TelevIsm: Four things for the fourth season of Mad Men

Rachel McCarthy-James
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Image description: The season four promotional photo for Mad Men, featuring the lead actors against a beige backdrop.

Mad Men is back on Sunday for its fourth season! I am a big fan (I've written about the show often at Deeply Problematic) but unfortunately I cannot write critically about a season that has not yet aired. Nonetheless, I do have a few specific subjects I want to see addressed in season four. The first two are issues that the show is already addressing quite well, and which I would like to see explored further. And the second two are matters the show has not yet addressed (to my satisfaction, at least).

1. The Feminine Mystique: This show's writers clearly carry around dogeared copies of Betty Friedan's second-wave classic about upper class women and their dissatisfaction with domesticity. Women (specifically white women) in Mad Men and their relationships to the domestic and professional sphere are chronicled in great detail from three major perspectives: the unhappy housewife, the working woman looking to move to the marriage track, and the ambitious career girl hitting that glass celing. I am most looking forward to seeing the steps that Betty, Joan, and Peggy take in their careers and their homes in season four.

2. The patriarchy hurts men too: Mad Men is about both women and men just before a major upheaval in gender roles, and it does an excellent job of showing exactly why the second wave was necessary for men, too. The most poignant example of this is Sal, who hides his attraction to men to fit into the grey flannel masculinity of the advertising industry at Sterling Cooper.

3. Attention to race. While race is not completely erased on Mad Men, it hasn't been addressed in depth. It's time to start doing that. Mad Men has few recurring, named characters of color, and and a show that purports to provide a critical look at the 1960s needs to more seriously address race, particularly as it moves into 1964 and the Civil Rights Act. As LaToya Peterson wrote last year:

[I]n the case of the black characters, the relationship never goes beyond shallow conversation. Mad Men takes on a number of cultural controversies, yet race is treated with politeness, distance, restraint, and a heavy dose of sentimentality. For a show that takes place in the early '60s, as race riots are breaking out, this is a glaring omission... The white patriarchy is breaking apart, the rush of the '60s are upon us. But the black characters are still trapped in a romantic haze of noble, silent suffering... Black characters remain silent enigmas, and Asian Americans are barely noticed at all.

This is quite a white liberal show, and it will probably have problems depicting race. But if Mad Men is going to critique the sixties with any integrity, it needs to portray characters of color and racism regularly and in depth.

4. The Beatles. It's at least 1964 in Mad Men time, and you can't show '64 without the Fab Four. I can't wait to see how Matt Weiner treats the stateside reception of one of my favorite bands.

What's on your wish list for the new season?

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

All the way with LBJ!

Top of my list: I want to see the Johnson Administration folded into the show. There have been casual mentions, including Roger Sterling's line about a Texan running the White House at the end of season three. But incorporating his presidency into the show would get us closer to addressing the third point on your list, as well as get us further into Vietnam.

Yes! I am just getting into

Yes! I am just getting into the show, which I find incredibly fascinating.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Patriarchy and Don Draper

I have to disagree about Sal being the most poignant example of how patriarchy impacts men. His situation is awful, but as a viewer, I find it less compelling, only b/c it's what one expects of that time period. In other words, I kind of already know Sal's story.

But to see someone like Draper, who is in one of the most advantageous positions in society, navigating that same social terrain, is far more interesting and eye-opening. He's someone who should be completely happy and at the top of his game, but instead, we get all these cracks in the armour and the occasional complete unravelling (ie. his Cali trip).

I agree that Don's

I agree that Don's development has been a very interesting case of how patriarchy affects men, though it's obviously the case with Sal as well.

Don's development has been very fascinating indeed. It was pretty uninteresting at first, the whole "I'm so dark and mysterious and secretive and filled with existential angst even though I'm very privileged." But over time the character got much more nuanced, and it became more about how the worldview he's immersed in fixes him into patterns of behavior that are self-destructive. It's way more interesting (than surprise I have a secret family! etc.)

Mad Men definitely falls

<em>Mad Men</em> definitely falls into the genre I call "The Unbearable Whiteness of Being", which is why I find it so compelling. Even after viewing three episodes, I find its analysis of race, class and gender as it relates to <em>this</em> particular group of characters very honest, even if it's not always pleasant to watch as a black person. <em>Mad Men</em> is reflecting on an era rather than tackling the contemporary landscape. For that reason, I find it infinitely more satisfying, as its erasure in some ways is informed by the limitations imposed by its desire to be authentic.

