TVRA 4430W, Prof. Hashmi
September 6, 2018
Reading Response 1: Jeremy Butler, “Mad Men: Visual Style”
This chapter analyzes how the visual style of Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015) conveys a critique of the values and norms of the 1960s. Butler explores how three aspects of visual style--mise-en-scene, cinematography, and editing—are each used to communicate specific meanings to the audience.
Butler’s thesis is that the program’s set design, cinematography, and editing patterns encode a contemporary sensibility that “recognize[s] the despair and alienation that lay just beneath the surface” of its male protagonists’ apparently glamorous lifestyle (p. 38). By creating this tension between appearance and reality, the program also “implicitly critiques the power structures of that time, which both casually and brutally subordinated working-class people, gays, and ethnic and racial minorities” (p. 38).
Butler uses semiotic and narrative analysis of visual codes to show how the program achieves its critique of 1960s values and norms. His analysis is developed in three sections. The first section explores how the set design for both the company office and the Drapers’ home reflects gendered social hierarchies. Butler supports his claim that Mad Men highlights the subordination of women and their vulnerability to harassment, by giving detailed examples from the text such as how the office is laid out in a grid that leaves the women “at the mercy of the higher-ranking men of the office” (p. 39). The second section builds on this discussion of set design and props by looking at how the show’s cinematographic style does not reproduce that of 1960s programs. Instead, Weiner uses a contemporary single-camera style where shot composition, lighting, and camera movement are used to comment on characters and events rather than simply convey narrative events in a neutral manner. Here, as in the previous section, Butler supports his claim that cinematography is used to “generate an atmposphere of entrapment, despair, and alienation” by providing specific examples (p. 44). His detailed reading of camera angle, shot composition, and lighting in a single scene of one episode convincingly draws on the semiotic codes of cinematography to argue that Don Draper is, despite his success, isolated and alone. The third section on editing is much shorter than the first two, but it works because it builds on what came before. To support his claim about how editing patterns are used to convey relationships, Butler focuses on eye-line match cuts that convey the emotional distance between Don and Betty Draper and their children.
To sum up, Butler uses textual examples as evidence for his claims. His analysis of these examples is grounded in semiotic and narrative theory. Thus, I think his primary intended audience is other media scholars who would also be familiar with these theories and analytic methods and thus would be more likely to be convinced by Butler’s argument.
I would argue that Butler’s essay makes a convincing case for both the importance of visual style in Mad Men and the deliberate use of clashing codes of normalcy and conflict to critique 1960s norms. The strength of the essay is its use of detailed examples to draw our attention to how the formal elements of the text (its visual style) reinforces its content or its narrative and thematic concerns with appearances and consumer culture. However, I think Butler too easily accepts Weiner’s assumptions about the show’s audience. Not everyone who watched the show was paying attention to the interplay of form and content, and judging from at least some reviews, audiences simply enjoyed watching the glamorous lifestyle of 1960s advertising executives. Butler did not engage with these critiques and seems content to work within an intentional theory of representation: the show is indeed critical of the 1960s because the program’s creator made it that way. He does not really engage with the possibility that viewers might “read” the program differently than Weiner intended.
I think the value of this essay is in its structure: it very nicely models how to do close textual analysis to support a thesis about a program’s meaning. Reading Butler made me pay more attention to how different aspects of a program’s style (dialogue, editing, lighting, setting etc.) can either reinforce or contradict each other so that the program can have one or many layers of meaning. Other programs, e.g. Glow on Netflix, that are also set in a different time period use a similar strategy to comment on period norms. On the other hand, sitcoms like Fresh off the Boat use the setting largely for nostalgia or humor.