‘Mad Men’ and the Revolutionary Properties of Rudeness

Alan Sepinwall has done my favorite post-game interview with Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner about this season of Mad Men, and I wanted to pull out this part of it, in which Alan asks Weiner about what it means for the show to be entering the second half of the decade, because I think it gets at something critically important:

I’ve always been telling a story, from the beginning of season 2, when the youth culture starts to be the focus of the advertising industry and commerce in general, and then the society. And you see Clearasil and talk about Pepsi, but there’s the scene in the elevator with the guys talking and they won’t take their hats off. And the crudening of our culture, it’s a big part of the story. There becomes less irony, and as the manners disappear, there’s less hiding. That’s something that I’ve really tried to tell. That’s why Ginsberg will swear out of the middle of nowhere, that’s why more of the language becomes more on the nose. Witticisms start dropping off. It hasn’t changed for Don and Roger, but I’m trying to tell a story about how we’ve become the way we are now. And I think that being inundated with nihilism, random violence, the rise of subversion in the marketplace — which Ginsberg represents — multi-culturalism, this is not a good or bad judgment. It’s just part of how we became more modern, and what people perceive. One of my things is that human behavior doesn’t change, but certainly the manners change, and what you’re watching is the manners changing.

In a way, this clarifies for me why I’ve never felt as attached to Mad Men as some of the folks who love it do — I’m somewhat interested in the reactions of folks on the wrong side of history, but I’m more excited to spend time with folks who will be liberated by the crudening of that culture. Because while politeness can be a spur to style, and wit, and class, it can also be a powerful means of enforcing privilege and preserving the comfort of people who benefit from it.

Politeness is staying quiet while your fiance rapes you so you don’t disturb anyone else in the office — and so their sense of you isn’t disrupted. Politeness isn’t interfering in the early days of the marriage of the colleague who got you pregnant. Politeness is wondering if you should have slept with Lane Pryce to keep his spirits up. Politeness is letting Don Draper appropriate or undermine your ideas. Politeness is not speaking up when your colleagues keep you at the office so late that you can’t get home safely to the neighborhood where you live because that’s all your salary allows.


And that’s why I found the rudeness of certain characters on Mad Men this season so refreshing. When Peggy calls out Don in a test kitchen with other people around, she’s being rude, but she’s also entirely justified. I love Michael Ginsberg in his awkward, profane, emotional nakeness. There isn’t a polite way to talk about being born in a concentration camp, to call out your boss for undermining your work. The fact that he’s a raw nerve end is a kind of courage, particularly in a season where Lane Pryce’s inability to talk about his problems or to ask for help lead him to commit what he hoped was a quiet transgression, and ultimately to his death.

Mad Men is, to me, the beginning of a conversation that our culture is still very much struggling to have, about the fact that style and privilege don’t have to be connected. It’s why Ron Swanson is such a transformative figure in his suggestion that performative hypermasculinity is in no way dependent on the oppression of women. And it’s why, in a way, it’s nice to see vintage cocktails and sixties styles come back. Feminism doesn’t mean that Peggy Olson and I are here to take away your old fashioned.