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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, April 21

Gapers Block

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My last few — OK, several — columns have been a tad on the negative side. So I thought I would write about a television show I've been enjoying immensely this summer: Mad Men, an original AMC series from former Sopranos executive producer and scribe Matthew Weiner.

The premiere opened with the following title card:

MAD MEN A term coined in the 1950's to describe the advertising executive of Madison Avenue. They coined it

And what men they are. Besuited, Brylcreemed and bawdy, they strut the cockwalk of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency with nary a chance of a sexual harassment lawsuit. They refer to the secretaries as "girls," no matter what their age, and almost every man — married or single — tries to land the latest fish from the pool. The early 1960s man drinks in his office both before and after the big meeting. The early 1960s man procures hookers for big clients. The early 1960s man will sleep with another woman days before his wedding. The early 1960s man will bring in a Jew from the mailroom to sit in the boardroom to make a potential new account feel more "comfortable" (seeing as most Jews apparently work for Jewish agencies "selling Jewish products to Jewish people."). The early 1960s doctor — male, of course — prescribes birth control pills to an unmarried virgin and claims he's "not here to judge," but he warns, "I will take you off this medicine if you abuse it. It's for your own good, really. But the fact is, even in our modern times, easy women don't find husbands."

The early 1960s man will get angry when a female client calls him on his bullshit, and he will snarl, "I'm not going to let a woman talk to me that way." Later, the same early 1960s man passionately kisses this woman. The early 1960s closeted gay man cracks wise about female models to his oblivious colleagues, who refuse to see the Rock Hudson right in front of them. The early 1960s man sees nothing wrong with proposing to his mistress after an overnight sex romp and then going home to his wife and children at the end of the day. The early 1960s man sees nothing wrong with slapping a friend's son after the kid accidentally broke a glass in someone else's house; the early 1960s man also sees nothing wrong with sending the chastised child to find a woman to clean up the mess. The early 1960s man agrees to let his wife see a psychiatrist — male, of course — but the psychiatrist calls the husband with updates on the wife's sessions, without her knowledge. (I know. That scene was a jaw dropper.)

The early 1960s wife's hands can't or won't stop shaking. The early 1960s professional woman shows the new girl the ropes but refuses to be her friend: too much competition. The early 1960s woman tells her married lover to not bring his matrimonial problems into her apartment. The early 1960s woman makes an awkward pass at her boss because she thinks that's what she's supposed to do. The early 1960s woman refuses to work with a man after she discovers post-clinch that he has a wife and two kids. The early 1960s woman sleeps with the hottest young account executive before he gets married, and later steals the honeymoon postcard he sent to the office and hides it in her desk. The early 1960s divorcee knows exactly what the smarmy neighbor means when he offers to "play catch" with her son and be a male role model for him. The early 1960s woman will baby-sit for a creepy boy who walks in on her in the toilet and stares and later asks for a lock of her hair; the early 1960s woman, trained to do whatever males say, will give it to him, no matter how uncomfortable she feels.

Alpha dog Don Draper, the best writer at Sterling Cooper, juggles work pressures and women. In the pilot alone, he sleeps with an artist, flirts with a department store owner, and ends up home in the suburbs with his wife and kids. He has a Purple Heart from the war with his name on it, yet a soldier from his past calls him "Dick Whitman" in a coincidental meeting. Don's wife, Betty, knows little or nothing about her husband's background. Her "nervousness" displays itself at the most inopportune moments, including an incident in which she crashes the family car into a tree. Young upstart Pete Campbell, who is days away from getting married, wants nothing more than Don's job and his secretary, Peggy. Well, he'd like the respect of his society parents, who think his job is beneath their status, but that might be too much for the young turk to ask for.

The period touches are wonderful: the costumes, sets, and hairstyles reflect the early 1960s seen through our Oughts (have we decided on a name for this decade yet?) sensibilities. Apparently, in 1960 New York, everyone smoked everywhere: bars, restaurants, the office, in bed, the kitchen, the commuter train, the doctor's examination room. In fact, the first episode revolves around Draper's attempt to keep the Lucky Strike account after a Reader's Digest article trumpeted the dangers of smoking. Right before Betty's car accident, her son clamors from the back seat to the front seat and back again, without any comment or reprimand from his mother. Seat belts? What are they? After washing up in the guest powder room, Don wipes his hands on his shirt rather than dirty the fancy soap and towels. When the neighborhood wives mention to new neighbor Helen, a divorcee (scandalous!), that they've seen her walking around the neighborhood, the following conversation commences:

Wife 1: "Where are you going when you do that?" Helen: "No place. I just like to walk."
(nervous laughter) Wife 2: "But where?"
Helen: "Anywhere. It just relaxes me. Clears my mind."

Children play with plastic bags over their heads. Secretaries figure out ways to get the men to buy them lunch. The blatant, casual racism and sexism pervades every frame, and you know someone somewhere is moaning that these were the last of the good old days, before the Civil Rights and Women's movements, before the Equal Opportunity Act and before women were executives. It's a man's world, all right. But the women definitely play their part, even as roles and mores are changing.

Mad Men airs Thursdays at 9pm on AMC.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at

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