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Mad Men TV Show: The Irony Of Manliness From Yesteryear

23 July 2008 7 Comments
Mad Men Cast

Mad Men Cast

This past Sunday I sat down with my wife and watched several episodes of the Mad Men TV show on AMC. They were running a marathon of the first season in anticipation to next week’s season two premier. (The show airs at 10:00PM on AMC this Sunday)

Just for the record, I can not get enough of this show. If you have not seen Mad Men, it’s riveting. Below is what AMC says about the show on its website:

The Premise: The series revolves around the conflicted world of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the biggest ad man (and ladies man) in the business, and his colleagues at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. As Don makes the plays in the boardroom and the bedroom, he struggles to stay a step ahead of the rapidly changing times and the young executives nipping at his heels. The series also depicts authentically the roles of men and women in this era while exploring the true human nature beneath the guise of 1960s traditional family values.

You have to prepare yourself before watching one of the Mad Men episodes for its pure, no-holds-bar manliness. I say “manliness” with some level of sarcasm, as once you’ve seen an episode, you have to judge for yourself. Remembering all the while this show is taking place in 1960 during the Presidential Election in which Kennedy wins.

The Irony of Manliness

This show is riveting for several reasons. One of which is that I write about manliness on this site and read several others that do a great job on the subject.

Another is the simple fact that I intend to raise my son with manly characteristics. It will be important he learns right from wrong and what it means to have manliness in today’s society – the theme of this site. It is not always as cut and dry as many believe.

We typically look to the past to find manliness and manly behavior as our guide in how we are supposed to act. We believe that men knew how to be men back then. They treated women with the utmost respect, knew how to take care of their business and the icons of the era are still bigger than life.

However, when a show like Mad Men comes along, as a true characterization of how things were in New York City during that time, we are reminded that not everything back then was as chivalrous, gentlemanlike and virtuistic as we might want to believe.

Women. The men are ruthless womanizers and there is no topic that is taboo. There is only one male character on the show that we haven’t seen his willingness to get laid by ANY means necessary, Bertram Cooper (played by Robert Morse). All others seem to have free reign on their words and actions when it comes to the women of the show. Married or not, it was expected for the Mad Men to cheat on their wives and attempt to get every woman in their vicinity into bed. And, incredibly, they make it look cool.

The other main theme concerning women is the shear level of disdain for them in the workplace by the men. It gives the term “good ole boy network” a whole new meaning when you witness how and when women speak up. It’s an unbelievable display that even Machiavelli himself might be a little embarrassed.

Business. As I mentioned, the women have no place in any business meeting, let alone the critical meetings, unless they are there for entertainment purposes. There are times when a few of the women are brought into the mix, but only for tasks that the men are way above doing or simply want no part.

The one theme I can completely endorse, though, is the ruthless behavior exhibited in their business world. Business is war. You have no friends when it comes to money and business and the show drives this point home time and again.

When the chain of command was broken by Pete Campbell by going around the lead character’s back (Don Draper), Draper immediately fired him – no questions asked. When the word got to the partners, they overruled Draper for the simple fact that his mother was a high level New York socialite and that would be bad for business. Ethics, morality, right and wrong be damned – if its bad for business, it doesn’t fly (which, not always, but has been my experience in the business world most of the time).

Vices. Alcohol and cigarettes are in every scene. I defy anyone to show me a scene in Mad Men that either one or both were not being done by every character in the scene. It’s amazing. Draper is a complete chain smoker and Sterling seems to drinks like my Uncle Bob on a bender – ALL the time.

If this is how it really was during yesteryear, then manliness at the time included having PLENTY of vices. It is not a prop or used slightly by the shows creators. The show makes no attempt to have the vices as a backdrop. These vices ARE the scene in many instances.

Races. At the time, civil rights and equality had not yet taken hold. Martin Luther King was not who he was just yet and his unbelievable “I have a dream” speech did not take place until 1963. So how do you think blacks are depicted on the show? Yup, they got this historical factoid correct as well.

Even though it is not a main theme of the Mad Men series, they address it in subtle ways. They do a good job depicting the era, and at the same time, not putting it front and center.

That being said…

The show is captivating and the world agrees. It bagged 16 Emmy nominations and critical acclaim by pretty much everybody who sees it.

The characters have incredible development, the acting is spot on, and most importantly, it seems to have struck a nerve by men (and women) who watch it.

The nerve struck is really quite interesting to me. Maybe I long to have lived during the time when we didn’t know what could kill us and ignorance was bliss. Or maybe the idea of womanizing and completely getting away with it is appealing to me on some level. I hope not, but I’m not sure.

But what made me even more curious was the way my wife reacted to Mad Men. It really turned her on in so many ways. She told me she appreciated the level of ruthlessness. She admired the way the men carried themselves and were confident in their convictions.

She seemed to be able to overlook the negatives of the era and focus on the manly positives – confidence, simplicity, leadership, courage of convictions, and manliness. The irony of looking back to those times for manliness inspiration is overshadowed by the show’s amazing intrigue. I also think she understands it is only a TV show.  I hope others understand this as well…

What do you think about the Mad Men series? What about the show intrigues you the most?


  • Hayden Tompkins said:

    We in the Tompkins house love that show too! (I want every stitch of clothing that Joan wears; I would rock the heck out of it. Anywho.)

    The scene that probably bothered me the most is the office ‘party’ where one of the guys chases a secretary around a forcibly lifts up her dress so he can ‘see what color underwear she’s wearing’. Even more shocking? She didn’t slap him.

    The great thing about the show is that they DO manage to portray women of strength (like Menken) even in such a constricted society.

  • Mike Bates said:

    I haven’t seen it, though I’ve heard really good things. It’s on our Netflix queue. My wife and I really like HBO’s Big Love. Its main character is, for all intents and purposes, trying to be a good man (by his own set of morals), and it has examples of what happens when manhood is not checked and balanced. I don’t know if it’s a smart show, but it’s touching and the characters grow on you very quickly.


  • The Ironly of Manliness said:

    […] More here. […]

  • A Pretty Mess » Blog Archive » "Mad Men" and Their Mad, Glad, Sad, Bad Women said:

    […] a man’s point of view, I went to Kevin at Return To Manliness.  He wrote a fascinating post about "Mad Men’s" "manliness" quotient. We typically look to the past to find manliness and manly behavior […]

  • NKJ said:

    The only woman I’d ever marry is one who dresses like Peggy. I’m serious 😀

  • karl anglin said:

    Mad Men is a reaction to every thing
    that America has become in the 21st

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