mad men

The Power of Glamour

Power of Glamour

Power of Glamour

The Power of Glamour, by Virginia Postrel.

One of the duties of our public intellectuals is to mine the culture for fresh new ways of seeing and describing the world, bringing together seemingly disparate examples and finding regularities and order in what had only been vaguely understood before. Virginia Postrel has been at this for years, and her latest work is a wonderful read that will help anyone in design, advertising, photography, publicity, or any of the arts of persuasion understand at a deeper level how this dream-making works.

When I was living in Vancouver, I had a friend — Clark Candy, a cousin of John Candy’s — who had recently moved from Toronto after a career in advertising. A motorcycle accident had crushed his knee, and during the long rehab process he decided not to go back to work in advertising, which he felt had little meaning — persuading people to buy things they did not need by trickery and slick lies, eliding ugly realities. He later went on to help produce glamorous TV productions like Once Upon a Time, so he ended up doing much the same work as he did before; perhaps if he had read this book then he might have seen more meaning in his advertising work. Mad Men‘s Don Draper is a character who creates glamours for a living, and is himself a crafted image hiding a troubled soul; but without glamour and aspiration, life would be drained of the spur to progress and self-actualization of these imagined futures.

Glamour, she writes, exists between the viewer and the viewed. It is a subjective illusion of an effortless life, a higher and better self that you might become if only you could put yourself into the picture. A glamour is a spell, like a reverie or dream of your future created by images and ideas. She points out that glamour has always existed — Homer’s epics recited in ancient Greece produced yearnings for lives of heroism and unforced grace in listeners not dissimilar to today’s comic book heroes; artists were commissioned to create paintings of idealized existences to reinforce and inspire the real models, as well as present their favored image to others.

But the enormous increase in mass-produced imagery in the last century has given glamour a new importance, as more and more high-powered images are present in even the poorest people’s lives. Like any tool of persuasion, glamour can be used for good (inspiring young people to work toward careers they might otherwise have never achieved) or ill (politicians use glamour in propaganda — Nazis, Italian fascists, and the USSR, for example.)

With a wealth of examples, the reader is able to make generalizations and follow along as she lays out a new vocabulary for discussing glamour: Sprezzatura, the effortless grace of achievement, a stylish performance without apparent sweat or concern (which of course conceals endless practice and polishing;) theatrical grace, the kind of glamour produced by the artifice of hiding the effort to produce it behind the stage scenery; darkroom grace, created by editing and eliding the flaws and selection of what to leave out (as of a photo) to produce an image with the emotional power to fuel a dream unencumbered by the details of its production.

She casts her net wide in the cultural landscape and brings in examples from every part of high and low culture: Hollywood, comic book heroes, cowboys, Gibson Girls, Star Trek, Princess Di, Che Guevara, Helen of Troy and Achilles, theater, industrial design, Mad Men, and Apple. The examples and photographs are delightful and consistently entertaining.

The hardcover itself is an example: perfectly laid out, a sensual pleasure to read and feel. I rarely read anything but ebooks these days, but for this work about a primarily visual phenomenon, the hardcover is the wise choice. It’s the ideal coffee table book.

“Mad Men”

I started watching Mad Men two months ago, and have caught up: 69 episodes taking us from 1960 to 1968. The writing is excellent, and it’s addictive in the same sense Six Feet Under was, characters developed over long story arcs with the addictiveness of a soap opera but at a very high level.

One of the themes is the key question, “Is that what you want to do, or is that what you think is expected of you?” At the start of the timeline in 1960, women in the office have influence but no authority; they are treated like serfs and expected to marry out of careers as secretaries to become housewives in the suburbs. As the series progresses, the more talented women work their way up to professional status and respect, eventually becoming partners. In 1960, what you had to appear to be to succeed was reliable and conventional, and your life was expected to be “respectable” – lived in one of the few approved social models. Meanwhile, under the surface (and abetted by a lack of communications services like cell phones and email) most of the men are chasing tail, the secretaries are sleeping with bosses to curry favor or bag the right husband, and hypocrisy and alcoholism run rampant. Much of what goes on is hidden, and most people aren’t even close to honest with themselves.

Set against a period of rapid change in mores and shocking events like the assassinations of Kennedy and MLK, the characters get to develop in response. Story time is spent on the role of Jews and blacks, and the character who turns out to be homosexual gets fired because he fails to respond positively when a young tobacco heir (source of the majority of the agency’s billings) comes onto him; a “why couldn’t you take one for the team?” response, not because he is homosexual but because he fluffed the interaction with the client. The counterculture intrudes more and more, with Village bohemians / beatniks replaced by hippies and Hare Krishnas. Pot is smoked at the office, beards grow, skirts get shorter and shorter, the topic of body bags from Vietnam gets mentioned frequently.

Don Draper is not only a character but a symbol – of all those of humble rural background who created new identities for themselves in the big city and strove to enter the middle and upper classes. His facade of respectability is even thinner than most – he’s actually Dick Whitman, son of a prostitute, abused by his stepfather, who joined the Army to escape then took an officer’s identity when the officer is killed next to him. In this era a simple switch of dog tags let him get shipped back home from Korea immediately… to a completely artificial new life, selling products by invoking the dreams of consumers.

As the characters age and mature, they have all gone through successive changes throwing off doing what they thought was expected of them, and getting closer to what they think they really want. And sometimes they’re right!

One of the delightful casting choices is Robert Morse as the elderly, eccentric founder of the agency Bertram Cooper – delightful because he became a star on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as a brilliant young lad who bluffs his way to the top in 1961. He’s fabulous.

As Bert says when Don’s secretary, an elderly former flame of his, dies: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”

For more on pop culture:

The Lessons of Walter White
“Blue Valentine”
The Morality of Glamour
“Mockingjay” Propaganda Posters
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
Reading “50 Shades of Grey” Gives You Anorexia and an Abusive Partner!
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
“Raising Arizona” — Dream of a Family