English 1130: Academic Writing — Above: “Lift-off of the Thor Able IV with Pioneer 5” (1961, Wikimedia Commons)

Texts: Mad Men

Migglebrink - Havrilesky - The American Dream - The Dramatization of Prejudice



The following is an excerpt from “Serializing the Past: Re-Evaluating History in Mad Men by Monique Miggelbrink. I've inserted paragraph numbers and put in bold the parts we'll take a closer look at in class.


In the midst of Mad Men’s first season, Sterling Cooper’s office manager Joan Holloway informs secretary Peggy Olson about her promotion to copy writer. At the end of their conversation, Joan refers to her position as messenger: “Well, you know what they say: the medium is the message.”1 Of course, the viewer can classify this as one of the show’s many anachronisms. We know that Marshall McLuhan’s slogan, which is one of media studies’ essential phrases, became popular in 1964 and not in 1960 as depicted by the show.2 But there is more to that. This famous sentence self-reflexively signifies that Mad Men’s form, its complex serial condition, is central to the way it represents the past. The medium, i.e. Mad Men as contemporary hybrid serial television drama, is the message as it signifies the show’s basic principle of investigating the past. We follow the characters of the fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper through their troubled public and private lives, and see them struggling, sometimes even capitulating, in the light of challenging historical times, from episode to episode, from one season to the next—over and over again. At the same time, the chronological order of (historical) events is disrupted by experimental storytelling techniques like narrative gaps and temporal discontinuities. Like both McLuhan and Mad Men, this article explores the relationship between the medium and the message. For Mad Men, it is not simply the televisual form, but the serial televisual form that communicates the show’s message.


Given the show’s focus on the medium, it here quickly becomes apparent that there is a need for new terms in television studies. Following the recent development of primetime television drama’s narrative forms, including Mad Men, but also Lost, The Wire, and The Sopranos, contemporary television drama is now more focused on complex and never-ending storylines, and the links between episodes than on the narrative closure of weekly episodes. So-called ‘quality television’ primetime series are also accompanied by immense academic output, either due to formal considerations or topics addressed. In television companion books, scholars analyze the shows’ non-conventional narratives. Invested in this current televisual phenomenon, Jason Mittell names this “narrative complexity” a key feature of contemporary storytelling in US-American television. Over the course of their development, television series like Mad Men use innovative narrative styles and a self-reflexivity about the forms they employ.3 They become an experimental ground for trying out new modes of storytelling. As the primetime television drama expands serial features and is, therefore, more focused on continuity than on closure, narrative complexity foregrounds the continuity of plots.4 This shift within contemporary primetime programming originating in the United States liberated both the serial and the soap opera from its stigmatizing label as a low-quality daytime format. Heralded in a new form as critically-acclaimed evening dramas,  this ongoing but nevertheless fractured form of storytelling suggests and enables Mad Men’s re-telling and re-evaluating the past.


One possible method for considering the complex relationship between content and form in contemporary television dramas may be drawn from a 1988 article in The American Historical Review in which Hayden White discussed the relationship between history in words—“historiography”—and history in images—“historiophoty.5 White asserts that both forms are not simply marked by difference, as it is often assumed by historians, but are unified in the basic fact that neither can ever depict historical events objectively. Every medium shapes its content according to its own nature, no matter if it speaks the language of the written word or the filmic image.6 Concerning Mad Men, one has to consider its visualization of history and, perhaps even more importantly, its serialization of history as its message. Telling history through the modes of seriality and narrative complexity establishes a deepened narrative scope that is not driven by linearity and closure, but provides space for historical complexity.


