Posted: June 14th, 2021

Mad Men Sociological / Semiotic Analysis

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Every so often there is a television program that attracts a large audience because it is brilliantly written and entertaining. One of the most recent television shows to do this has been Mad Men. The show revolves around an advertising agency in the 1960’s and it’s key players in the company, more specifically Don Draper. Being set in the 1960’s, it is important to do both a sociological and semiotic analysis of the show.
Society and human interactions have changed dramatically over the past fifty years and while it is a scripted television show and not a documentary, the drama prides itself on paying close attention to details and keeping everything true to the time period. It would be interesting and informative to do an analysis comparing the 1960’s shown in Mad Men to today’s society. Likewise, with the characters and their clothing, subtle symbols give away clues about who they are and what they’re going through as the show goes on.
Semiotics are important to take note of in every context in order to truly understand whatever you’re trying to critically understand or analyze. In the 1960’s society was vastly different that it is today. It was a turning point in American history and dealt with a lot of sensitive issues that are still linger around today although they aren’t as prominent as they once were. This is reflected in the society that is built in the show Mad Men, namely the Sterling Cooper society.

Sterling Cooper is the advertising agency that the show revolves around; in Sterling Cooper there is anything you would find in a larger society, such as social norms and bureaucracy. Furthermore, critics realize that “Mad Men deliberately shocks its audience by presenting as reasonable and commonplace behavior we now find appalling,” (“The Devil’s in the Details,” The Atlantic) which gives us a direct juxtaposition of the Mad Men society and today’s society.
In multiple aspects of a sociological analysis, there is always a prime example in the show Mad Men which is only highlighted when trying to look at Mad Men through the lens of today’s societal norms. Durkheim’s theory said that there is a social dimension to how people construct themselves based on their surroundings. That can be seen primarily in the character Peggy Olson. At first, Peggy suffers from alienation. Peggy being from Brooklyn feels disconnected with her co workers. She feels estranged since she’s so homely and lives a simple, plain lifestyle compared to the lashy, metropolitan girls around her. She isn’t skinny, she wears more modest clothing and isn’t throwing herself at her bosses. “The audience sees Peggy alienate herself from the rest of the girls in the office, often eating lunch alone in the office, ignoring the fashions that the other women wear and refusing the participate in the constant office gossip. As a woman, in the 1960s however, she cannot exactly be one of the boys and therefore she cannot relate to the man either” (Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Series, pg 159-160).
It takes her a while to figure out where she fits in, and over time she too becomes a flashier version of herself, clearly influenced by the women around her and tries to step out of her comfort zone and into a different kind of lifestyle. Lifestyles are also a very important part of society. Lifestyle covers a person’s taste in fashion, cars , entertainment, and other leisure activities which often reflect our socioeconomic class. Peggy was a lowly girl from Brooklyn, which was very much looked down upon by the men and women of Manhattan.
She was considered poor, especially when she would bring her own lunch to work instead of buying her food off of the lunch cart like the other secretaries. Her clothing also gave her away in the beginning, her skirts were longer than the other girls, she was always covering up, which won’t help attract the bosses in the ways the other secretaries were trying so desperately to do. Peggy would go home and read, or stay at work late if she wanted while other girls were running around on dates or going out trying to find something at a bar.
Peggy’s chosen lifestyle is opposite the other women in the show outside of Sterling Cooper, mainly Don Draper’s wife Betty. Don Draper is a very successful, so his wife gets to spend her days looking at art, or riding horses. Their socioeconomic stance allows her to spend her entire day doing leisure activities and not be worried about such trivial things as work. Betty even had a nanny, so as not to over exert herself with cooking dinner and taking care of their children after all that horseback riding.
Being a housewife to a successful man, Betty lived a very different lifestyle than the young girls who worked as secretaries. The secretaries in Sterling Cooper created their own small hierarchy which can be viewed as a bureaucracy. Joan is the “head secretary,” giving her a significant value to both the men and the secretaries. For the most part she decide who gets which secretary, and if changes should be made. She orders the other secretaries to do things and they listen knowing the power she holds behind the scenes (whether or not they know its because she’s sleeping with one of the partners is another story).
