Mad Men returns today, and it’s ostensibly a show all about how the lifestyle of white, middle-class America of the mid 20th century was a crumbling facade built upon an unsustainable groundwork of deception, consumerism, patriarchy, and racism. It’s about the sixties not from the perspective of the revolutionaries, but from the perspective of those inside the balsa-wood fortress that is slowly and inevitably collapsing in upon itself due to its own contradictions. It’s supposed to be about that.
But let’s not kid ourselves, Mad Men is also a fantasy show. As much as it’s about the moral corruption and hollowness of the part of America that voted for Nixon, it’s also about wearing great suits, drinking a lot, and having all of the sex with everyone, all of the time. The show gets to have it both ways- it’s an utter condemnation of the ruling order of the 1960s, but it also thinks that its subjects look sort of cool.
This is not a new observation by any means, but when I watch Mad Men the biggest fantasy aspect of the show doesn’t come from the cool clothes, booze, revelry, or sex. The most appealing and fantastical aspect of the show, for me, is that Don Draper and company are creative professionals who can actually pay for shit.
Don Draper is paid quite a good deal of money to think things up and be clever. For his services he is given enough of a salary to have a house, a car, several suits, go out all of the time, fly to L.A. with regularity, and generally not feel any real kind of financial pressure. Sure, Sterling Cooper have to hustle get and keep clients, but it doesn’t seem like any of them every have to crack out the Top Ramen or worry about student loans.
I do fine- I have a day job and freelance, but my lifestyle is by no means middle class. Even though Mad Men is all about how the characters live in an unsustainable system, the lifestyles of the creative professionals it portrays greatly appeals to me. I pay my bills by entertaining tourists and writing blog posts and articles- not a bad deal, certainly, but not enough to, say, buy a car or a house. As someone who fancies himself a mildly talented creative person, I would love to do what Don Draper does. I’m sure there’s far more to advertising that what’s portrayed in the show, but the idea of being able to have a pretty okay life at a creative job is, for me, the show’s biggest and most frustrating fantasy. If I do attempt to actually live as a professional journalist or writer (which I suppose I am doing right now) I know that in all probability I’ll never do well. I’ll never be able to own a new car or buy an iPad the day it’s released. I’ll probably never own my own home or be able to fly about the country at will. I’ll most likely never be able to party in an expensive city in New York or own lots of nice suits. Actual, real creative professionals are not rich, or even middle class. They enjoy themselves, they live nice, fulfilled lives, but they are certainly not Don Draper.
Is it worth it? Maybe. Probably. American opulence is nothing to celebrate. Watching Mad Men, though, really makes me wish that decently-paying writing and creative jobs like the one Don Draper has were actually real.