, modernist design discourse championed the utopian potential promised by the speed and mobility of automobile transit. Cars represented, more than any other modernist creation, the male desire to dominate a landscape using a particular visual form. Filippo Marinetti, the founder of Futurism and the author of the 1909 Manifesto, also proposed deeply misogynistic and vocally anti-feminist ideas that expressed the desire to dominate and suppress women while liberating men through automobile transit. Marinetti later revised his comments about women, championing the kind of feminist who was “a new kind of unromantic woman,” but his first claims strike at the heart of modernism’s failures to make room for female let alone feminist voices. [ (( “Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 1967), 103.” )) ] The Futurist Manifesto focuses solely on cars’ symbolic potentials rather than on any sort of formal tenets and defines the Futurist masculine movement by reconceptualizing time rather than space, stressing the significance of transience. The driving, solo man, street racing in the exurbs of Milan, comes to embody the empowered technological individual.

Don Draper is always driving on an Angeleno freeway of the mind. Matthew Weiner cites the preserved modernist fabric of Los Angeles as a primary inspiration for the series, but the modernist thrall of Los Angeles comes, in the assessment of modernist historians, from its almost hyperreal car culture. Mad Men is nothing if not a blend of the decades surrounding its 1960s setting, and its sets reflect a continued preoccupation with Populuxe 1950s car aesthetics, especially in roadside architectures like Howard Johnson’s, Burger Chef, and a string of motels that feature as prominently in the show’s narrative arc as the elite modernist office spaces they inhabit. The 1950s represented the decade when corporate consumer architecture — big box stores, malls, grocery stores, fast food chains, and more — began proliferating in many American cities and spreading along highways into suburbs and even exurbs. This kind of sprawl had characterized Los Angeles since the 1880s; however, it became the national American urban image in the postwar period. The ad people of Mad Men are actively trying to advertise to this new, automobile-dependent national landscape.

While Mad Men’s sets and filming locations were intended to represent largely confining and dense New York locations, the entire series, excepting the pilot, was actually shot within the Los Angeles metro area and on sound studios at Los Angeles Center Studios. The modernist tower of the studios, near downtown LA, was designed by the same architects behind CBS Television City and, before the 1990s, had been an oil company’s corporate headquarters, imbricating Mad Men’s Manhattan corporate with the fuel that drives the auto industry.

Whitten Case Study House

Los Angeles Case Study House

Mad Men’s modernist Angeleno preservation impulse is perhaps most evident with Don and Megan Draper’s Upper East Side apartment whose interior is said to be based upon the LA Case Study Houses from the late 1940s and early 1950s and also upon popular California and national design magazines. On DVD commentary, Matthew Weiner claims the season two episode “The Jet Set” was filmed at one of these houses, but the kind of new multimedia affluent suburban ranch home brimming with equally new corporate technologies ironically receives its clearest re-articulation–as the nightmare setting of a failed second marriage–in Manhattan. Homes with built-in televisions and commissioned and promoted by a magazine, the Case Study houses represent the mass media’s attempt to shape the architectural tastes of the general public, to instate a Design for Dreaming.

From its historical perspective, Mad Men focuses on how mundane these spaces ultimately were and rejects the mythologies of the good life and glamour that are embedded in our collective memory of such spaces. As the aforementioned 1956 General Motors promotional video Design for Dreaming insists, the success of new, Second Machine age techno-utopia homes depended upon automobility. The good life was afforded by a hardworking husband, always in the driver seat coming to and from work, who affords his wife the newest technologies to ease her housework and childrearing. Driving in the car came to represent the acquisition and accumulation of capital, the engine affording the proliferation of mechanical consumer goods in the postwar home. But, then there’s one of Mad Men’s responses to this mythology in season seven’s “Time Zones,” which soundtracks Vanilla Fudge’s “Keep Me Hangin’ On” to a montage of sobbing, compromised, variously inebriated and forlorn characters in Case Study landscapes, unable to live up to or within the iconic poses these spaces insist upon their inhabitants taking.