Joan was held in such high regard, even the men of Sterling Cooper would listen to her; mainly because she demanded respect and they were always hoping to impress Joan to hopefully catch her attention. This is also why it becomes so hard for Peggy when Joan begins to resent her for catching the attention of the men in the office not with her body, but with her ideas. Joan was no longer the woman in the office to brag about, but Peggy with her fantastic ideas and later on when she eventually becomes more than just a secretary in the company.
While Joan is head of secretaries, Peggy now has her own secretary. Peggy becoming a junior copy-writer went against the anomies or social norms of Sterling Cooper, as well as the rest of society in the 1960’s. Women had just entered the workforce and there wasn’t a huge place for women to do more than secretarial work for the men who were doing the “real work. ” Women were faced with trials and tribulations every day they went to work, ranging from sexual harassment from the men to the glass ceiling they were constantly suffering from.
A common social norm found in Mad Men is the unspoken yet well known practice of men sleeping with the secretaries in the office. Don Draper, the main character does it many time throughout this show, with Peggy actually being the exception since he saw there was something more to her. Sterling, Campbell, Draper, all known for their trysts with secretaries around the office. This wouldn’t be as readily accepted in today’s day and age, and is the reason for a lot of the sexual harrassment laws today; however in the 1950s, and at the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency, it was the norm.
Joan and Peggy are both constantly in this sexist environment but react to is in very different ways. “Their behavior and comments highlight alternative ways that women behave. Joan rises to the occasion, showing off her femininity in poses, smiles, and comments. Peggy, on the other hand, is a woman who enjoys looking pretty, but she is also a thinker who seems to understand the objectification that is taking place” (Mad Men: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Class; William M. O’Barr). Joan was a powerful and intelligent woman, but would ever be seen as more than that. Peggy, however, masked her sexuality well enough to have the men see past the fact she was a woman and actually give her a chance to become something more than a secretary. However, the fact that a woman had to virtually deny the fact she was a woman in order to get to a more prominent position in her workplace highlights the sexist attitude of corporate America in the 1960s. Among sexist attitudes in the workplace, there were plenty of other social norms that are highlighted in Mad Men.
The constant drinking and smoking are seen as shocking in a society that has banned smoking from virtually everywhere including certain outdoor areas and have constant reminders to drink responsibly. Mad Men, paying close attention to detail, constantly has the men walk into their offices and pour a drink almost religiously on the show. Even if the drink is a minute detail of the scene, they make sure it happens, because that’s how it would’ve been in the 1960s. There is also smoking everywhere, in the elevators, in restaurants, in the offices, everywhere.
Ironically, one of the biggest issues of the time period is skirted around in Mad Men. In the 1960’s race was a very prominent subject that carried a lot of tension with it. There was no equality in the workplace and African American’s were primarily kept to service jobs like waiters, door men, etc. In one episode it was a big deal that a client was Jewish. It was such a big deal they searched the whole company to find another Jewish man to sit in on the meeting and make their client feel more welcome. They found only one young Jewish man working in the depths of the art department.
In another episode, Pete Campbell, a junior account manager makes a point that a certain television brand was being bought by mostly African Americans in the south and suggested placing ads in magazines that were directed towards them. This was aggressively dismissed since the agency felt their client wouldn’t want to be so closely associated with being the brand African Americans’ choose. One of the more important characters in later seasons, Lane, who is originally from England, is having an affair with a black woman and refuses to return to England.
His father promptly punches him in the gut and informs him that it was not a request and they are leaving back to England immediately. The idea of his son being with a black woman was simply intolerable to the British man, he wouldn’t even object, he simply pretended it didn’t exist. Just like that, in one episode an interracial relationship was created and destroyed. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and how they create meaning in society, this plays a large part in Mad Men.
The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner has made sure that attention to detail is not only meticulous, but the details help tell the story much like they would in actual society. “The pattern of a necktie, the club frequented, the restaurant patronized, the shopping bag carried, the prep school attended, together with a thousand other details, signify minute social distinctions, and reveal and even define character” (“The Devil’s in the Details. ” The Atlantic). If the viewer is paying close attention, they will notice that as the week goes on the characters wardrobe and hair styles become more worn.
