Mad Men: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Class

ADText: Advertising Curriculum
Unit 22: Mad Men: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Class

1. Introduction

Representations of advertising in popular cultural media such as film and TV play an important role in shaping public ideas about advertising. On the big screen or the small one, these “insider” views of advertising are about as close as most people get to what actually happens on a day-to-day basis in the work and lives of those who construct the images of desire and consumption that populate contemporary society.

This unit examines what is by all accounts the most prominent display of the world of advertising in popular culture in the first decade of the current century—the television series, Mad Men. Its name refers, of course, to Madison Avenue, the erstwhile venue of New York’s biggest and most successful advertising agencies, and to the people—usually male—who work in them. The setting is America of the 1960s, a sort of golden age for advertising before the turmoil of Vietnam, civil rights, student protests, and feminism.

The central focus of this unit is how the multi-year series portrays the key social issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. These are not the only themes that might be examined in analyzing the significance and popularity of Mad Men, but they are some of the most pervasive social and cultural topics. The episodes show both the inner workings of agency life, and the content of advertisements from the period—both of which are sites where race, class, gender, and sexuality are displayed.

2. Gender

Men’s relationships with women—and conversely, women’s relationships with men—constitute a cornerstone for many Mad Men episodes. In the very first episode of the series, the professional life of adman Don Draper, is contrasted with that of two women, Joan Holloway (the office manager) and Peggy Olsen (the new “girl” in the office). Don sits in a bar musing over why consumers select their preferred brands of cigarettes. He lights up, sips his cocktail, and quizzes the African-American waiter about his preference for Old Gold over other brands of cigarettes.

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