Yet the dominant Angeleno car mythologies of Mad Men stem from Futurism and architectural history. Indeed, two architectural histories by Reyner Banham reflect the masculine thrall of automobile transit during the 1960s and that era’s historical desire to render the driving suburban everyman as possessing a kind of Futurist power. In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960, first edition), Banham admits the sexism of the Futurists but does not fully explore the hypocrisies undergirding said sexism. Instead, he glorifies their idealism. His book proposes that cars define the ability of technological modernity to progress and, implicitly, that only men have developed theories or publicly worthwhile opinions on cars.

Joan Holloway doll and lithograph

“Joan Holloway doll and lithograph”

The season five episode “The Other Woman” could be read as an overt Futurist allegory that meditates upon how masculine car culture progresses at the cost of women who are not unromantic. In the episode, Joan Holloway, who was commodified as a sexy Barbie doll during an early season, must sleep with a Jaguar executive (masculinist car culture!) in order to gain partner status. Those truly benefiting from the agreement are Joan’s male colleagues who have a far larger financial stake in winning the business. While this narrative could read like a woman (Joan) overcoming, or accepting, the car industry’s embodied oppression to achieve something long deserved, Joan’s victory is temporary and it’s made explicit that the sorts of oppressions she experienced are continuous in every professional arena.

In the third to final episode, “Lost Horizon,” Joan is sexually propositioned and harassed after a recent merger. She confronts her new boss about the situation and the scene escalates to Joan proclaiming she is going to enlist Betty Friedan, the ACLU, and the 1970 Ladies’ Home Journal protesters and him demanding she leave and accept a liquidated partnership. Joan’s brief attempt to intervene in masculinist corporate politics with overt feminism is depicted and punished in the modernist idiom of the show. Joan must start anew from her kitchen. This trajectory runs counter to Don’s: in the final episodes, he takes the open road to California where he attains spiritual capitalist enlightenment, privileged, unlike Joan, with the ability to abandon responsibilities and to adopt the kinds of new spatial identities afforded by carefree automobile transit.

In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), Banham paeans the LA freeways as the modern American equivalent of ancient Roman monuments — without admitting the extremely embodied and not always positive experience of, well, actually driving in LA. Banham provides a narcissistic universalizing (read: only his own straight white male) perspective on Los Angeles that doesn’t account for the different ways that Angelenos experience the freeways. Rather, this is Don’s fantasia: driving alone in a car on a scenic empty highway on the road towards the everyman’s enlightenment, or, towards “California Dreamin.” Somehow, Banham’s photos of the LA freeways, included in the book, are all empty or, at most, contain one other car, rescripting the actuality of the place to reflect a modernist privileging of the automobile and its infrastructure as design objects autonomous from their congested context. These are the same empty roadways as those Don’s always taking.

whitten howard johnson

Mad Men visits a Howard Johnson

In fifth season Mad Men episode “Far Away Places,” the Futurist myths concerning automobility are harnessed to express what Matthew Weiner describes as the “desire to go away.” [ (( “ http://www.amc.com/shows/mad-men/video-extras/inside-episode-506-mad-men-far-away-places” )) ] The entire show could be based upon this premise, with the weekly pitches to clients functioning as the idealized capitalist automobile dreamworlds that its characters peddle but never inhabit. In the episode, Don turns aimless driving — a Futurist mobility for the sake of mobility — into a tool to attempt to control his second wife, Megan. They decide to take an impromptu trip to a Plattsburgh, New York where there’s a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and Motor Lodge. There, inside the restaurant, Megan tells Don that she is sick of Don dominating their shared life. The image of their marriage is one of driving, of escape, of a road as open as the American landscape, and it’s also one of commercial capitalist roadside architecture, a love affair born of Disneyland motels, but also one in which Don is always in the driver’s seat. Their marriage fails because, following a Futurist myth, these Mad adventures only prove enlightening, or generate progress, when a man sets out on his own.