The easiest example of semiotics is to compare the three main women in the show: Betty Draper, Don Draper’s wife; Joan Holloway, the head secretary; and Peggy Olson, ambitious secretary turn copy-writer. Betty Draper is the definition of trophy wife and is coded as thus. She is a blonde hair, blue eyed woman who used to be a model and gave it all up to be a housewife once she was swept away by main character Don Draper. She is always looking neat and proper, with her hair in fancy hair-dos and her flowery dresses she is littered in signs that depict her as a stereotypical 50’s housewife.
Betty is undoubtedly a loving mother and wife, she is also innocent, timid and submissive when it comes to her husband, whatever he says, goes. However, as her marriage begins to crumble, she begins to change in all aspects. Her hobbies begin to change from redecorating her house to finding things to do outside of the house like horseback riding. When Betty has a moment of aggressiveness, whether it’s towards her neighbor or while lashing out at her husband, she is usually seen wearing pants.
It’s almost as if her wardrobe is letting viewers see her changes as its happening, not only in her actions, but in her choice of clothing. Joan Holloway, later known as Joan Harris is almost the complete opposite of Betty Draper in every way imaginable. Joan is the head secretary, and she is purposely coded with fiercely sexual signs such as being a red-head and very curvaceous. She fulfills her signs’ connotations by coquettishly and sometimes aggressively flaunting her confidence and dominance in everything she does.
She dresses very provocatively and is always wearing a very long necklace. She is supposed to be viewed as the office vixen and her clothing doesn’t let you forget her role in Sterling Cooper. Once Joan is married and becomes Mrs. Harris, she quits her job as most women did in the 1960’s. She trades in her tight dresses for a more modest wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts and plainer dresses as she tries to enter the role as housewife. Joan becomes much less glamorous and more homely as time goes on; you can begin to see this new lifestyles wearing on the once fierce and flawless woman.
The third distinctive woman on Mad Men is Peggy Olson. Peggy is coded as having a lower socioeconomic status than the rest which is signified by her clothing early on in the series; her clothes are plain and homely. She covers herself in sweaters and long dresses and skirts that aren’t form fitting like the other secretaries in the office. She doesn’t wear much make-up, her brunette plain hair is usually in a childish pony tail; signifying both her innocence and lack of time spent on the superficial since she feels her thoughts should be geared towards more important things.
However, once she begins finding her place her attire begins to conform to the metropolitan atmosphere. Her confidence is exuding from her character, and the audience can see it in her new found sense of style. Her skirts get shorter (but never too short), her choice in clothing gets more sophisticated and bold. Her childish ponytail is gone; Peggy’s new hair is shorter with bangs off to the side. Peggy has gone through a major transition and is now coded as being a confident, intelligent woman that can hold her own in a man’s world without using her body by simply changing her clothing and hair style.
Mad Men is an exceptional show that pays very close attention to historical accuracies and character details with a meticulous manner. While most audiences won’t pick up on the fact that the women’s hair colors are signifiers of who they are, critically analyzing Mad Men makes the audience aware of the volumes the women’s hair colors say about them. The amount of thought that goes into each character and their individual signs and signifiers, coded and recoding them to reflect their current state is obvious to anyone who takes the time to critically watch the show and appreciate all that goes into it.
The writer’s also have a captivating way of taking societal issues of the times and conveying them to the audience with the same gravity they had back then, despite the audience watching it through the lens of today’s society. All the sensitive subjects of race, class, sexes are shown with the same directness as any other societal norm that was found in the 1960s that might not be as welcomed today. An artifact that is dedicated to reflecting on the past in the present while using every possibly detail available to convey messages and stories deserves to be recognized for all the hard work that is put into it.
Bibliography O’Barr, William M. “Mad Men: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Class. ” Advertising ; Society Review 2011th ser. 11. 4 (2011). Project MUSE. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. ;http://muse. jhu. edu/journals/advertising_and_society_review/v011/11. 4. o-barr. html;. Rogers, Sara. “The Women of Mad Men. ” Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Series. By Scott Frederick. Stoddart. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print. Schwartz, Benjamin. “The Devil’s in the Details” The Atlantic November (2009): 91-98. Print. Berger, Arthur Asa. Media Analysis Techniques. London: SAGE, 2011. Print.

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