by guest contributor Motorcycle Boy
“A personality marked by traits of compulsive and habitual use of a substance or practice in an attempt to cope with psychic pain engendered by conflict and anxiety.”
~ definition of addictive personality, Mosby’s Medical Dictionary
“Mad Men glorifies alcoholics.” This statement was made to me by an acquaintance, clearly meant as a criticism of my favorite television series. He went on: “It seems the writers take every opportunity conceivable to shove a glass in the hands of the actors.”
Now, there is no denying the fact that at the office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, alcohol is a constant given. “I drink, therefore I am” seems to be the ad man’s motto. And everyone on this show smokes – they smoke like chimneys, as if there’s no tomorrow (or at least a tomorrow not leading to premature illness and death). Of course, these characters live in a different time – the early 60’s - a not so distant past when people freely and thoughtlessly litter a park while they picnic and adults slap children, even ones that aren’t their own. This was a time when women and minorities were openly treated as second class citizens. And along with this, it was a time when many people were alcoholics, though they may not have identified themselves as such, who drank throughout the day. Mad Men depicts all this as it enters into the reality of the era, though these things are never portrayed as something to be emulated.
But as much attention that is given to Mad Men - its smoking and drinking, its obsessive attention to period detail (the length of women’s skirts, the hairstyles and interior design of the rooms) - there is so much more that lies beneath the glossy, escapist surface of this show. Mad Men is an extremely complicated drama - a human drama. There is much to discover in its characters and storylines – much about our society and about ourselves. I believe that it’s all these factors that contribute to this show’s great appeal. Something draws us to watch it - something we’re seeking to discover (whether we’re conscious of it or not) and this, in itself, is addictive.
Mad Men depicts a period in American culture when habitual drinking and smoking (and bigotry) were an accepted part of the norm. It deals with the social changes that were happening at the beginning of the 60’s and into the mid-60’s. Often different episodes will show the tension between the passing era of the 50’s – the rigidity, repression and denial – and the approaching of the turbulent changes associated with the 60’s – the civil rights and women’s movements, open sexual freedom, drug experimentation and the events that were about to blow the lid off of American society. It’s quite fitting that there’s an episode in the first season titled “Kennedy vs. Nixon”. There is the “old order,” in which the different levels of society were much more hierarchical and defined (like the male dominated pecking order of the ad agency), and then there is the dawning of a new awareness that is full of promise and, at the same time, threatening. How society worked and how people coped during this changing time is fertile ground for exploration and producer/creator Matthew Weiner makes the most of it.
...So what habits are Don Draper and his agency pushing?
The basic thrust of consumerism is marketing an image to people so that they can be sold a product. It’s not just about what people want, but what they really want – their unconscious desires and the obstacles to fulfillment represented by their unconscious fears. In the time period of Mad Men - much more so than even today - there were many social boundaries around sex and race, of one’s basic identity, and a suffocating rigidity in roles that people felt pressured to act out in their lives. This is an obvious formula for the kind of psychic pain that comes from conflict – the conflict that grows from a repressed identity. How can you know what you really want or need when you don’t know who you really are? If the “social mask” fits too tightly it makes it difficult to breathe. The constant drinking in Mad Men is shown more as a socially sanctioned way that many people sought some relief from this internal pressure – or at least as a way to numb themselves. A person who is imprisoned, whether conscious of it or not, feels the overwhelming need to be released.
Don Draper and his associates cater to this need. By the 1950s America had undergone a form of mass hypnosis constructed around total consumerism. Television and growing mass media connected people in a way that opened them further to manipulation by the “professionals” who understood the pressure points of living a false identity and could use it to sell product. Many people, then and now, present a fabricated image to society - a façade for the real identity underneath. This condition is embodied in the whole Madison Avenue advertising industry as presented in the show and, in particular, in the central character of Don Draper, who literally has taken on a false identity to hide the truth from the world, and, as best he can, himself. If anyone is in psychic pain its Draper and it touches everyone in his life. Still, no one knows better how to sell people a bill of goods by manipulating their insecurities and, unavoidably, their addictions. On some level Draper seems to understand that he reflects a kind of mass delusion where consumerism is a substitute for self-knowledge and love. The whole thing, from the perspective of the men in advertising and the unknowing public, is like one great dysfunctional, addictive process, founded on repression and denial and affecting everyone. What motivates people is spiritual “thirst” and Don Draper knows how to use that to sell product because he’s so familiar with the feeling himself.
Mad Men is a series with many stylish surfaces and is so well done it could easily be appreciated strictly as escapism. But it’s so much more than that. The characters are full of twists and turns and their fates interest us because they’re very much up for grabs. What will happen next? By the fourth season Don Draper is moving headlong into alcoholism and we wonder if he’ll end up a more fashionable version of his rival, Duck Phillips, or a less farcical Roger Sterling. What’s captivating is that we, the audience, know what is to come for America but we don’t know how these characters will respond to or reflect the change. The events are part of history, and though these people’s lives are shaped by them, they have to strive and discover for themselves their place in the new society. We wonder if Betty Draper will completely go over the edge and continue to alienate her children. She seems hopelessly stuck and unable to discover a path out of her false existence - she could take a number of courses, one of which could easily be addiction. Sally Draper, the difficult young daughter who also is struggling to find her way, seems to represent a coming generation which will be defiant and loud, sexually active, and impossible to ignore.
There are multiple angles from which to interpret Mad Men, but I feel that there’s a great overriding tension at the core of the series, and in many ways it’s linked to the addictive process. When people live within tightly wound conventions and are prevented from expressing their true nature, they can cut themselves off from their life force – there’s no creativity, only conformity. If, on the other hand, they go deeper and connect with their instincts, it’s possible to feed the soul but it’s inherently dangerous because there is no formula to follow – anything can happen – the “old order” drops away and chaos can emerge. Fear is what keeps the characters in Mad Men from genuine lives and leads them to grasp at substitutes, whether it be alcohol or consumerism. Don Draper attempts to stay fixated on externals and selling an image rather than facing his true identity. He functions on the inside of society, spinning out illusions (he’s a powerful force and influence on people’s lives), still, when it comes to his personal relationships and his own inner life, Draper is the ultimate outsider – a living enigma.
As long as Mad Men is able to peel back the layers and creatively express this very human conflict, it will continue to mesmerize (perhaps the word should be intoxicate). Over the course of multiple seasons Matthew Weiner and his writers have the luxury to explore these characters and their relationship to the times – to get at the truth of their lives. Mad Men is addictive on so many levels because it’s a psychological adventure, an entry into a tumultuous past that has shaped our current world of mass media - of reality shows and twenty-four-hour news. In this context, it’s not just a joy to watch and a benign habit, but, through the range of its insight, a lush oasis of sanity.
Motorcycle Boy, a new contributor to the Lady Eve's Reel Life, is a loyal follower of this blog as well as a family friend. He has worked professionally in the fields of psychology and music, is a longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and a lifelong lover of art and history.