MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s. Edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2013.
The most recent collection generated from a conference at the University of Illinois Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, Mad Men, Mad World covers mostly the first four seasons of the television show, which is now in its seventh and final season. The unit’s weblog, Kritik, (unitcrit.blogspot.com) currently recapping Season 7, now includes a header explaining that it is “in collaboration with the publication” of the book. The decision to publish before the series conclusion means that critics’ judgments about the ultimate meaning of the show may be defied by Mad Men’s as-yet unseen narrative resolution. However, set in media res, Mad Men, Mad World can be read as the academic version of a tie-in, a companion to the show’s final seasons and a guidebook to the Mad-blogosphere—but it may require a second edition.
Editors Goodlad, Kaganovsky and Rushing argue that Mad Men is a “groundbreaking approach to period drama” that has “altered the vision of the 1960s and of pastness itself” (2) as well as a strategically anachronistic representation of advertising that enables audiences to “explore the moral quandaries of a corrupting world” (15). Taking issue with Mark Grief’s dismissal of the show as an exercise in “Now We Know Better,” Mad Men, Mad World’s essayists offer more complex arguments about what the 1960s mean in the present and how historical fiction works in general (Greif, “You’ll Love the Way it Makes You Feel,” London Review of Books, October 23, 2008). The deliberateness of the show’s producers makes Mad Men an excellent focal point for analysis that includes images, fashion, and architecture. Its critical reception allows authors to discuss the values of elite taste in the present; its approach to advertising throws the importance of television as the ultimate medium of consumption into high relief.
In addition to connecting the series to the history of advertising, Mad Men, Mad World addresses the relationship of Mad Men to films and novels from the 1950s and 1960s and to television history. More so than the blog-originated Mad Men Unbuttoned by Natasha Vargas Cooper (2010), it probes inter-textual references for their larger cultural significance regarding race, gender, sexuality, and capitalism, and connects these to contemporary scholarship on television and advertising. The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Mad Worlds,” includes essays about Mad Men’s representation of history qua history as well as of specific issues such as civil rights and abortion. The second section, “Mad Aesthetics,” concerns the meaning and uses of style and image for Mad Men and its marketers, fans, and advertisers, while essays in the third section “Made Men” meditate on what the show says about identity. Mad Men, Mad World would work for courses introducing more general topics: television criticism, cultural studies, and historical fiction.
While the authors generally find much to admire in Mad Men, several essays are highly critical. Kent Ono argues that despite being self-reflective about race, Mad Men “unnecessarily and objectionably produces the irrelevance” of non-white characters in a way that mirrors the racism it seeks to critique (306). Jeremy Varon and Clarence Lang note the absence of representations of characters engaged in Sixties social movements, with Lang arguing that the show “naturalizes a Black quietude that did not actually exist” in the North and Varon pointing out that marginal characters who are engaged in social protest or counter-culture are portrayed as cynical or shallow, so that the narrative remains “captive to the condition it diagnoses” (258). Mad Men is, the editors have convincingly shown, a vexed reckoning with how we got to where we are now. In contrast to “Now We Know Better,” these critics might find Mad Men’s perspective is more accurately described as “Plus ça change. . . ”
Rebecca Hill, Kennesaw State University