Pete Campbell, the bulldog, is a character who does whatever it takes to get ahead — and generally succeeds. Men like this don’t seem to have changed much since the “Mad Men” era. Pete is ambitious to a fault, a rainmaker. In 2012, he would never leave the house without his iPhone and laptop.
He can’t be bothered with headsets, though, and his devoted wife, Trudy, worries about the dangers to the brain from radiation emitted by wireless devices. She leaves reports on the bedside and breakfast tables, but he is too busy to take heed. Technology is moving so fast that whatever risk he incurs from his devices, he’s confident that there’ll be a cure by the time he’d have to worry about any problems anyway. “There’s simply no way to do business these days without being connected all the time,” he might say.
Some viewers will remember that sentiment wistfully — reflecting the moment before our uber-connected society unraveled into divorce rates of 75 percent and children dropping out of school to seek asylum at yoga ashrams in India; they are desperate for privacy after being raised by Tiger moms who inhabit their Facebook pages and co-enroll in their extracurricular activities and, later, their colleges. Overworked Americans are lining up for surgically implanted devices that perpetually stimulate the brain stem, so they can get by with two or three hours’ sleep a night. How else can they get it all done — and still have time for leisure, such as watching “Mad Men 2012”?
Joan, the glorified “Mad Men” office manager and resident sexpot, uses her sexuality to get ahead but hits a glass ceiling at 1960s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She’s a bit of a schemer, though. Today’s Joan might tweet defamatory gossip about the firm — under an assumed name — in an effort to put the sexist art director in his place for challenging her authority. (“Guess who recently checked into rehab for sex addiction? I’ll let you DRAW those conclusions. . .”)
Of course she soon learns that electronic communications on company devices aren’t ever anonymous (a realization the audience finds quite quaint), and the social-media firm lets her go. But Joan is a survivor; she starts a YouTube reality show, blogging and tweeting her personal brand to success, instead of toiling in a dead-end administrative position near the bottom of the office hierarchy. For the Joan of 2012, corporate culture is her glass ceiling — a forced, even militant brand loyalty that keeps all genders from success. Becoming a viral video star does more for her career than sitting behind a desk ever did.
We have made strides since Don Draper’s 1960s. Society has become less rigid. In the workplace, women and people of color now hold many of the same positions as white men. Families look different, as more people choose to be single parents or marry same-sex partners. And for the first time in history, we have a president who is a person of color. Maybe we will look back on our era — similar to the transitional time “Mad Men” portrays — as one in which technology and world events redrew all the lines for the better.
But “Mad Men” is about more than social change and resistance to it. It’s also about relationships among the characters, many of whom are victims of what Christopher Lasch has called the culture of narcissism, a society in which shallow, self-involved behavior is the norm.
Feeling empty, craving attention and admiration, our 2012 Don Draper, like the emotionally detached 1960s Don, would be lonely and desperate, given to engaging in shallow relationships and using others to satisfy his desires. While sitting next to one woman, he texts others, perhaps lining up a booty call so that a lackluster dinner date won’t ruin the evening’s search for pleasure. He sneaks peeks of his favorite TV shows on his iPhone from the restaurant bathroom. He wants to know everything about a prospective girlfriend before he meets her: “So that’s where she went to school?” Scroll down to bikini shot . . . “Not bad.”
Stephanie Newman, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City, is the author of “Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show.”
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