So what possibilities are there to transform history in today’s hybrid, multiple storyline serial form? Here, I argue that the hybrid serial form is significant in the way Mad Men chooses to tell its version of the 1960s. As its complex narration features elements of nonlinear storytelling, (historical) events in Mad Men are not presented as a coherent narrative but are marked by dissonance. History itself is negotiated anew as an elliptic experience. Moreover, the serial nature of its storytelling universe provides space for re-telling and re-evaluating history through personalization. The Mad Men narrative offers its audience the opportunity to experience abstract history through the life of different individuals. As we are witnesses of the micro-perspective on 1960s history, we are asked, as viewers, to draw conclusions about the macro-level production of history by historians, textbooks, and a conservative culture. Glen Creeber states that the historical serial, as Mad Men may be considered, is so successful because it is “able to balance and address the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ within one complex narrative trajectory.”7

Complex Narration and Hybridization: Multiplying the 1960s


As Sarah Kozloff suggests, television can be described as the essential storyteller of our times.8 Since its rebranding in 2002, AMC has redefined itself as major competitor in the storytelling universe of television, symbolized by its current slogan “Story Matters Here.” Its first original drama series, Mad Men became a cultural phenomenon after the first season aired. In addition to its visual style, a new quality of contemporary primetime drama can be found in its narrative structure. One primary distinction in the narrative structure of serialized television is that between series and serial:

Series refers to those shows whose characters and setting are recycled, but the story concludes in each individual episode. By contrast, in a serial the story and discourse don’t come to a conclusion during an episode, and the threads are picked up again after a given hiatus.9

In the following analysis I refer back to this basic assumption. The television serial, synonymous with the daytime soap opera, features a continuous narrative. Though the series also offers its viewers a consistency with regard to setting and characters, it gives prominence to discontinuity in narration as each single episode presents a self-contained storyworld. In general, the series signifies the neglecting of episodic memory, whereas the serial denotes the materialization of episodic memory.


With regard to contemporary programming, however, it is no longer useful to strictly differentiate between both forms of storytelling. Rather, it is crucial to show how flexibility and fluidity characterize new narrative forms. British television scholar Robin Nelson coined the term “flexi-narrative” to explain the hybridization of the contemporary television drama as a “mixture of the series ‘plot-resolution model,’ the serial’s ‘extended story over several episodes’ and the soap’s ‘on-going narrative.’”10 This concept is also highly relevant to the discussion of Mad Men.


Elements of continuation clearly prevail in the show. Some storylines are expanded over several episodes while others are temporarily forgotten and then referred back to and modified in later episodes. Narrative enigmas—described by Jeremy Butler as the core of serial programming—remain unsolved over the course of whole seasons.11 Don Draper’s true identity as Dick Whitman, for example, is a central mystery of the first three seasons’ storytelling universe. Don’s reluctance to talk about his childhood is a continuing storyline that gains depth throughout the serial narration. This is exemplified in a conversation with his colleague Roger Sterling and their wives, in which Don evades the topic in a comical way: “I can’t tell you about my childhood. It would ruin the first half of my novel.”12 But at this stage of the program, it is already obvious that there is no need for a Don Draper autobiography. Serial narration in the contemporary television serial is richer in detail and character drawing than any life depicted in print.13 In Mad Men’s diegetic universe, anyway, Don would never approve of a novel based on his story. Rather, he has gotten used to employ humor and self-assurance as a means to conceal his fear of getting caught living under a false identity.


Nevertheless, three episodes later, viewers witness the sudden appearance of a central link to Don’s secret past, his brother Adam Whitman. Don tells Adam that he must have mistaken him for someone else, as he wants his brother to believe that he died in Korea.14. In a second meeting, Don finally states that they can’t have a relationship again as he has taken on another life and identity.15 In order to deepen the enigma of Don’s past, the show features flashbacks to his youth and life as a young man. There are several fragments depicting his family life on a farm16 and his time as a soldier in the Korean War.17 Various flashbacks into the elusive main character’s time as a car salesman and his relationship with the real Don Draper’s widow, Anna Draper, cast light upon his identity change.18 It is not until the end of season three that Betty finally discovers her husband’s secret past and confronts him.19 Still, for the audience, Don’s past remains an ongoing suspenseful storyline.


