July 25, 2010

Style as Substance: Some Words on Betty Draper's Victorian Nonsense and Other Things Too

With the fourth season of Mad Men quickly approaching, I found myself spending the better part of today thinking about criticism the show has received for being more style than substance. That is, for covering up its plot imperfections with a slurry of beautiful objects: people, dresses, furniture, and everyday knick knacks.

In a lengthy critique of Mad Men, Mark Greif wrote in the London Review of Books (October 2008) that the series consisted of “soap opera antics” and inaccurate depictions of the history of advertising. Such flaws were apparently too much for the viewer to recover from. Slate Magazine (September 2009) picked up where Greif left off, denouncing the show as nothing more than a “guilty pleasure tv commercial.” 

It appeared as though Mad Men’s most serious flaw was that it looked too good. The image of the show was overpowering. Aesthetics had trumped content. The television show has become some sort of super-designed object - the motion picture equivalent of this.

Despite the critiscm, or perhaps in response to the criticsm, producer Matt Weiner created an episode that propelled the role of style into a much larger and aggressive role, marking what I consider to be a turning point in the series.  This all goes down in season 3 episode 7 for all of you Mad Men junkies, where conflicting desires for the future are told through design. 

For example, we see Duck, a fired executive from Sterling Cooper, attempt to exact his revenge by asking Sterling Cooper's own Peggy to join his company.  He does this by sending Peggy a designer Hermès scarf which she lovingly holds while contemplating his intentions.  Also we discover that Betty Draper’s secret affection for Henry (a politician whose job at selling ideas is ironically similar to Don Draper’s job in advertisement) is reciprocal when he "fondles" a stainless steel matchbox which has fallen out of her purse.  

The undoubted star of the episode, and the provocateur of my interest in all of this, is an awkwardly large antique Victorian sofa lovingly called the "Fainting Couch." This comes after the Drapers' living room gets a fresh make over with sleek new modern furniture.  Betty purchases the piece of furniture while on a low key date with Henry and - going against the advice of her decorator - places it directly in front of their fireplace: 
Decorator: What were you thinking!? It's awful. 
Betty: It's an antique.
Decorator: We discussed this for months, and we decided antiques were expected. Look around! You have ruined the whole room.
If the modern object embodies technologically sophisticated, opportunistic and forward-looking aspirations of modernism, Betty's purchase of an antique victorian sofa reveals her desire to return to the past. Her marriage trouble with Don, and her nostalgic home décor (have you seen that kitchen wallpaper!?) and traditionalist sensibilities, paired with Don's unavoidable focus on his future with Sterling Cooper are reflected in her affection for the Fainting Couch.  Betty argues with Don over his hesistance to sign a three year contract at work: "What's the matter?  You don't know where you're going to be in three years?"

Only a piece of massive fireplace-blocking victorian nonsense amidst a room of modernist designer objects could project the image of Mad Men's increasingly troubled relationships.  Further adding to the chaos of season 3 is the fact that all of this plays out amidst a growing tension between the city and the suburb: the masculinity of the corporate office place of the 1960’s vs. the femininity of domestic suburbia of that era.  It is as if the corporate modernism of Don's workplace has invaded the innocence of Betty's home.  

Where Mad Men ultimately succeeds is in the shear defiance of its critics.  Taking their disputed over-reliance on style and making it even more of an issue has created an exciting dialog between the cable tv show and the arts critic.  Interestingly enough, Slate ran another review after this episode aired under the title, “The Fainting Couch for Best Supporting Actor."  I highly recommend it, as Kate Bolick has eloquently described in much better detail Mad Men's reliance on style as substance.

In considering the divide between nostalgia and futurism, a separate, but somewhat relevant topic is the bizarre annual ritual paint companies partake in by selecting a "color of the year."  From Sherwin-Williams:
"In uncertain times, we find comfort in the memories and traditions that provide us with a sense of solid ground...Color plays a key role in triggering our nostalgia, and our Today’s Colors collection is a rediscovery of the styles, textures, patterns ― and hues ― of the past."
Interesting to note is the difference between pre and post-economic crash. For example, in 2007, references to the spirit of adventure, new technology, and the possibilities of the future:
“In 2007, there is an awareness of the melding of diverse cultural influences, and Chili Pepper is a reflection of exotic tastes both on the tongue and to the eye. Nothing reflects the spirit of adventure more than the color red. ... “The color red makes a bold statement. We’re seeing shifts in people’s opinions on current events and major changes in the way they are expressing themselves through new technology. People are open to the possibilities of the future and Chili Pepper celebrates that.”
2010, on the other hand, demands our collective desire for stress relief: 
"Combining the serene qualities of blue and the invigorating aspects of green, Turquoise evokes thoughts of soothing, tropical waters and a languorous, effective escape from the everyday troubles of the world, while at the same time restoring our sense of well being."

1 comment:

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