Talking Pulp: Mad Men and the Nanny State

*Written in 2010 when I was running a blog about politics and economics.

*This article is pretty much spoiler free. It is also a rebuttal and a different take on the show than the Mises Institute VP Jeffrey A. Tucker’s article “Mad Men and Government Regulations”.

Mad Men is a show I just recently got into. Like most shows, I just didn’t want to start watching it because I didn’t want to find out I really liked it and then be stuck watching it like an obedient and perfectly timed zombie every week. That’s not a knock against the show; in actuality it is a compliment. I hate having to be pulled in at a specific time, on a specific day, week after week because it disrupts my life and other things I could be doing, like writing an article such as this one.

You see, shows I fear that will be too good, I typically avoid until they are over and then I sit down and have a marathon. Why? Well it is because of those damn cliffhangers! This way I avoid a week long, or god forbid a year long wait of tension and suspense dying for answers to what just happened. I have been a regular watcher of Dexter since the beginning and the end of season 4 (I won’t spoil it for you) left me fucking breathless, confused, saddened, puzzled and starving for answers! I had to wait nine damn months! Situations like this are why I waited until Lost was completely over before delving into it. I am glad I did. That show was incredible and there was no way in hell I could’ve gone through that madness weekly and then for months during a prolonged break between seasons and writers’ strikes.

In regards to Mad Men, I had heard so much good stuff about it from a lot of my libertarian leaning friends. Knowing that a new season starts every summer, I decided to finally sit down and watch the first four seasons to prep for the upcoming fifth season. It wasn’t until I finished Season 4 and then went to Wikipedia to see when Season 5 was set to air that I discovered that there were contract disputes and that it would be delayed until March of 2012, a year away! Damn it television demons! It figures that the moment I watched it, some bullshit would happen and the show would be delayed so the broadcasting gods above could laugh at me and my torment! Damn those gods, I defy the crap out of them!

Anyway, this article isn’t about my personal issues with television deities and my inability to be patient from episode to episode, it is actually about the rise of the nanny state, which is very well present in the world of Mad Men. Being that it takes place in the 1960s, we are shown a world that is going through a major metamorphosis. From the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race, through the assassination of JFK, the LBJ-Goldwater race and the Civil Rights movement, we are shown bits and pieces of a state that is slowly slipping into nannyism. Government regulation and intrusion into our lives really took a major turn for the worse in the ’60s and Mad Men does a good job at painting a picture of a world before the nanny state took control and how the world had to adapt as the state’s grip slowly tightened.

Jeffrey A. Tucker, the Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute wrote an article titled Mad Men and Government Regulations. In his article, he claims that the show glorifies the rapid expansion of government regulation and intrusion into our daily lives. I don’t feel that this is the case at all actually. I don’t find that the show glorifies it; I feel that they just display it and the audience is able to make up their own mind.

In my case, I see the regulation and it irritates me and I view the actions of the characters on the show and their distaste for it, as their show of utter resistance. I find it to be more of a heroic critique against the state’s control. Granted no one goes into an uproar over it on the show but that isn’t what the show is about. Many of these references are subtle and much of the defiance against it is wittily wedged into a single lines of dialogue sprinkled into lengthy conversations about old fashioneds, bear claws, Lucky Strikes and titties.

One example Mr. Tucker gave in his article about the glorification of regulation in Mad Men was the incredible overabundance of smoking on the show. He cites that the chain smoking, which is done mostly indoors, is done to creep out the viewer and give them a sense of discomfort. He uses that example to say that it convinces the viewer into feeling a sense of relief over the government’s regulation of the tobacco industry, whether through labels and warnings on the packaging itself to endless laws limiting an American citizen’s right to smoke.

Well, I never took it that way. In fact, I took it just the opposite. While I don’t feel that everyone should just chain smoke an office space into a wood-burning barbecue smoker, I also don’t feel that it is the government’s job to force an office to comply. That should come down to company policy and if people are offended by a smoky workplace, don’t fucking apply.

The actions of the characters on Mad Men are just doing whatever the hell they want to do and no one is saying a damn thing about it because in that day and age, they could grin it and bear it or they could leave. It is their choice to work in that environment. Maybe I am biased however, considering that my day job is being the Senior Creative Director for a major cigar manufacturer and sitting in smoke just comes with the territory. Whenever Don Draper lights up in his office, I see it as a big “fuck you” to the rising nanny state within the confines of the show, as well as a message from the producers to the bureaucrats of our real world.

The issue of daytime office drinking is also used as an example that should raise eyebrows. Sure, pounding down scotches and vodka gimlets before noon while discussing that day’s sales pitch is a bit over the top but many executives in high profile companies have their little display of bottles and rocks glasses in the corner. A sip of some Laphroaig to ease the tension while going over the quarterly numbers isn’t unheard of in the real world today. Hell, it is commonplace.

I guess the issue with Mad Men though is the amount that they drink. Sure, they do push the boundaries further than they should in their office space and in their own livers. However, I don’t take this as a glorification for regulation by the show’s producers; I take it as a glorification of the characters’ self-serving attitudes and their overwhelming desire to ignore the risks and to be the old school badass ad agency execs the show pimps them out as. It’s their bodies, they can do what they want and no one is going to tell them otherwise. I think that they are all freedom loving Americans at heart.

Well, we all know that Bertram Cooper is pretty much a libertarian and/or an Objectivist after he insisted that Don Draper use part of his bonus check to buy Atlas Shrugged.

Tucker also talks about the treatment of women on the show. Granted, as the show begins and then for quite some time, the attitudes of men towards women can be shocking in contrast to the way the world is today: fifty years later. However, as the show progresses, some of these attitudes change and some of the main woman on the show go from being just pretty objects to gaining the respect from the men who initially treated them that way. Once again, this is a sign of the times and a display of how well the show is able to evolve with the quickly changing times of the day.