Image Credits

1. Don Draper Driving
2. Case Study House
3. Joan Holloway
4. Howard Johnson

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Miss Representations: No Room for Blackness or Feminism on Mad Men’s Sets
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster

As some have noted but few have probed, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s critically-lauded, recently departed, dolled up soap opera about white masculine decline and white female ascent in the 1960s New York ad agency Sterling Cooper, has a racial and feminist representation problem. The Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights and Black Power movements were fermenting during the 1960 to 1970 time period covered by the show, but, save for two peripheral African-American female secretarial figures, Mad Men problematically asserts the dominance of the white, straight, affluent male gaze within both its historical period and its viewing present. While this male gaze, especially as enacted by the show’s anti-hero protagonist, Don Draper, dominates the spaces of the agency’s white and black female workers, this series of three columns tackles a broad representational issue: first, against common claims that Mad Men is feminist, I argue that its corporate modernist sets reveal the show to be a perpetuator of white patriarchal domination of the American workplace and, secondly, how Mad Men’s refusal to explore how spaces of disenfranchised and segregated black characters echoes broader discriminatory practices within architectural and televisual creative cultures. Mad Men’s modernist office sets facilitate the show’s systemic perpetuation of the American masculinist creative culture as well as the racial and gendered divides between black and white, male and female American citizens.

As I see every year in the designs of my first year architecture students, architectural history, theory, and design cultures continue to be dominated by the modernist aesthetic found in the Sterling Cooper office sets. Mad Men’s season four promotional poster expresses the overt whiteness and maleness of this aesthetic, with Don standing in a crisp, empty, ready-to-be-dominated corner office staring out onto a sea of other skyscrapers. In design but also American popular culture, the skyscraper is, to be blunt, conceived to be symbolic of a giant penis and thus bespeaks the masculine domination of space. In the immediate postwar period, the modernist Manhattan skyscraper represents corporate restructuring and the concomitant solidification of binary American gender politics, with women only occupying low-level positions or, worse yet and as Betty Friedan decried in 1963, The Organization Man’s homemaking other.[ (( See Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963) and William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956). ))]

The final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar

Mies van der Rohe and his Seagram Building are the premiere postwar articulation of this skyscraper, PR-friendly patriarchal design culture. In its 2014 Venice Biennale show Elements, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture called Seagram a “monument,” and especially noted its use of the new partition wall to enable its interior spatial flexibility. The offices of Mad Men’s ad agency in seasons four through seven have partition walls and reflect not only the rapid growth of corporate America but also the spatial politics by which its male partners dictate the contents and borders of their office’s partition walls. Moreover, Mies’ most famous dictum, “less is more,” echoes the hard, universalizing, catchphrase-centered culture of midcentury masculine advertising. But the most striking correlation between Mies and Mad Men comes in the opening credit’s final shot. The animated ad mad is pictured from behind, smoking a cigarette, while Mies is usually photographed smoking a cigar. Both are upper middle class, professionalized white males iconized by the leisurely intake of tobacco in private offices while women toil away in undivided, exposed office spaces. If, as Marxist spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre claims, Mies is the leading architect of “a space characteristic of capitalism,” then Don Draper and other ad men are those spaces’ premier tenants.[ (( Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholslon-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991), 126. ))]

It is thus within the public and private spaces of the skyscraper office that Mad Men’s white, straight males make the final creative decisions that dictate their agency’s future. Echoing this fictional spatial narrative, the creative culture of twentieth and twenty-first century architecture has been almost entirely white and male, in part explaining how that demographics’ most popular corporate architectural style continues to dominate design culture—like, normative, homogenous bodies producing like, normative, homogenous spaces. Corporate modernism’s history is one long Great Man Theory and, despite Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, which has a black male architect protagonist, in 2007 only 1% of registered architects were black and, in 2004, only 20% were women. Architecture school enrollment statistics reported in 2012 reveal a slightly different story, with only 5% black but 43% female. [ (( See (1) Craig Wilkins, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and (2) Jenna M. McKnight, “Why the Lack of Black Students?,” Architecture Record (November 2012), available online at http://archrecord.construction.com/features/Americas_Best_Architecture_Schools/2012/Architecture-Education-Now/Diversity.asp. ))] The 2014 employment numbers at ad agencies are even more depressing: only 5% of employees were black, while only 4% of women were creative directors.