The course and outcome of Peggy Olson’s pregnancy is another story arc that remains mostly unsolved several seasons into production. At the end of season one, Peggy has visibly gained weight, but her pregnancy is not made explicit until the season’s finale.20 In a subsequent episode, a flashback in which her mother and sister, and later on Don, visit her in a hospital shortly after she gave birth illuminates the missing parts of this particular storyline.21 But again, the audience is largely left in the dark about the primal sequence of events. Such enigmas—which are caused by narrative gaps—postpone the closure of storylines. Rather, as the story arcs involving Don and Peggy illustrate, one enigma seems to give cause to the next.


As Sean O’Sullivan suggests, Mad Men’s serial narrative is ambivalent in nature. It stages a central conflict between narrative coherence with regard to its characters and events and, at the same time, features elements of discontinuity through alterations of formula as well as in time and space.22 Likewise, Glen Creeber describes the merger of the series and the serial as “small screen hybridization,” and simultaneously declares the triumph of the serial form within contemporary programming.23 As he explains, “television drama now has a ‘soap-like’ quality to it,” as the serial form has become more flexible.24 Thus, the Mad Men narrative seems potentially endless.


Apart from its ongoing serial storylines, Mad Men also features the elements of a series. In the midst of many unresolved and mysterious narrative threads, music gives the audience a sense of episodic closure. The sound accompanying the ending credits—realized through instrumentals, original music from the 1960s, contemporary pop songs, diegetic noise or just silence—displays a more or less intense culmination for and commentary on the contents of the discrete episode. In this regard, the show uses music toward narrative functions to bring episodes to an implicit end. The episode “Babylon”, for example, concludes with Don and his mistress Midge attending a performance of the song “Babylon” in a Greenwich Village bar. The old folk song, based on Psalm 137, was adapted and released by the singer-songwriter Don McLean in 1971. The lyrics deal with Jewish exile in Babylon and the quest for unity and match the counterculture setting of the sequence perfectly well. While the song establishes a melancholic atmosphere, it comments on an accompanying montage. Viewers see Rachel Menken, whom Don had courted earlier in the episode, folding ties in her department store, Betty putting on lipstick on her daughter, Sally, each of them absorbed in thought and calmness. While Don is listening intently to the song, Roger and Joan, engaged in a long-term affair, are departing a hotel room, leaving like strangers. The music unites these fragmented images through its affect and tone, highlighting the theme of loneliness. At the end, the song fades into diegetic traffic noise, and finally into silence.


An additional element of closure is given in the episode titles. As discussed above with regard to the music, “Babylon” focuses on Jewishness, exile and the feeling of isolation in general. These subject matters are also broached in other episodes, but not as intensely as here. In order to prepare a presentation for the Israeli Tourism account, Don and his colleagues have, comically enough, compiled “research material,” including the bestselling novel Exodus and a copy of the Old Testament.26 In an attempt to find out more about Judaism, Don seeks advice from Rachel Menken, a Jewish client. Over lunch, she tells him about Jewish exile from Babylon and throughout the world.27 The theme of exile extends beyond the physical exile experienced by the Israelites and later Jews, the subject to Don and Rachel’s conversation, but speaks to the self-exile, remaking of self, and dissociation experienced by various characters throughout the episode. The title “Babylon” therefore functions not as a capsule or definition, but as a hint to specific topics that are addressed with in singular episodes, here speaking to the latent feelings of alienation that defined American postwar culture. Even with continuing plot lines, the episode simultaneously functions as an individual capsule.


Thus, as this analysis of Mad Men’s narrative structure has shown, it features serial as well as series elements. Though music and episode titles function as significant elements of closure, Mad Men’s most prevailing narrative characteristic is not that of the series, but the ongoing story arcs of the serial. To this point, Mad Menfeatures many instances of what Mittell calls “the narrative special effect.” It is a hybrid period drama. This break with conventional television storytelling “push[es] the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration.”28 To elucidate Mad Men’s possibilities for analyzing history, I’ll take a closer look at the techniques of its complex narration.

