Why I Think We’re All Madmen

12 Jun

I sit watching Madmen (and obsessing over it), and I find myself reflecting on the American identity; how has the 20th and 21st century American ideal changed?  What is different, and the same, what is being sold to us now? 

For those who watch Madmen, they know that Don is a construct modeled after the Mid-century ideal American man; he’s created his own persona by literally taking someone else’s shoes and using those to pull himself up the chain until he’s eventually a partner at an advertising company representing, “beautiful things that we all want to possess.” 

There is so much obvious symbolism about our national identity: a self-created man, who’s an expert at getting others to want things that they don’t necessarily need; possessions that might even kill them.  Desire, consumption, forgetfulness are three key components of the twentieth century, which left the message, “if you have enough things it doesn’t matter what you do, who you are or how you treat others – these things can protect you.”

This is a uniquely American value that has been transported all around the globe, as the U.S. has gone around trying to nation build; but one can argued that it’s us, as a nation, wanting to possess the world’s resources so that we can sit behind our bulwarks, untouched.

On both a micro and macro scale, embedded into who we are is a deep-seated fear of vulnerability, of being left without a mountain of things to stand behind.  It’s deeply human, heartbreaking and unfulfilling. 

I call this a twentieth century sentiment because while much is the same, much has also changed; there are always consequences, and as Madmen exemplifies, these solutions are, “temporary bandages on permanent wounds.”

People make up nations, and societies, they are the fabric that wraps itself around a place and time; it’s a symbiotic relationship because who we are is shaped by our coordinates; that very day, time and place that we are born into, and yet, no matter how small our life is, we have the power to turn around and shape it right back.

I watch Madmen, especially the female characters, and Don’s rotating wives, and I see the roots of what I was born into – the 80s; excess, oil crises, designer labels, the shape-shifting New York that worshipped the Gods of commerce until its towers were brought down.

I see the future commercials that will make me want to be Barbie; that will make me want to be “Virginia Slim”; that will make me want to marry a rich man so that I will be able to have the freedom to pout and fail in couture, and yet will also simultaneously make me want to be a “wonder woman,” like the future Peggys or Joans – where outsiders exclaim, “how does she do it all?!”.

Now we’re twelve years into the twenty-first century.  The generation beneath me will never watch Madmen like I do, nor will they know life like I do, and I will never see life like they do, or the ways in which my grandparents and parents do.  We’re all a bunch of generations wrapped in different pieces of cloth, passing each other messages that don’t always intersect, and yet trying somehow to all live together.

At its best, it’s a continuous opportunity to learn, at its worst, it’s a bunch of people slamming into one another, grasping for the familiar and different; however, the question that is sitting with me is, “what messages am I passing along?”  “How will my place and time be portrayed?”

I know that my generation is the bridge between old and new media; born into a world of traditional advertising and constant worry about the value of television, which evolved into the world of the, “I”; this world has become one that provides a page (or ad) for every person, and now in a way, we’re all Don Drapers.  We all have the power to present and broadcast how we want to perceived, and how others should want it out to the world.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” and yes it is a cliché, but clichés are that way because they often ring true.

Do we want to create an exported society that is individually lonely in the communal; a society that feels a constant sense of inadequacy, a society that reaches for the easy likes, and validations of outward beauty?

Do we want to pass this onto the next generation; that your life is not a life without constant applause; that Dick Whitman will never find a home because Don Draper won’t let him; that we who really are; those deep-seated permanent wounds will never have a chance of being healed because now we are the network – not the television station, entertaining one another, telling our stories, making each other want things we never yearned for.


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