Modernism first emerged in Europe in the early twentieth century but made its American splash with MoMA’s 1932 International Style architecture exhibition. The show’s curators, Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, selected primarily domestic architectures that represented a terse, clean, and simple emphasis on a formalist geometric purity—rectilinearity—executed, in part, through open floor plans and windows with streaming sunlight. Johnson is perhaps the most important figure in twentieth-century American architecture and his public persona demonstrates the convergence of the three of the most significant midcentury mass media (television, advertising, and modernist architecture): as an openly gay man, he was an interloper in a heteronormative straight professional culture; as an architect, he collaborated with Mies on the Seagram Building, for which he designed some of its key interiors; as a curator at MoMA, in 1947 he put on the first Mies van der Rohe solo exhibition anywhere and, in 1988, he dubbed a group of “deconstructivist architects” the stylistic innovators succeeding his International Style modernists; and, as architectural theorist Beatriz Colomina argues, Johnson, despite his avowed rejection of television and other mass visual media because “[only] architecture is how you enclose space,” [ (( This Philip Johnson quote comes from his three part, 1976 Camera Three television interview, which aired on CBS. ))] was “like a TV personality…a TV program, a reality TV show that ran longer than anyone could have imagined.” [ (( Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 191. ))] Johnson was also like an ad man for elite architectural taste in America, coronating successive waves of architects like television producers created stars and ad men created verbal and visual slogans. Postwar American architecture was thus largely the product of a white, male advertising campaign that only once over its eighty-year span included women in its canon.

Spearheaded by Johnson, who turned high architectural culture into a mass consumable commodity expounded in clear, simple, marketable characteristics, the integration of television, advertising , and corporate modernism constitute what I consider to be the postwar period’s actual military-industrial complex. All three ‘creative’ professions were giant corporate ventures by Mad Men’s 1960 start, and they all— ironically, given their overlapping production of solely mass media—relied upon the elite patriarchal associations of architectural modernism’s history. While introduced in 1932, modernism did not become the dominant architectural style in America until the immediate postwar period when, as American architect Kenneth Reid wrote in 1942, the national design culture was looking for “leaders of undeniable maleness who are bold and forthright and stoutly aggressive” to articulate the booming corporate interests represented by Madison Avenue ad agencies. [ (( Quote taken from Andrew Shanken, 194x: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 5. The quote is from Kenneth Reid, “New Beginnings,” Pencil Points 24 (January 1943), 242. ))]

It was not just ad agencies like Sterling Cooper that used corporate modernism as tools of advertising and patriarchal domination. The Big Three and their local affiliates built new modernist television production facilities and corporate headquarters in New York and Los Angeles, and, like advertising, their corporate hierarchy and creative output was generated by almost exclusively white men producing content for audiences with a white, heterosexual, middle class demographic. Television historian Lynn Spigel chronicles the design through the opening of CBS’s first 1953 Los Angeles production facility Television City, which she claims “communicates the experience of television as a design concept.” [ (( Lynn Spigel, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 128, but see pages 110-143. ))] By using the elite design aesthetic of modernism as a public branding technique, television made an early argument that its mass mediated cultural productions were like an art form. CBS’s 1964 Midtown Manhattan corporate headquarters, a skyscraper located adjacent to Rockefeller Center, creates a far stronger correlation between Mad Men and corporate modernism, illustrating how by the mid-1960s the large, multitenant office building, primarily funded by a named corporation, became the definitively white, male emblem of creative professional work. Despite the multiple transitions in the production and distribution of new television content—the recent insurgence of especially black female televisual representation, a move that would seem to necessitate a reconsideration of corporate televisual modernism—the television industry continues to house itself in modernist corporate environments with similar managerial and creative identity-based inequalities. Mad Men’s corporate modernism thus doesn’t just tell the history of 1960s advertising; it provides a look into contemporary corporate creative culture.