1.        “Babylon.” Episode 1.06. Mad Men. 35. min. 

2.        Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1964 Reprint (London: Routledge, 2005), 7. 

3.        Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television”, The Velvet Light Trap 58 (2006): 39. 

4.        Ibid., 32. 

5.        Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review 93.5 (1988): 1193.

6.        Ibid., 1194. 

7.        Glen Creeber, Serial Television. Big Drama on the Small Screen (London: BFI Publications, 2004), 13f. 

8.        Sarah Kozloff, “Narrative Theory and Television”, in Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism second edition, ed. Robert C. Allen (New York: Routledge, 1992), 67.

9.        Ibid., 91. 

10.     Robin Nelson, “TV Drama: ‘Flexi-Narrative’ Form and ‘a New Affective Order’,” in Mediatized Drama/Dramatized Media, ed. Eckart Voigts-Virchow (Trier: WVT, 2000), 115. 

11.     Jeremy Butler, Television. Critical Methods and Applications (London: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002), 29. 

12.     “Ladies Room.” Episode 1.02. Mad Men. 2. min. 

13.     Ironically, Roger Sterling’s fictive memoirs were published as an item of Mad Men merchandise. This self-reflexive comment is another reference to a cross-media comparison between the television serial and the novel. Sterling’s Gold: Wit & Wisdom of an Ad Men (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2010). 

14.     “5G”. Episode 1.05. Mad Men. 15. min. 

15.     Ibid., 18. min. 

16.     See for example “The Hobo Code.” Episode 1.08. Mad Men. 24. min., 35 min.; “Out of Town.” Episode 3.01. Mad Men. 1. min.; “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” Episode 3.13. Mad Men. 3. min. 

17.     See for example “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” Episode 1.12. Mad Men. 25. min., 38. min. 

18.     See for example “The Gold Violin.” Episode 2.07. Mad Men. 2. min.; “The Mountain King.” Episode 2.12.Mad Men. 7. min., 22. min., 32. min 

19.     “The Color Blue”. Episode 3.10. Mad Men. 28. min. 

20.     “The Wheel.” Episode 1.13. Mad Men. 43. min.

21.     “The New Girl.” Episode 2.05. Mad Men. 26. min, 39. min. 

22.     Sean O’Sullivan, “Space Ships and Time Machines: Mad Men and the Serial Condition”, in Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, ed. Gary R. Edgerton (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 120. 

23.     Creeber, Serial Television, 11f. 

24.     Ibid., 12. 

25.     “Babylon.” Episode 1.06. Mad Men. 42. min. 

26.     Ibid., 15. min. 

27.     Ibid. 28. min. 

28.     Mittell, “Narrative Complexity,” 35. 

29.     “Seven Twenty Three.” Episode 3.07. Mad Men. 1. min. 



“Stillbirth of the American Dream,”  by Heather Havrilesky (Salon, July, 2010). Please note that I've inserted paragraph numbers for easier reference, put certain parts in bold, and put some names in caps. 


Americans are constantly in search of an upgrade. It’s a sickness that’s infused into our blood, a dissatisfaction with the ordinary that’s instilled in us from childhood. Instead of staying connected to the divine beauty and grace of everyday existence — the glimmer of sunshine on the grass, the blessing of a cool breeze on a summer day — we’re instructed to hope for much more. Having been told repeated stories about the fairest in the land, the most powerful, the richest, the most heroic (Snow White, Pokémon, Ronald McDonald, Lady Gaga), eventually we buy into these creation myths and concede their overwhelming importance in the universe. Slowly we come to view our own lives as inconsequential, grubby, even intolerable.


