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The Mad Men Account’

In response to:

The Mad Men Account from the February 24, 2011 issue

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Michael Yarish/AMC
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men

To the Editors:

In his broadside against Mad Men [“The Mad Men Account,” NYR, February 24], Daniel Mendelsohn makes some cogent points but others seem to curdle on the page. I want only to address his claim that its fans are not those of us who lived and worked through the early Sixties but our children, viewers in their forties and fifties curious about their parents. As a card- carrying member of the Mad Men generation, I’m not only in thrall to the show but, having cut my professional teeth in advertising/PR, I’m unnerved at how closely it mirrors the workplace in which I came of age.

In 1962 I arrived in New York with an English degree newly in hand. After a humiliating series of interviews for “writing” jobs in publishing and advertising, I leapt at the chance to become a “Girl Friday” at Univac, the computer division of Sperry Rand. There would be secretarial duties for a senior male copywriter, but I would also write press releases and eventually have my own cubicle. In other words, I was Peggy, with a slightly better wardrobe and at least a passing knowledge of birth control. The head of the department, on whom I had a violent crush, was a blond Jon Hamm, devastatingly handsome, mysterious, and hard-driving. There was a buxom blond Joan-like secretary who was having an affair with one of the executives, and pointedly shed me of some of my illusions and sartorial naivetés.

My Don Draper was brilliant at his job, but had no insight into his marriage or his life. What executive did? This was not the New York of Psychoanalysis and its Discontents. Life was gloriously and shamefully superficial. We, in a department within a large corporation—rather than a real ad agency like Sterling Cooper—were more free-form. We socialized together, had three-martini lunches. I’d fled the conservative South, become a Democrat, and knew what racism was, but in other ways my consciousness was fairly unelevated. For those of us who’d grown up in the Fifties, there was as yet no idea of sexual equality or equal pay to which we could attach ourselves. Young women today, especially those who reject feminism, can’t seem to imagine how submerged we girls were BCE (Before Cultural Enlightenment). If the show feeds its audience’s sense of superiority, it also conveys the complacency that was itself both masking and motivating change.

It’s too soon to say whether the show will rank among the greats. Perhaps its wayward plot will go off the rails one time too many. But for me, with its deft blend of satire and sympathy, it has had the cathartic effect of well-imagined art in allowing me to both recognize and gain a forgiving distance from a sometimes embarrassing younger self.

Molly Haskell
New York City

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

I am grateful to Molly Haskell for a defense of Mad Men that is free of the hysterical tone, intellectual sputter, and ad hominem vituperation that have marked much of the extraordinarily widespread response to my critique—qualities that merely confirm my hunch that the show has touched a cultural nerve that lies very deep indeed. That said, I am obliged to point out that Ms. Haskell has vigorously defended Mad Men against two criticisms that I did not make—which, in fact, I went out of my way not to make.

In the first (and less interesting) case, Ms. Haskell asserts that I made a “claim that its fans are not those of us who lived and worked through the early Sixties but our children, viewers in their forties and fifties curious about their parents”; as a demonstration that I am wrong, she points out that she, who lived and worked in the Sixties, is “in thrall to the show.” My article merely states, rather, what the demographic studies have revealed, which is that “most of the people” (as I wrote) “who are so addicted to the show are either younger adults…or younger baby boomers”; and again that “the greatest part of the audience for Mad Men is made up not, as you might have imagined at one point, by people of the generation it depicts…but by viewers in their forties and early fifties today.” This phenomenon seemed to me noteworthy, and thus worth trying to account for in my review.

More interesting, if equally invalid, is the implicit defense of Mad Men that underlies Ms. Haskell’s response, which is that the show “closely…mirrors” the times (the 1960s) and environments (corporate workplace) it depicts. Even a superficial reading of my article reveals that at no point did I criticize Mad Men on the grounds of historical inaccuracy. Quite the opposite: I very clearly went out of my way to grant “historical accuracy” for argument’s sake, since my own interests lie elsewhere:

It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

I don’t know how I could have made it any clearer that my objection to Mad Men as a work ostensibly devoted to exploring and commenting on the past was made on structural and aesthetic and not historical grounds (the latter always being, to my mind, the wrong tree to bark up). As a dramatic series, Mad Men is obliged to make its thematic points by effective use of the dramatist’s tools: plot, dialogue, characterization, staging. I think my article made it clear why I think it has failed to do so. I have no doubt that it reminds some viewers of their younger selves, and that this evocation is an emotional one; but that is a sentimental, not a critical, criterion.

And anyway, just how reliable is our memory of the past? It would be hard to think of a position more curdled (or curdling) than Ms. Haskell’s implicit assertion that no businessman in the 1960s had “insight into his marriage or his life” (“What executive did?”)—a claim that, in its lack of useful nuance and resort to easy caricature, reminded me of nothing so much as Mad Men itself.

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