Mad Men

What is culture if not a shared back story?

This thought came through unbidden as I watched the thirteen episodes of the first season of the AMC drama: Mad Men.

I spent the first several years of my working life at a company that functioned very much like an ad agency on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Even the titles were nearly the same – Junior Account Executive, Account Executive, Executive Assistant, armies of women secretaries seated dutifully outside their boss’s offices. I was fortunate enough to be someone in an office rather than at a desk outside an office.

I say fortunate because in the late eighties there were enough echoes from the time in which the story of Mad Men takes place – 1960. I now realize that the people who were young executives in the early 60s, in their early to mid-twenties were probably still around in the late 80s when I entered the American workforce. These people were now in their late 40s or early 50s and still quite a distance from retirement. In fact some of them were at the peak of their careers.

What makes the show shimmer with intelligence is the natural way in which all aspects of life in those times has been recreated and filmed, the cars, the clothes, a close up shot of a phone bill, the appliances in the homes and most importantly, the attitudes.

This show, to me is all about echoes. Echoes from the past, echoes from an era gone by or perhaps never really gone, just lurking over the edge, waiting to make another appearance, if Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is to be believed.

At the company where I worked documents that landed in my inbox always reeked of cigarette smoke. It wasn’t at all unusual for people to be conversing in the hallways with a cigarette dangling between their fingers. Yes California was, or was soon to be, a state where people could no longer smoke inside offices or at restaurants but Californians were always considered weird by the east coasters with whom I shared my workplace. It was hard to see my boss’s face sometimes through the haze of smoke that surrounded his desk.

Women in the workforce were often addressed as: sweetheart, lovey, doll. Or someone could announce toward the end of the day, “let’s round up the girls…let’s go get some drinks!”

Even the women, the ones who had risen to executive roles from the secretarial ranks or the secretaries themselves, didn’t seem to mind this language, this treatment. Some secretaries still believed that their best shot at a happy career was to make their boss dependent on them for everything, for every single one of their needs, literally. They were as devoted to their boss as a traditional Indian woman, who believes her husband is a minor god, is to her husband. They made themselves indispensable in this way.

My entry into the workplace was right before the time when words and phrases such as sexual harassment, second hand smoke, drunk driving, political correctness and workplace diversity came into being. As a young, alien observer I recall being stunned whenever a woman client came into the office and was greeted with barely disguised sexual tension in the room.

Many a time, my boss, would say with a nudge and a wink, after women clients had left the office, “Did you see how she was checking me out? She wants me! I am telling you P, she wants me!”

There were always innuendoes doing the rounds about how some women ended up in positions of managerial prominence. It just never crossed anyone’s mind that a woman could prove her merit out of the sack.

I heard terms like the “old boys’ network” and found it quite daunting to think about how closed off things would be to me, and not just because I was a woman of color and with traces of an old accent. It was even more disconcerting because the only other workplace I had seen, before becoming a worker myself, was my father’s. There were readers, lecturers, professors there. They worked neck and neck with the men and I didn’t see any hints of the kind of treatment that I noticed being meted out to women in the workforce in the US, it wasn’t something I had been raised to expect.

One of my boss’s secretaries was a woman in her early fifties, a career secretary. She was the keeper of all intelligence, all confidences, all information that afforded any access to him. She always hinted at having a very special relationship with my boss. It was very interesting to observe her behavior once the office decided it was time to embrace the 1990s and switch to “Casual Fridays”. Her interpretation of this 20% relaxation in the severe dress code was a rejection of that ever-so-restraining garment – the brassiere. And every Friday became a day for her to find several excuses to enter the boss’s office strutting her stuff, it wasn’t even done with any subtlety, her intentions were clear and a cause for deep belly laughs for the rest of us, who weren’t necessarily echoes of that era gone by.

Watching this show, set in 1960, in a very surprising way, brings back memories of the late 1980s to me. That is what is so fascinating and enthralling about it. The executives, senior and junior, in window or windowless offices, secretaries seated outside – answering and forwarding calls, opening and sorting their boss’s mail, making coffee, taking dictations, getting smacked on their bottoms, flirting back, supply closet affairs…these were all still happening in 1988!

Long lunches, also known as three martini lunches, drinks stashed in desk drawers, work parties, or after work affairs, people getting in their cars to drive home after imbibing countless drinks, offices reeking of cigarette smoke, this was all still very present in offices such as mine, poised at a transitional period in history, before everything appeared to change suddenly, leaving several disgruntled fifty-something people craving the days gone by, yearning for the “good old days” as every building became smoke free – even bars and restaurants. People stopped driving drunk (for the most part), alcohol in the workplace became taboo, suddenly people were ordering ice teas and ginger ales for lunch, women were being treated deferentially, no nudges, winks or off-color remarks to be heard anywhere…all this in the last ten to fifteen years. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry at all, things changed just as I arrived on the scene!

However, it would appear as though things remained unchanged, or rather, changed very gradually, one company at a time over a thirty year stretch, even as several minor movements outside of corporate America came and went.

All this and more is so meticulously depicted in this show which has been nominated for several Emmy awards. Every episode I watch makes me think about things, the passage of time, the passing of eras, the changes in attitudes and latitudes – passing mentions of communism fears in those times, Kennedy, Nixon, McCarthy, the beginnings of the sex, drugs and rock and roll era, the derisive attitudes toward psychoanalysis, the time before self-expression and narcissism became en vogue, the era when people still believed in suffering and crumbling under the weight of their own emotions, wordlessly. The dialogs, the acting brings all this out so effortlessly and so seamlessly.

The last episode of the season, entitled – The Wheel – ended on very a poignant note as the ad agency of the story – Sterling Cooper – created a campaign to sell Kodak slide projectors. The Kodak executives come into the office, apologizing for the absence of the Eastman brothers who couldn’t make it because they spent a lot of time in the labs, and wait to be told how the slide carrying wheel, the unique selling proposition for this product, could be conveyed to the consumer. Don Draper, the Creative Director, recently elevated to partner (actor Jon Hamm) presents his work as a slide show, using the Kodak projector and slides of vignettes from his own family life, ensconced within the Kodak wheel, talking about returning to the place where one is loved and appreciated, just as the wheel returns to the very first slide.

Echoes again of a sensitive man, a caring man, one who appreciates family and tenderness and leaves not a dry eye in the room…or perhaps just a brilliant salesman who knows exactly how to get to the heart of the pitch…the questions remain…or are perhaps answered as the Kodak executives are convinced and the office celebrations begin. Don Draper, the Mad Man, the Ad Man, the Madison Avenue Man returns home, hoping to find his family but finding an empty home instead.

Brilliant! Let’s go to Season 2!


  1. Late last night I was watching "A League of heir own" – one of those, whatever is on the TV while I unwound after a hot afternoon of shopping. One of the scenes, where the owner said something about "I love these girls" about the ROckford Peaches reminded me of this piece. Of course the film was of an era before the Mad Men days, but it essentially had the same kind of elements

  2. Dear Anonymous, Again, sometimes a typo is just a typo and has nothing to do with having an Indian ancestry, Ok?Thanks for bringing it to my attention, it has been fixed.Please don't leave me comments if you don't want to tell me who you are or if you don't have something to say about the post…offer counter-reflections, etc.Pragya

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