Copywriters at the Gates

'Mad Men' Shows How Outsiders Become Insiders

Copywriters Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) on the hit TV show ‘Mad Men.’
Michael Yarish/AMC
Copywriters Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) on the hit TV show ‘Mad Men.’

By Sarah Seltzer

Published June 11, 2012.
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This deliberate tinkering with his sad personal story, the demonstration of his creative brilliance, and the social brusqueness and iconoclasm that prevent him from being one of the crowd make Ginsberg an obvious comparison with the man Don used to be: born in impoverished rural America, stealing another man’s identity in the war to remake himself in a new image, talking and cajoling his way into Sterling Cooper and then ascending to the top. But the former outsider, who identified romantically with Jewish women, has stepped too far inside. Ginsberg is now the one knocking at the gates.

If Ginsberg is the new Don, he’s also replaced Don’s former protégée, Peggy, who is romantically involved with Abe, a countercultural Jew. In Abe and other secondary Jewish characters on the show, we see alternative avenues for Jewishness in America. Abe, who works for “the underground papers” and the anti-Vietnam War cause, eats pork without guilt. Instead of proposing marriage to Peggy, he asks her to cohabit with him. Abe’s outsider status is as much about his self-styled bohemian ways as it is about his background. He’s scorned by Peggy’s Catholic mother not simply for being Jewish, but for refusing to bow to social norms and make an “honest woman” of her daughter.

And then there’s Roger’s second wife and a former secretary at the agency, Jane Sterling née Siegel, who splits with her husband after a shared LSD trip, but poses as his still-happy spouse when the firm is trying to impress potential Jewish clients. It occurs to the viewer that Jane was a Jew working at Sterling Cooper long before Ginsberg’s time, but she didn’t flaunt it the way he does. In fact, through her discretion and assimilation she landed the WASP boss. Times have changed, indeed.

Jane advanced her socioeconomic status by identifying with the old guard, which tries to stand its ground against the influx of energized outsiders. Some embrace the changing times or use their privilege to fend off challenges. But many in this order seem to feel that there’s no dignified exit left, a fact shockingly demonstrated by the suicide of British partner Lane Pryce.

Don himself has entered a purgatory between the two realms — and his actions hurt people on both sides of the gate. His patrician attitude chases Peggy to another firm, where she’s more appreciated, and his egalitarian insistence that old-fashioned Lane, after making a mistake, humble himself and start over elsewhere precipitates Lane’s suicide. Don doesn’t understand that for some people, starting over isn’t a possibility.

Using Jews to epitomize the insider-outsider is hardly a new idea; classic American literature by authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton is full of loathsome Jewish characters not only fighting in from the margins and making the other characters sweat, but also standing up against the fossilizing decadence of the establishment. The difference in “Mad Men” is that Weiner spins that old alarmist rhetoric into a positive factor, or as positive as it can be in a landscape where the characters are all morally ambiguous.

And yet, there’s a warning embedded here, too: Weiner loves to romanticize his anti-hero characters and then pull the wool from our eyes to show the limits of empathy. Ginsberg, for his part, has scorn for Don’s new wife, Megan, a modern woman who isn’t inhibited by the strictures of a previous generation. “She comes and goes as she pleases,” he complains. But then again, so does he.

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a writer in New York and a contributor to the Forward’s The Sisterhood blog. Find her at www.sarahmseltzer.com.


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