For an example of this, one has to look no further than the character of Peggy Olson. In the beginning, Peggy is just starting out at Sterling Cooper and is a very timid and shy girl, who is seemingly easily flustered and pushed around by the men in the office. Pete Campbell, who is the meanest to her, also ends up having an affair with her right off the bat, which causes much more turmoil and confusion than she obviously needs. She is a second class citizen in the office but she never gives up in this sexist man factory with impossible odds to succeed apart from putting out and doing “favors”. No, Peggy is the antithesis to what you think she is going to be when you first meet her.

Peggy goes through hell early on in the series but it doesn’t deter her, she nearly gives up but her boss, Don Draper sees something special in her that the other token chauvinists have overlooked. Peggy has talent, she has desire and she has the ability to be one of the biggest assets in the company. Don, being the only one with the foresight to see this, gives her that little shove she needs. By the third season, Peggy has an office next to Don’s, the guy she was the secretary for only a few years prior. In the fourth season, she is literally the creative glue that keeps the company afloat during hard times. Peggy hustles; she hustles better than most of the men on the show and is properly recognized and rewarded for it as time goes on. Peggy shatters the mold.

Joan Holloway also takes a similar path as Peggy Olson. Joan starts out as the token office bitch and mother figure to all the women at Sterling Cooper. She is virtually the madame at the corporate playhouse. When Joan first meets Peggy, she coaches her on how to succeed. She tells her to basically stay out of the way, do what is asked, look pretty and don’t be shy if asked to go that extra mile.

Joan is also Roger Sterling’s mistress at the beginning of the series. Roger is one of the partners of Sterling Cooper.

Joan is pretty much a cookie cutter character in the beginning. There are signs that someone is in there that deserves to be more than Roger’s doormat. By the end of the third season, she gets married to a decent guy, leaves that “do anything to please” shtick behind and her badass work ethic is also greatly recognized. She officially becomes the office manager of the company and oversees the fall of one company and then is an instrumental part in forming and growing a new company. By the end of Season 4, Joan literally runs shit. No she isn’t a partner but she is nearly at that level. Where Peggy owns the creative side, Joan owns the day-to-day and gets mad respect for it.

Does the development of these two characters make me want to thank the heavens for sexual harassment laws and women’s rights? No, not really. Granted I have no real problem with those things. It just makes me appreciate that two women were able to beat the odds and to truly make something great out of themselves. One played the game and one defied the game but in the end, they both persevered on their own, not because some laws helped them and made it more “fair”. These women fucking rock. I’d marry them both.

Also, who can forget Rachel Menken, who in Season 1 took over her father’s huge Manhattan department store? I wouldn’t consider her a victim of male chauvinism. In fact, she held her ground against Don in their first meeting. Eventually her and Don became each other’s side item but in the end, she stood firm and had an incredible impact on Don. Her words steered the course of his character in a new direction. Rachel was able to make Don look inside of himself and question things he otherwise wouldn’t have if she were a pushover and just some sex toy.

Another thing Mr. Tucker made mention of in his article, while describing the theme of “patriarchal domination and savagery” is that housewives were so aloof and stupid that without government labels and regulations, they allowed their kids to do dumb and dangerous things. Well, kids just do that shit anyway, even today. There were times I did real dumb stuff with fireworks and they were covered in warning labels. All the flashy and colorful “DANGER” logos plastering the packaging didn’t stop me from launching multiple bottle rockets from my mouth.

One specific incident Tucker cited in the article is of a scene where one of the kids is wearing a plastic bag over their head. He mentions that because the Consumer Products Safety Commission didn’t yet exist. Betty Draper was too stupid to warn her kids of the possible suffocation that could occur playing their friendly game of “bag head” because a warning label didn’t spell it out for her.

Well, watching the show and knowing the characters so well, when I saw that scene I felt it was meant to show how aloof Betty is. Not housewives in general and definitely not because warning labels weren’t on the bag. You see, over the course of the entire show, Betty is shown to have severe mental issues that make her act and think like a child. Something in her never properly developed and she is a grown woman living a grown woman’s life but with the mind of a child. This is an issue they hint at in the beginning of the series and it continues to grow and expand throughout all four seasons.

Tucker concludes, in his article, that he sees a constant theme that Mad Men is glorifying, that being “the inability of society to improve itself without the helping hand of the master.” The theme I see in Mad Men is that before government regulation was as widespread as it is today in our Diet Orwellian society, the people of the 1960s didn’t need the help of the state. Instead, they lived without that helping hand and did just fine. The social issues would’ve worked themselves out and competent mothers would know what was too dangerous for their children without the labels. I’m sorry, I just don’t see Mad Men as Hollywood’s attempt at force feeding us the paranoid idea that government regulation and control is cool and necessary. I actually see it as the polar opposite of that.

Now I am not knocking Tucker. I love Tucker; he is one of my favorite writers/bloggers out there. I love his book Bourbon for Breakfast and I repost a lot of his articles and lectures on this site. He has given me sound advice on fashion (although I can’t afford a pair of Alden Genuine Shell Cordovans… yet), as well as how to properly utilize my water heater and how to combat “Generation Sloth”. That is why I found it odd to disagree on the subject of Mad Men.

It’s all good though; great minds often times disagree and I actually really appreciate and respect his interpretation of the show, as we all have our own viewpoints. That is what makes us special. Besides, it’s a television show; we’re both probably over thinking it way more than we should. It is a story and it is fiction; I doubt the writers were really tinkering around with anything other than just trying to tell an awesome story.