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Vox talks Mad Men: A story of the ever-so-slightly waning power of white male privilege

Don is an incredibly talented ad man — but he's also been helped by his appealing exterior.
Don is an incredibly talented ad man — but he's also been helped by his appealing exterior.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by editor-in-chief Ezra Klein and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub.

Amanda Taub: Ezra, I think you’re right about what Mad Men is telling us about media, advertising, and storytelling, but there’s an even bigger story behind that one.

The thing Don Draper is really selling is a promise that if people buy products that make their lives seem better, their lives will actually be better. Reality will follow appearances, and appearances can be bought. But the '60s were also a time when appearances — doing things the "right" way, wearing the "right" clothes, being the "right" sort of white, male person — started to lose ground.

All of the most memorable pitches on the show promise a product that comes packaged with happiness. Buy a Kodak carousel, and happy family memories will appear to fill it. Buy a Jaguar, and feel the satisfaction of a relationship with a beautiful woman who will never reject or leave you. Buy snacks like Popsicles and Hershey bars, and bask in your grateful children’s love.

That’s a perfect message for Don to sell, because that’s the approach he took toward his whole life: he looked and sounded like a wealthy white man and so managed to become one. He found Betty, who looked like the perfect partner and mother, and hoped a perfect family would follow. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have real talent as an ad man. We know he does. But the show reminds us time and time again that Don was able to make use of that talent because he looked the way he looked.

But just as Don’s slick outer shell has been dented over the years, one of the big stories Mad Men has told is about the declining value of those kinds of appearances over substance.

That shift has had a lot of positive results: Peggy doesn’t fit people’s expectations of what a copywriter should look like, but the times have changed just enough to let her talent carry her forward. But it also means there are declining returns when it comes to conforming to people’s expectations and following a well-trodden path. People like Roger and Pete might have gotten their jobs because they were born privileged white men, but if they had tried to rest on that alone, they would have been forgotten long ago. (Remember when the firm was reorganized and Roger wasn't included at all?)

That process had a real impact on America, and it isn’t over. Increased opportunity has been accompanied by increased instability. I got a small taste of that myself in 2008, when I worked at a large New York law firm at the height of the economic crisis. One of the partners I knew remarked to me that the firm had managed to ride out the Great Depression without firing a single employee, and he wished they could react the same way to the economic meltdown that was then happening around us.

But they couldn’t. In the 1930s, everyone at the firm was, as he put it, "tall, male, and from Greenwich," and expected to stay in his job for his entire working life. Loyalty was a two-way street: the firm would take care of people during downturns, but in return, they expected employees to stay at the firm even if a different job could be more lucrative.

Eventually, however, the firm began taking partners from other firms if they could bring enough business with them. That was great for meritocracy and for diversity: those were the first partners who didn’t fit the old WASP ideal.

But it also changed the rules for everyone else: once it became acceptable to take partners from other firms, it also became acceptable for partners to leave and take their business with them. And so, in times of crisis, the firm could no longer avoid layoffs. They had to keep profits high in order to keep top-billing partners at the firm.

A few months after the partner and I had that conversation, the firm fired hundreds of people.

As a woman who has happily enjoyed a career as a lawyer and now as a journalist, my position, unsurprisingly, is that diversity is great and worth the price we pay for it. But Mad Men reminds us that there was a price, and that we are still figuring a lot of this stuff out.

Read the recap. Come back tomorrow as Todd wraps up the discussion.

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