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

Don standing in his slick modernist office staring out at a sea of skyscrapers

As many have pointed out, and unlike much of what historian Merrill Schleier has called “skyscraper cinema,” Mad Men almost never shows the exterior of the office buildings in which its characters spend the majority of their time. [ (( See Merrill Schleier, Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). ))] Instead, the camera meditates mainly on Don alone and with colleagues in his office. This focus on white straight masculine interiority corresponds to the dynamics of gender and sexuality as embodied by the midcentury skyscraper. The authoritative lines of corporate modernism are matched by the solidification of the male patriarchal domination of workspace—their position in corner offices with curtain-walled windows—and the ancillary roles, and interior, window-less spaces that women were relegated to. Indeed, for the majority of Mad Men’s run, only one woman, Don’s protégé Peggy Olson, receives her own windowed office, the rest of the female secretarial pool confined to fully open then partitioned interiors to be easily observed by their male bosses.

I’d like to make an admission: like many of Mad Men’s commentators, I spent my first run viewing of the show considering it something of a feminist masterpiece. I even, as shown below, posted a paean to its female protagonist Peggy Olson on my Facebook page. The bitter irony of making semi-public my misinterpretation of a sudsy but perhaps too championed show now resounds, as I complete my second full viewing of it, as my attempt to rationalize my pleasured enjoyment of an aesthetically and ideologically conservative soap opera. It would seem that, in having sat through and partially taught architectural history survey courses for eight years and counting, I’d accustomed myself to the very corporate architectural modernism, and its violent symbolic assault on female and black persons, that I encourage my students to critique and disengage from. The most telling part of my Facebook post is, however, the sole comment, left by a former yoga teacher, that Peggy’s “becoming Don.” I’d like to propose that, in addition to slavishly recreating corporate America’s patriarchal heyday, Mad Men recreates the patriarchal politics of the 1960s iterations of its primary generic category, the soap opera. Published in 1970, the same year as Mad Men’s conclusion, the intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful contains an essay that critiques the architecture-advertising-television complex illustrated by Mad Men’s narrative spatial emplacements. In her essay “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” Alice Embree claims that television is the primary nationally disseminated media controlled by the ad agencies of Madison Avenue. Significantly, Embree cites the soap opera as the televisual programming genre that most clearly exhibits and bolsters “the image of male-dominated women,” and she especially singles out the depiction of the white, middle class, corporate professional man (that’s you, Don Draper) as the corporeal and spatial soap opera figure making this assertion. [ (( Alice Embree, “Media Images I: Madison Avenue Brainwashing—The Facts,” in Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970), pages 175-191. ))]

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

My Facebook post about Peggy Olson

Over the course of the show, as Peggy Olson ascends the corporate ladder, she is, as my yoga teacher’s comment suggests, increasingly masculinized as an embodiment of liberal individualism. Popular and academic commentators on the show have called it “TV’s most feminist show,” but, in reality, it’s a show about men dominating women and women acquiescing to its male characters’ demands in order to achieve personal and/or professional success. Perhaps Peggy’s navigation of corporate modernism is a second wave feminist tale of liberal individualism, but she’s largely unhappy, unliberated, and depressed over the show’s run. Indeed, liberal individualist ideology was promoted by early, white, middle class second wave feminists, and this movement’s contrast with the collective working culture of feminized office culture—and black feminism—renders it a patriarchal American spatial myth: a pursuit of an office of one’s own that was considered out of reach by and for most women. [ (( For a discussion of the relationship between the American ideologies of liberal individual (and its 1960s white, middle class, bourgeois feminist associations) and its contrast with collective black feminism, see bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), pages 1-15. ))]