Meanwhile, the American dream itself — a house, a job, a car, a family, a little lawn for the kids to frolic on — has expanded into something far broader and less attainable than ever. Crafty insta-celebrities and self-branding geniuses and social media gurus assert that submitting to the daily grind to pay the mortgage constitutes a meager existence. Books like “The 4-Hour Work Week” tell us that working the same job for years is for suckers. We should be paid handsomely for our creative talents, we should have the freedom to travel and live wherever we like, our children should be exposed to the wonders of the globe at an early age.


In other words, we’re always falling short, no matter what our resources, and we pass this discontent to our offspring. And so millions of aspiring 3-year-old princesses hum “Someday my prince will come!” to themselves, turning their backs on the sweetness of the day at hand.


Maybe this is why AMC’s hit series Mad Men (premieres 10 p.m. Sunday, July 25) resonates so clearly at this point in history, when the promise of the boom years has given way to two wars, a stubborn recession and a string of calamities that threaten to damage our way of life irreparably. Somehow Mad Men captures this ultra-mediated, postmodern moment, underscoring the disconnect between the American dream and reality by distilling our deep-seated frustrations as a nation into painfully palpable vignettes. Even as the former denizens of Sterling Cooper unearth a groundswell of discontent beneath the skin-deep promises of adulthood, they keep struggling to concoct chirpy advertising messages that provide a creepily fantastical backdrop to this modern tragedy. DON (Jon Hamm) sighs deeply and unlocks the door to his lonely apartment, PEGGY (Elisabeth Moss) whiles away her waking hours trading casual quips with co-workers, but happiness is still just a shiny kitchen floor or a sexy bikini or a cigarette away.


As the American dream is packaged for mass consumption, these isolated characters find themselves unnerved by its costs. Alternating between befuddled breadwinner and longing lothario, Don has finally put his ambivalence toward Betty (January Jones) behind him: He’s leaving his marriage and focusing on the new ad firm as his true passion, just as we saw at the end of the third season. But can someone as conflicted as Don commit wholeheartedly to anything? Not surprisingly, the premiere seems to suggest that Don may not feel comfortable yielding his entire life to his career. And now that he’s free to pursue any woman he wants, instead of focusing on a woman whose intellect matches his own (like so many of his lovers, from Midge to Rachel to Suzanne the schoolteacher), Don appears likely to be drawn in by the same manipulative style of femininity that Betty embodied.


Of course, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has always provided a sort of an omen of where Don was headed, hence their volatile relationship. Roger also has a somewhat childish habit of falling for anyone who makes him feel powerful. First there was Joan (Christina Hendricks), whose standoffish charms sometimes obscure the fact that she’s the most adaptive, resilient and personally effective character on the show, and next there was Jane (Peyton List), a character who could just as easily be called That Crying Girl, who’s developed into more of a high-maintenance daughter to Roger than a real partner.


Roger and Don may represent the wildly fluctuating fortunes bequeathed to the masters of the universe: Told that they can have everything they want, these two are haunted by a constant desire for more. But what variety of more will suit them this time? The answer typically — and somewhat tragically — seems to spring out of impulse and ego and fear more often than any real self-reflection or wisdom.


BETTY represents the female version of this lack of foresight, and as the fourth season develops, the arbitrary nature of her recent decisions starts to become more apparent. Showing her usual startling lack of insight, Betty smoothes over bumps in the road with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) while lashing out at her daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka). Betty has always had a life that’s built around men, but she entirely lacks Joan’s wisdom, survival instincts and compassion, and instead tends to resort to the foot-stomping of a petulant child. But what else can you expect from someone whose closest relations — overbearing father, paternal but deceitful husband — have consistently rewarded her for quietly, obediently playing along with their games?


Having taken the opposite path in life, Peggy represents the victories (and defeats, and insults) of the single career girl. At the start of Season 4, Peggy appears more committed to this path than ever, and she’s growing much more resilient and unflappable in the face of her co-workers’ personal slights. Nonetheless, we’ll surely see many of the fairy tales PEGGY has been forced to give up along the way. Likewise, selling a kittenish flavor of femininity and sex while asserting your own power can’t be an easy tightrope to walk for Peggy, and it’s this uncomfortable spot that makes her one of the show’s most riveting characters.