In addition, it clearly does not romanticize these characters, which I also find satisfying.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


Snarky, I totally agree. As a huge <i>Mad Men</i> fan I really want to see more race issues confronted on the show, but only in a way that makes sense for the characters and context provided. For example, I like seeing Carla interact with the Draper family within the context of their day-to-day lives, but if Betty (her wealthy white employer) were to accompany her to a Civil Rights rally I'd have to call shenanigans.

I'm really looking forward to season four! In addition to RMJ's wish list I agree with Alyx that I'd love to see some more Vietnam coverage this season. Also, I am looking forward to Sally growing up and becoming a rambunctious tween—she's got rebellion written all over her. As far as the adult characters go, I am hoping Peggy and Joan are allowed more leadership at the new company. I think it will happen!

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I think Mad Men's

I think <em>Mad Men</em>'s willingness to be authentic, even if it's uncomfortable, might be one of the reasons it has succeeded where other shows exploring the same era have failed. It's a gorgeously written show. I'm so in love with it. It's definitely filling the void left by <em>Six Feet Under</em>

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I am so excited for Season

I am so excited for Season 4. This is by far the best drama on television. The wish list is pretty satisfactory too.

as far as "attention to race" goes, i think the show treats race in complex ways that are really fascinating. It's something that we can sense always under the surface, but it's never discussed. I take that as a pretty poignant comment on the era it depicts.

the few times it is addressed speak volumes too. a few instances that come to mind are Pete with the (black) elevator man, discussing his choice of TV, and Don with his (black) waiter discussing his brand of cigarette. the ad men are so much in their world that they can only see the black struggle (constantly brewing in the subtext) as an untapped market. And that's really the point of the show, that these characters live in an alienated, fractured world (like the theme with everything literally falling to pieces).

There are times where the conflict over race is directly depicted. like Kinsey and his girlfriend traveling south to join protests, and Carla listening to the "I have a dream" speech. I like that their explicit treatment of race is kind of peripheral. It strikes me as realistic. But I think anything different would come across as corny conveniently-after-the-fact pieties (ie like liberals patting themselves on the back for how enlightened we are now that we've ended all racism). We can accept that Don has no hatred of black people, but picturing him (or any of the mad men) as a freedom rider is stretching credibility. Kinsey is such a freedom rider, but he becomes an office pariah for it, and is ironically out of touch, hilariously explaining to his fellow protesters how Marxism and Marketing are perfect bedfellows.

While I enjoy the show's treatment of race, WHY cant we follow Carla home and learn more about her? That would be <b>great</b>. She is a really interesting character.

As far as the Beatles and that go, it could be interesting. I can easily see Sally getting into beatlemania. But I generally like how the show treats pop culture/news of the era, treating it more as a context to convey some of the thematic issues, rather than making it some sort of cheesy retrospective. I'd get bored fast if it was just waiting for them to stick in the next cultural event.

Also you are 1000% right to say that Mad Men shows how "patriarchy hurts men too." I think it's one of the best shows at depicting how masculinity is constructed, which is a topic i often find lacking in feminist analysis.

sorry to ramble on. you can probably see i am excited for the show to return. :]

Re: "I generally like how

Re: "I generally like how the show treats pop culture/news of the era, treating it more as a context to convey some of the thematic issues, rather than making it some sort of cheesy retrospective. I'd get bored fast if it was just waiting for them to stick in the next cultural event."

We like to think that the 60s were just one long hippyfest/protest, but the reality was probably much more like what we see in Mad Men - things burble up and then you go back to your daily routine. I guess it just doesn't make for compelling baby boomer nostalgia-tripping of the type we're perpetually enamoured of (the movie "Across the Universe" comes to mind). Mad Men is about a world that gets changed by that time period, but maybe not in a "club you over the head with civil rights and peace" kind of way - which would be just far too obvious and boring to watch.

A Towering Harbinger

Something else happened in 1964 that I eagerly hope to see alluded to on the show: Construction began on the World Trade Center.

I don't expect too big a deal to be made of it, but the way Mad Men cleverly works in significant historical events as a thematic underscore to the interpersonal drama of the characters, in addition to their juxtaposition with what we know about "how it all played out", leaves so much room for interesting asides to the Twin Towers and their genesis. Please, please, please Mad Men, don't overlook the narrative richness of bringing up these lost architectural marvels, if nothing else as a prescient shadow of a darker future to come.


Whoops. Construction actually didn't begin until 1966, so we're still a few years off. Nevertheless, at some point I would love to see the towers in their early stage brought up in the show :)

I am all about seeing some

I am all about seeing some color in the show. It's a little ridiculous that there hasn't been any yet...

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