Monday, January 9, 2012

Mad Men: Universal Themes Still Hit Home

Although the Mad Men television drama series is set in the 1960s, many of its human elements are truly timeless. There are struggles that are relevant to today: developing a sense of identity and trying to reinvent oneself, the challenges of attaching to another person in a genuine, intimate and enduring way, the desire to achieve, the impact and pitfalls of alcoholism and chemical dependency, the difficulties of divorce on both adults and children, the issue of feeling alone and disconnected. Pretty well hits most people, doesn't it? No wonder the series has won so many awards. It transcends the sixties beautifully. Change the furnishings and the wardrobe, and many of the dynamics relate well to life in 2012.

The central character in Mad Men is advertising executive Don Draper. While he is now a hugely successful Creative Director, and later a partner at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, he has a secret past. In a locked drawer in his desk at home are the remains of his former life as Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute who died as he was being born. He grew up with hostile and abusive caregivers in extreme poverty. During his military service in Korea, Dick's commanding officer was killed. In a powerful moment of reinvention, Don switched his military dog tags with his deceased officer's. He then returns to the US and assumes the other man's identity. While his methods are dramatic, many people can relate to his desire to improve their life circumstances, and begin again....hopefully in a more integrated way. Over the years I have coached many people to navigate and create a life again after a significant loss, of a partner, a family member, a career, or serious health concerns. It takes courage and tenacity to begin again. While Whitman/Draper's situation is extreme, it does capture our imagination. It is symbolic of the changes one makes as we continue to evolve across the lifespan, just without this level of drama.

The relationships in Mad Men are interesting dances to watch.Infidelity abounds. Some of the physical intimacy is completely empty and meaningless. I can't easily identify a love relationship on the show which seems ideal. There is a sadness that is revealed at times, a longing for a deeper, more lasting connection. Roger, another partner at the ad agency, divorces his wife of many years, and remarries a young secretary at the firm closer to his daughter's age than his. At times he seems lonely, and like he has little in common with his much younger wife. Don's wife, Betty, seems like a horrible mother and completely disinterested in the day to day business of raising their family. She appears lonely while Don works incredibly long hours and has a whole string of extramarital affairs. When all is revealed about Don's multitude of secrets, Betty seems unable to forgive him. The timing is off, which, we are reminded in our own lives, sometimes happens. I often wonder what marriages I work with in couples counseling would look like if we could get both partners really putting their commitment into being all in. Mad Men reminds us that relationships are complicated, some people have never learned to attach securely, and great marriages take BOTH people living empathetically, transparently, and lovingly with each other.

On the ambition front, we get to watch through this series the desire most of the characters have to achieve something and be noticed. Organizational psychology illuminates how the work environment is like another family. Siblings (co-workers) are jealous of the credit and kudos others receive from the parent figure (boss). There are issues of jealousy, competition, rage, acting out, mentoring, support, and alliance-building. Just like at home! In particular, I find Don's relationship with his longtime copywriter, Peggy, interesting. Peggy admires Don and continues to seek his approval each season, even as she develops her strengths and assertiveness.

What about the drinking and smoking? It's excessive, and seems to begin first thing in the morning. At work! Clearly the characters are coping with a fast paced life, anxiety, sadness, loneliness and lots of other things by drinking and other substance use. They don't seem to have a very healthy lifestyle, and are numbing many of their feelings. Never a good choice, then or now.

A number of characters divorce, including Don and Betty. The pain that the children feel at losing their father from their life is palpable, and will hit home with anyone who is a child of divorced parents, or has gone through this trauma with their own children. Family therapists know that among the nodal events in family life, entrances and exits (like divorce), are two of the hardest. Watching the pain in Bobby and Sally Draper's eyes as they hear the news about their parents' break-up is heart-wrenching.

Lots have things have changed since the Mad Men era. We wear seat belts and bike helmets. Women can play different roles at the office besides secretary. Hopefully nobody is drinking at the office or chain-smoking through pregnancy. Beyond these differences and the style changes in design and fashion, many of the human themes transcend across these fifty years to challenges we each face in our lives and hopefully come to some more lasting and satisfying resolution. The outfits are different, but the desires for connection, closeness, support and achievement endure.

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