The ambition and conflicted desires of these characters in their pursuit of happiness is what makes “Mad Men” such a singular and resonant reflection of a particularly American puzzle. But even as it strains to capture the transformation of the American dream into a commodity that can be bought and sold, Mad Men itself is the ultimate, endlessly marketable über-brand: Everyone and everything is gorgeous to the point of luminosity, a pitch-perfect reflection of the times that’s been polished to such a high gloss that it upstages our hazy memories of that era completely. The terse exchanges, the sly banter, even the lighthearted quips dance over the mundane drudgery of workplace interactions like mean-spirited sprites. Bourbon glistens among ice cubes in immaculate glasses, fire engine red lipstick frames heartbreakingly white teeth, fingers tap perkily on typewriters as young men amble by, their slumped shoulders hidden behind the heroic cut of their tailored suits. Don Draper’s unmoving cap of hair gleams like a beacon, sending some Morse code straight to female brain stems, stirring long-buried childhood notions about one day having a husband who looks just like a Ken doll.


Behind the impeccable facade, of course, we see the longing in Pete Campbell’s (Vincent Kartheiser) tired face, we see the fear in Betty’s eyes as she sits down to dinner with her brand-new mother-in-law. The lovely details of this fantasy — the hairstyles, the costumes and the props that come with the dream — occasionally fail to obscure the confused humans who straighten their shoulders and dry their eyes and take the stage day after day, dutifully mouthing lines about the thrills of work and family, all of it the invented, peppy rhetoric of laundry detergent jingles.


This is the genius of Mad Men, its dramatic reenactment of the disconnect between the dream of dashing heroes and their beautiful wives, living in style among adorable, adoring children, and the much messier reality of struggling to play a predetermined role without an organic relationship to your surroundings or to yourself. We’re drawn to Mad Men week after week because each and every episode asks us, What’s missing from this pretty picture?


What’s missing on both a personal and a broader scale is empathy, of course — embodied most gruesomely in the lawn mower accident last season, but also wrapped up in the sharp edicts Don and Betty issue to their children, in the distracted insults Don aims at Peggy, in the self-involved funk of Joan’s doctor fiancé, in the cruelty that springs from Pete’s existential desperation. While Mad Men’s detractors often decry the empty sheen of it all, claiming that it has no soul, clearly that’s the point. The American dream itself is a carefully packaged, soulless affair. This is the automobile a man of your means should drive. This is the liquor a happy homemaker like yourself should serve to your husband’s business guests. As absurd as it seems to cobble together a dream around a handful of consumer goods, that’s precisely what the advertising industry did so effectively in the ’50s and ’60s, until we couldn’t distinguish our own desires from the desires ascribed to us by professional manipulators, suggesting antidotes for every real or imagined malady, supplying escapist fantasies to circumvent the supposedly unbearable tedium of ordinary life. In show creator Matthew Weiner’s telling, the birth of the advertising age coincides directly with the birth of our discontent as a nation — and what got lost in the hustle was our souls.

The American Dream 

From Wikipedia:

The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. [1]

The American Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that "all men are created equal" with the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." [2]


The meaning of the "American Dream" has changed over the course of history, and includes both personal components (such as home ownership and upward mobility) and a global vision. Historically the Dream originated in the mystique regarding frontier life. As the Governor of Virginia noted in 1774, the Americans "for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled". He added that, "if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west". [3]

20th century

Freelance writer James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase "American Dream" in his 1931 book Epic of America:

But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position... The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. [1]

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963) rooted the civil rights movement in the African-American quest for the American Dream:

We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands ... when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. [4]


1. Library of Congress. American Memory. "What is the American Dream?", lesson plan.

2. Kamp, David (April 2009). "Rethinking the American Dream". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on May 30, 2009. Retrieved June 20, 2009.

