On this momentous Mad Men weekend, it gives me great pleasure to post an Ink Spill exclusive from my New Yorker colleague, Joe Dator. I can’t think of a better cartoon-related way to salute this classic series. My thanks to Joe for bringing this terrific piece to the Spill. [click on the cartoons to enlarge them ]
And now, without further ado…
“The Cartoons on Peggy Olson’s Wall”
Is there a clever nickname for Mad Men fans? “Maddies” doesn’t seem right, and “Mennies” is even worse (How about “Trekkies”? The Star Trek people aren’t using it anymore. I say we make them an offer). Whatever the word for it is, I am one. I’m completely enthralled by the writing, the acting and the incredible attention to period detail. For me, these characters seem absolutely real, and I’ve met some future older version of just about all of them.
One of those is copy chief Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss. In the fifth season episode “Dark Shadows”, which takes place in 1966, Peggy opens a pitch meeting for a soft drink with “Everyone loves the cartoons in The New Yorker, and I thought we could do that kind with the guy crawling across the Sahara dying of thirst”. Her idea doesn’t fit the campaign, but it fits her character. Peggy’s come a long way (vintage advertising reference!) since starting at Sterling Cooper, working her way up to copywriter when few women were anything other than secretaries. She’s an upward striver who would have reveled in her new found metropolitan lifestyle (although as a young professional she might not have been the ideal demographic for The New Yorker at that time- its ads from those days seemed to mostly target the kind of people who buy furs and travel to India for the food).
Three fictional years later, Peggy has a bit more office real estate and she decorates it partly with cartoons. In the seventh season episodes “Severance” and “New Business” there are four New Yorker cartoons visible on the wall (I couldn’t identify the other four- it’s likely they were culled from one of the other magazines that ran cartoons back then, of which there were still many).
True to the production’s meticulous attention to detail, all of them were published prior to those episodes April 1970 setting. Let’s take a closer look.
First up is this William Steig cartoon from March 22nd, 1969. It’s funny, but why would Peggy want to clip it out and save it? I think it would have struck a nerve with any woman of that era. Despite revisionist nostalgia for the 60s as a time for acceptance of curvier figures, the reality is that weight-loss, or “reducing” products were sold exclusively and aggressively to women back then. Peggy wrote copy for a few of those, like “Patio”, a kind of proto Diet Pepsi, and “The Electrosizer”, a baffling vibrating harness contraption (which proved to have benefits for women that were very far away from weight loss).
Of course, I think this cartoon may have resonated with Peggy for a different reason. Is that hen just stout or is she pregnant? Peggy spent the better part of Season 1 carrying Pete Campbell’s baby, unaware or more likely in willful denial of her condition and her growing shape. Her boss Don Draper chillingly says to her, after she’s given the child up for adoption, that “This never happened.” Don is a shape-shifter, and this cartoon may be a reminder to Peggy of how much she is like her mentor after all.
At the time this Dana Fradon cartoon was published, on February 22nd, 1969, the Cold War was still in full swing, and the Paris Peace Talks were entering their second year. It’s safe to say the public was losing some confidence in its leaders’ and diplomats’ ability to talk through their problems. But I’d like to think Peggy taped this one up because it reminded her of all the time she spent in places where “the ladies have to sit and listen to the men talk”. She’s heard a lot of important men saying a lot of important things, and she knows better than anyone else how much of it is just pure gobbledegook.
This Warren Miller cartoon, from February 15th, 1969, in which animals have occupied a zoo administrator’s office, is clearly a reference to student protests at universities in 1968 and 69. It’s a snapshot of the power struggle that was going on between the establishment and the counter culture at that time. Peggy’s a part of that menagerie that has wrestled control of the institution away from the stuffy pipe-smokers that run it, although I imagine she feels more like the zoo director- in constant danger of being pushed out of her hard-won position by the animals of the firm. That lion looks a lot like Don, the giraffe like the statuesque Joan and the ostrich could easily be mistaken for Roger Sterling (I don’t see a duck in there, but if there was one I guess it would be… Duck?).
Another Dana Fradon cartoon, from March 22nd 1969. On numerous occasions throughout the series Peggy expressed a desire to go to Paris but couldn’t get there. Another time she accepted a job at a rival firm that she thought would take her to new places (Paris included) and within months was back working for Don due to an impromptu merger. That could be what she sees in this cartoon, or maybe, as we saw from her measured response to the complete dissolution of the firm in Season 7, she just has the right attitude about her climb up the corporate ladder- she takes it all in stride because she knows all roads really lead to nowhere, anyway.
I imagine Peggy Olson today, still healthy in her mid-70s, owner of numerous cats in a cavernous rent-controlled apartment on Columbus Avenue. She’s still witty and caustic, yet still sweet and filled with wonder. She still subscribes to The New Yorker, but I don’t think she’s one of those people who only reads it for the cartoons. She likes the ads, too.
(Thanks to Leigh Montville for help with research)
Credits, in order of appearance:
Cartoon by William Steig / The New Yorker Collection / www.cartoonbank.com
Cartoon by Dana Fradon / The New Yorker Collection / www.cartoonbank.com
Cartoon by Warren Miller / The New Yorker Collection / www.cartoonbank.com
Cartoon by Dana Fradon / The New Yorker Collection /www.cartoonbank.com