Peggy Olson in her office

Peggy Olson in her office

Indeed, all accounts of white and black authors who write about working in corporate America in the 1970 intersectional feminist anthology Sisterhood is Powerful state that, based upon their lived experiences, women never rose above the level of glorified secretary and never moved from open, interior, and public workspaces into private, windowed offices.[ (( For a comparative discussion of female workplaces in the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan in the 1960s, see Judith Ann, “The Secretarial Proletariat,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 86-101. For a discussion of a black female proletariat working in mass media, see Shelia Smith Hobson, “Women and Television,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, pages 70-76. ))] It would thus seem that Peggy’s corporate spatial ascent is an unlikely fictional conceit provided by white male apologists-cum-television creative to furnish a point of identification for contemporary female viewers and to lull male viewers into thinking the show was advancing a progressive (historical) agenda. Moreover, the aesthetics of Peggy’s office—warm wood paneling in stark contrast to Don’s clean whites—directly echo those of Seagram’s initial luxurious wood modernism, and her feminine domination of such a space corresponds to her narrative assumption of masculinist, unwavering, unsympathetic assertiveness. As importantly, Peggy’s refusal to collaborate with or advocate for her female co-workers demonstrates her ideological assumption of patriarchal corporate spatial divides. Audre Lorde’s 1979 black lesbian feminist manifesto “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” should ring in the ears of Mad Men viewers. Not only does Peggy use patriarchal professional and social tools to enable her spatial ascent, but she also doesn’t embrace Lorde’s claim that “for women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”[ (( Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Gender, Space, and Architecture, edited by Iain Borden, Barbara Penner, and Jane Rendell (New York: Routledge, 2000), 54, but see pages 53-55 for the full text. ))]

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room”

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices

In the series’ second episode, “Ladies’ Room,” Peggy is met with iciness by her new coworkers, initiating her corporate experience with inter-female hostility in Sterling Cooper’s only fully female space. But Peggy doesn’t have a desire to change this flawed social-political system. Instead, she engages in a largely competitive corporate jockeying, a political battle, with Sterling Cooper’s other ascendant white female employee, Joan Holloway. They’re most frequently shown riding the elevator up and down to the Sterling Cooper offices, and, in their tense final ride, Joan informs Peggy, after being sexually harassed by men at a competing firm, “I want to burn this place down.” Peggy doesn’t join Joan in her attempt to overthrow corporate sexual discrimination. Instead, she gets off the elevator and goes to her office, concluding the series by integrating herself, more than ever, into the male-dominated spaces of corporate America.

Further defying Lorde’s 1979 call to arms, Peggy several times displaces black female coworkers by making racist assumptions about black working class women who belong to the same spatially exposed secretarial pool she starts the series within. First, after discovering Don’s new secretary Dawn sleeping in his office and inviting Dawn to her apartment, Peggy thinks Dawn has stolen from her and Dawn, depicted in narrative shorthand as an abject, spatially unmoored black woman, leaves the supposed white feminist domestic sphere feeling the opposite of sisterhood and spatial togetherness. In effect, Peggy stereotypes Dawn as a poor, black thief, a domestic interloper, demonstrating how stereotypes are “a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening.” [ (( bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 170. ))] Instead of truly opening her space to intersectionality, making the emotionally risky decision to trust a black woman and thus truly making her home a place of feminist togetherness, Peggy makes the comfortable, “less threatening” social and political decision to racially police her personal space. Second, Peggy falsely presumes that flowers sent to her black secretary Shirley were intended for her, as if the Sterling Cooper offices, in their resounding modernist whiteness, has no space for black women to be given any attention. (This incident serves as a partial excuse for Peggy to request Shirley be re-assigned, making it overt that black women’s place within the Sterling Cooper office is subject to white overseers’ whims.) My emphasis on ‘modernist whiteness’ is intentional: Madison Avenue is literally, spatially. Moreover, when the historical spatial evolution of this advertising world is turned into a narrative with equally historical soap opera conventions, Mad Men crystallizes into a show conceived of, executed by, and representative of male patriarchy’s domination of American corporate space.


“On the Next Mad Men

Discussion to be continued in Flow 22.04.

Image Credits:

1. The Mad Men season 4 promotional poster
2. Final shot of the Mad Men opening credits (author’s screen grab)
3. Architect Mies van der Rohe smoking a cigar
4. Sea of skyscrapers (author’s screen grab)
5. Facebook post (author’s screen grab)
6. Peggy Olson in her office (author’s screen grab)
7. Peggy Olson in “Ladies’ Room” (author’s screen grab)
8. Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway ride the elevator up to Sterling Cooper’s offices (author’s screen grab)
9. “On the Next Mad Men

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