3. Lord Dunmore to Lord Dartmouth, December 24, 1774, quoted in John Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (1944) p. 77

4. Quoted in James T. Kloppenberg, The Virtues of Liberalism (1998) p. 147

The Dramatization of Prejudice

For some, Mad Men’s dramatization of prejudice and exclusion may be painful. Yet the guiding logic of the American Dream is that the nation moves toward the ideal, which is after all a dream or hope. Those bothered by the re-enactment of exclusion might note that exclusion is no longer so severe or entrenched. Others might get from the show a better understanding — perhaps even an emotional understanding — of the bitter experience of women, gays, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. By dramatizing ways in which the Dream has been deferred, the series helps viewers to understand the historical moment. Viewers get an in-depth, personalized view of the 1960s, a decade lying between our present decade and the first decade of the 20th Century — a time when women couldn't vote, gay rights weren't even near the table, the Civil Rights movement hadn't begun, and Hitler's genocidal 'solution' was still unthinkable. 

Here’s an excerpt from Sarabeth Berman’s “How Mad Men Helped Me Understand the Anger in My Mother's Feminism” (Jezebel, May 2015), an article on the generation gap between today’s viewer and the women of Mad Men:

I was the youngest of four children. My mother had me when she was 43 years old, and I grew up hearing the word feminism before I knew what it meant; in our house, the subject of breasts couldn’t come up without my mother reminding me that, when she was a New Hampshire state representative in the nineteen-seventies, she had been the first woman to breastfeed on the floor of the legislature. When hair started growing on my legs, my mother warned me that if I started shaving then it would be “a burden for the rest of your life.” She begrudgingly let me get my ears pierced when I was 12, but told me, “This is a barbaric tradition that you will grow to regret, as I have.”

She and I were always close. We have the same face, we take pleasure in the same things. I followed her to Barnard. And, yet, her feminism—her battles, her struggles, her victories—always felt remote and exhausted. I rolled my eyes at her when she talked about training my father to do the dishes and when she complained about how little he was around to raise my older siblings. The father I knew was the breadwinner who managed to squeeze in carpools, help with homework, and sometimes cook dinner. There was an edge to my mother’s feminism, an aggression, that made me uncomfortable. Today, I shave my legs. I don’t regret my pierced ears. And, while I’m consumed with questions about how I will someday juggle a job with kids and still be able to fit in a workoutI’ll never feel the type of anger my mother did.

I’ve been a fan of Mad Men since the beginning, and every time I watch it, I think about my mother. Like so many other women my age, it’s the female characters I’m drawn to. Their storylines keep me watching even when—especially when—their experiences are maddening. And it’s a defining part of Mad Men that their experiences are exactly that. The first line that Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, wrote for the pilot was Don Draper snapping at Rachel Minkoff, the department store client: “I’m not going to let a woman speak to me like that.”

We see the complexity of the times in all the ways the leading ladies respond to their circumstances: Betty Draper trying to keep the old ways alive, Peggy Olsen competing with men at the game they’ve defined, and Joan Holloway, who leverages her femininity to create her own domain. In the opening show of the final season, Joan and Peggy are sitting in a board room, having risen to positions of great responsibility. But, even there, they are forced to sit through a barrage of infuriating jokes about breasts and legs from the executives at McCann. The culture hasn’t moved nearly as far as they have.

Over the years, I’ve wondered: how true is it? I called my mother to talk to her about the show recently. She didn’t like it, she told me. It harkened back to an unpleasant and familiar time. It was then that I realized, this was what my mother came from. No wonder she was so angry. I was born 25 years later, by then, my mother and the women who joined her at the feminist retreats on the weekends had already accomplished much of the bitterly hard work to change the parameters for women. I was born into a time that felt so different precisely because of all that their mode of chest-beating feminism had achieved. I was lucky, I realized, that my mother’s breed of feminism felt so remote.

Today, though the issues are different, they’re no less urgent…


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