The first time I watched “Mad Men,” I was struck by its ability to investigate how flourishing consumerism affected desire and perpetuated misogyny. Up to its final episode, which aired Sunday, the popular AMC show remained a thought-provoking and visually exquisite journey into personal desire and motivation. It artfully calls into question the existential quandaries of its main characters as they navigate the shoals of identity crises, social evolution and personal happiness within the world of Madison Avenue advertising.
Of course, none of the characters look like me. Which makes sense: “Mad Men” portrays a period and an industry that lacked diversity. (It also takes place before the first major wave of South Asian immigration.) Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, has discussed in interviews that his vision is an accurate representation of advertising’s “shameful past” — and that including stories of people who would not have existed in advertising would have felt inauthentic. It’s true: Not every piece of television has to be diverse, and though representation is important, there’s no need to neuter artistic expression with an overly dogmatic sense of inclusion.
Still, the confluence of nostalgia, beauty and desire at the core of “Mad Men” always made me uncomfortable. With the show’s end, I have to ask, Did people watch “Mad Men” because it so profoundly challenged the self-absorbed world of advertising executives? Or did people watch “Mad Men” because they were nostalgic for a time when it was guilt-free, seductive and glamorous to be an affluent white person?
Nostalgia is complicated. Conservatives often wax poetic about a time when things were “easier,” by which they usually mean (even if they don’t explicitly say it) that women were at home taking care of the children and people of color knew their place in the social hierarchy. Nostalgia is rooted in a politics shared by anti-choice legislation and discriminatory policy — and in this sense, it is decidedly out of fashion and unsexy.
But the overt racism of social conservatives isn’t what makes nostalgia uncomfortable to me. It’s the peddling of nostalgia through high-culture, hipster remakes of certain eras. The so-called high-art subcultural obsession with the style of the 1950s and ’60s, no matter how ironic, always made me wonder if people actually knew what life was like then, specifically for women and people of color. Through that lens, it always felt tone deaf and slightly offensive.
It’s not that vintage junkies who don skinny ties are a social threat. But at what point does mimicry become something more dangerous? Clothing retailer Banana Republic jumped on the bandwagon with its “Mad Men” collection, which brought to life the clothes of the show — and the era — for people to wear. But if what you wear is a reflection of your internal desires (whether what you want to be or how you want to appear), such a mass-market collection becomes a more deceptive form of mimicry.
High art tends to be very proud of itself for reaching beyond the cadences of mainstream productions and instead transporting viewers to a place free from the narrative constraints of regular people’s struggles. As such, it often ignores the voices of the disenfranchised. “Mad Men” similarly exhibits a postmodern sensibility that expounds on the existential conundrums of the upper class while reproducing the period’s inequality. The Museum of the Moving Image’s recent “Mad Men” exhibit likewise made it sadly clear that what it considered worthy of curatorial attention wasn’t the show’s tremendous ability to tackle, say, the sexism faced by women in the workplace but rather the accuracy of the vintage curtains in Betty Draper’s kitchen.
Certainly, “Mad Men” can be read as a complex story that carries with it the weight of race, class, gender and sexuality throughout its seven seasons. But it’s important to remember that it is also a story that makes you love and sympathize with people who are flawed in ways that make them monsters and society monstrous.
Weiner’s final act on Sunday night ends with Don Draper meditating at Big Sur’s famous Esalen Institute, presumably finding inner peace, before the camera cuts to the famous hillside Coke ad from the early 1970s. The scene suggests that Weiner already knows that Draper will — despite any advances in self-awareness — always be driven by the bloated capitalism taking off in that era. My question is, Does his beautiful, complex and high-art depiction of a terrible time disrupt our nostalgia for it or simply perpetuate longing for its inequities? Like the show’s final shot, I can’t say I’m particularly optimistic about the answer.