Obama gets “Mad Men” wrong

President Obama’s State of the Union address was highly forgettable. In my opinion, its only memorable line was his reference to the television show Mad Men. It was, in any case, his most tweeted line, according to Tevi Troy.

Obama delivered the line in decrying alleged wage disparities between men and women. He said: “It is time to do away with policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.”

Tevi, author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted, sees Obama’s Mad Men reference as part of his “successful and continual use of pop culture as a political tool.” This tactic enables the president to connect to his audiences via cultural references. Obama, like most presidents at this stage of a presidency, has largely been tuned out by the public. But, as Tevi says, “people perk up when he’s talking about a TV show or a popular movie.”

Thus, it’s probably beside the point for me to object that Obama’s Mad Men reference demonstrates a misunderstanding not only of the “wage disparity” issue, but also of the TV show.

The alleged wage disparity — Obama claimed that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same work — is bogus. As analysts like Diana Furchtgott-Roth have shown, when the wage gap is analyzed by individual occupations, jobs and employee characteristics, regional labor markets, job titles, job responsibility, hours, and experience, many studies show that men and women make about the same. Even the Washington Post called Obama on this point.

As for Mad Men’s depiction of women in the workplace, the point of the show, including its gender aspect, is how alien the practices of the 1960s are from those of today. Viewers are jarred when they see how Peggy and Joan are treated in the workplace. That effect occurs because women are rarely treated that way now.

Mad Men isn’t about how little distance we’ve travelled since the 60s, but how much. It’s not a condemnation of the way we live and work now; it’s a smug indictment, albeit a highly romantic and at times gentle one, of how our parents and grandparents lived and worked.

Obama understands this. He has said Mad Men helps him “understand my grandparents.”

But then, Obama probably also understands that his “77 cents on the dollar” statistic is bogus.

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