What Mad Men Taught Me About the Story Media Tells
Incorporating and repackaging social disruption as mainstream culture was Don Draper's genius: but it wasn't progress
I saved this essay for a rainy day. If you know someone who would be interested, please
Is it possible to do authentic, progressive politics in a mass culture determined to reduce all ideas and aspirations to something a creative profiteer can sell?
Let me begin with an ending that honors our lives in media as they existed before the internet. Cast your minds back to a time, perhaps even before you were born, when people wrote letters that now sit in archives, and made phone calls rather than texting, Face Timing, or emailing. It was a moment in history when there were only three television networks, most people chose their entertainment from a maximum of seven free channels, and all of them required an antenna. Corporations paid for our media; we paid with our attention, not our data or our credit cards.
The specific ending I want you to recall, if you can, is the final episode of Mad Men, which AMC broadcast on May 17, 2015. If you are my age, this hour of television triggered a swirl of thoughts about the children we were and the adults we became. Those of you who followed conversations about Mad Men among feminists over its eight-year run know that among the central questions under discussion were: is this show about men or women? What about the almost complete absence of Black characters? Was its historical depiction of gender relations among white, middle-class families inherently sexist? Or was the show feminist, a realistic portrayal of the women’s history that brought feminism and a modern media world into being? Was the absence of Black characters a self-aware commentary about segregation, or was it just the Industry being the Industry?
Separately, none of these questions get us anywhere. Instead, I would argue that media forms, those we watch and those we now create, are so intertwined with histories of gender, race, class as to require feminist and anti-racist approaches working simultaneously to understand them at all.
The final episodes of Mad Men lead us firmly in this direction. They revolve around ad man Don Draper’s quest to find an authentic self that may not exist outside of the fantasy histories of gender and family he spins so successfully in his advertising campaigns. Draper’s quest is vital because his entire life has been an advertising campaign, an endless promotional real in which he persuaded others that he was someone he was not.
Notably, the female characters in Mad Men, women who engage with the world as it is, take center stage in the final episode. They are all creatures of a feminist movement just gathering momentum: Elizabeth, Don’s first wife, has not controlled her life but makes vital choices about how she will die. Don’s right-hand woman, Joanie, the object of endless sexual harassment and assault, launches a woman-owned advertising business. Peggy, the copywriter, is on her way to becoming Don. Sally, Don’s daughter, is the question mark. Too young for women’s liberation, she will mature in the feminist 1970s: raised to be a wife and mother, she will instead have to confront the dilemmas of how to “have it all” in a world that remains sexist.
Mad Men could not have continued, even if its creators had wanted it to, with feminism. By 1971, when the series ends, Don’s paradoxical and heartbreaking discovery is that white men, although still in charge of the workplace, have lost their grip on the culture. Two points underline this: The first is that the media produces unexpected but fundamental changes in the racial and sex-gender systems by reflecting what is and imagining what can be. But there is also a historical contradiction to which the series finale is alert: progressive reforms have historically been subsumed in other corporate and political agendas, blunting the impact of what might otherwise be revolutionary changes.
Don Draper understood this all along: the appearance of progress creates nostalgia, nostalgia sells stuff, and progress itself isn’t emotionally compelling enough to be sold at all. Incorporating and repackaging social disruption as mainstream culture was his genius. Like Michel Foucault, Draper understood that power is everywhere and nowhere, and he had an artful capacity to weave promises about the future into a sentimental vision of the past.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the show’s final moments. Having run away from all of the falsehoods that he has perpetuated, Don is as far west as he can go at a mediation retreat on the Pacific Ocean. When he resists Peggy’s call to come home to Madison Avenue, she believes he is about to kill himself: metaphorically, that is what he is doing. “Don!” she shouts, thinking of the one thing that could give him a reason to live: “They are ready to give you Coca Cola!”
Instead, Draper turns away and slips into New Age masculinity. After weeping in the arms of another man, he sits at the edge of a cliff, in a meditation pose, a beatific smile creeping over his face.
Slowly, we hear familiar music in the background under the group’s melodic “Ommmmmmmm,” and Weiner cuts away to an iconic commercial: Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony).”
The joke, it appears, is on us. The commercial is a banal appropriation of every social upheaval the series has foregrounded. Women take the lead parts and set the pace. Young people of every race and nationality join in, physically arranged in perfect gender and racial equality, each holding a bottle of Coke. The lyrics predict a digital media age characterized by avatars, simultaneously compelling and fake, and by “truthiness,” statements that appear genuine but false.
“It’s the real thing,” the chorus ends in a call and response—about a drink made entirely of chemicals.
It was undoubtedly an accident that this episode was released less than a month before Donald Trump announced that he would run for president. But, at the same time, it was an utter failure not to grasp the insight this episode of Mad Men offered for the political nightmare the United States was about to embark on. We now live and work in Don Draper’s empire and its internet successor, whether we want to or not. It is our predicament, our opportunity, and our challenge. And today, six years later, our commitment to social justice may depend on being able to understand the difference between what feels true and what is true.
Digital media has created breakthroughs in preservation, access, and understanding; it is also evanescent, restricted to those with a connection and a font of lies. This situation exists because media technology, something that Don Draper understood, has no politics and no desires. IT waits for us to fill it with what we want. As Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her (in which a man falls in love with an operating system whose whole purpose is to give him what he wants) demonstrated, the technology learns from us.
Mass culture gives us what it thinks we want, creating banal narratives that comfort more than they inform us. The ludicrous racial, gender, class, and global harmonies of the Coca-Cola commercial subsume unpleasant realities in a different and potentially beautiful story. Political, race, and gender revolutions have upended Don Draper’s world. But he also knows that media representations can control unpleasant disruptions. Social change can even be reformulated, repackaged, recirculated, and defanged as “progress.”
As a feminist, I care about the conversation: how many people are in it? How widely shared is the power to shape the conversation? And here’s what I know: feminists and anti-racists have never wanted to teach the world to sing; we want to teach the world to think. We want to persist in an uncomfortable dialogue with our diverse publics—not share a sugary drink and hold hands. So I care less about what is proliferating on the internet than how much work goes into teaching people to read and understand it.
Following the Mad Men finale, one open question was: did Don Draper’s life crisis resolve by his seamless incorporation of New Age spirituality into corporate advertising? Or was the ending just a joke?
On feminist social media, a second (and less well-noticed) debate ensued. What was the meaning of Mad Men’s final scene, where seventeen-year-old Sally Draper, Don’s daughter, cooks dinner for her brothers and tackles a sink full of dirty dishes as her mother lies dying upstairs? “The saddest moment of the finale and maybe the entire show was seeing Sally wash dishes,” one friend wrote on Facebook, implying that Sally would have her mother’s life. “The dishes were sad,” another agreed. A third dissented: “I thought Sally doing the dishes was a hopeful sign, that she loved and cared about her siblings and that she was not a narcissist."
Resolving the series in a disappointing, sad way is a kind of harmony: things change, but they are also the same. At the same time, we know that neither story Mad Men appears to tell about Sally is true. My guess? Feminism will propel Sally into the workplace, and she will probably spend her adulthood doing the housework. She will be as likely to get divorced as not and find herself taking care of children by herself. And probably nothing – not feminism, work, or advertising -- will keep her from living out the emotional baggage she has inherited from her narcissistic, absent parents.
The media wants to take us to that warm place where we can buy the world a Coke and keep it company. But that’s not progress: that’s a fantasy. If we care about thinking critically about the society we live in, our job is to disrupt the perfect harmony, deal with the world's messiness as it is, and understand that we can’t know the end of the story.
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