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Marking the passage from misfortune to good luck

Elisabeth Bronfen

The Elevator—A Heteropia

in: Mad Men, Death and the American Dream, p. 101 – 126

515 Madison Avenue door to heaven? 
Portal stopped realities and eternal licentiousness or at least the jungle of impossible eagerness your marble is bronze and your lianas elevator cables swinging from the myth of ascending 
I would join Or declining the challenge of racial attractions

Frank O’Hara

Because his wife and daughter have gone off to Block Island for the Labor Day weekend, Roger, who at the end of the first season of Mad Men is still having a clandestine affair with Joan, proposes that the two of them spend the evening together. They could go anywhere, he smugly asserts, even sit at a table at The Colony with their clothes off if they wanted to. Yet the Broadway show he proposes does not tempt Joan. Instead she suggests going to see The Apartment, having heard that Shirley MacLaine is supposed to be very good. Roger, who has already seen the film, retorts disparagingly: “A white elevator operator and a girl at that? I want to work at that place” (MM 1.10). Joan had, in fact, only mentioned the film to draw attention to an analogy between her own situation and that of Billy Wilder’s heroine, who is also having an affair with her married boss. She is, of course, able to play with Roger’s desire far more resourcefully because, as the office manager at Sterling Cooper, she has significantly more power than MacLaine’s Fran ­Kubelik, who is simply allowed to operate the elevator. Yet Roger’s cynical reference that casting a white actress in this role makes the ­character implausible draws attention to how decisive this site is for Weiner’s TV series as a whole. In the office building in which the agency Sterling Cooper is located, only African Americans press the buttons in the elevators. This detail is of dramaturgic importance for the show’s narrative argument, given that the coherence of the agency is based on the marginalization of precisely this part of the working population.

Early on in the first season, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) greets the liftboy Hollis (La Monde Byrd) emphatically as he enters the elevator, seeking to demonstrate his lack of racial prejudice. Although Hollis is positioned at the outer edge of the frame, and is thus barely visible, he joins the other young men in their laughter at the ribald comments they are making about Pete’s honeymoon. In another scene, Hollis shares his shock at the sudden death of Marilyn Monroe with Peggy and Don as he is conveying them up to their office floor. In response to Peggy’s comment that she had never imagined such a famous star ever being alone, he declares: “Some people just hide in plain sight” (MM 2.9). For a brief moment, the framing moves him into the center of the image and the camera tarries with his sad silence, while Don, whom this discussion about suicide has clearly made uncomfortable, has completely disappeared from our field of vision. The spatial constriction of the elevator renders Don’s impatience only more tangible, even if it remains open whether his discomfort pertains merely to the theme of their conversation or also to the fact that, unsolicited, this African American employee is obliquely sharing an intimate insight into his own situation with them. At the end of this first season, however, Hollis’ co-worker, Sonny, will wrongfully be fired, because, after Peggy reported a theft that took place in the locker room of the office during the wild election night party, suspicion immediately fell on the African Americans ­employed there.

For the dirty trick that he plays on Roger in “Red in the Face” (MM 1.7), wishing to punish him for having flirted with Betty, Don, in turn, seeks out the help of this elevator operator. Pete has just gotten out of the elevator where Don is waiting for Hollis. Because Pete has a shotgun flung over his shoulder as he walks briskly to his office, the two men, gazing after him, smile at each other regarding this curious appearance. Then Don gets into the elevator himself. Through the gap of the closing doors we briefly see the dollar bills he is offering as a bribe to Hollis. That afternoon, Hollis will keep the elevator out of service so that, after having lunched with Don, an intoxicated Roger is forced to walk up 23 flights of stairs. In the foyer of their offices, Don is allowed to enjoy his revenge. Having finally arrived, sweating and out of breath, Roger vomits his opulent meal in front of the delegates from the Nixon campaign.

While Don uses the seclusion of this closed space to concoct his petty intrigue with Hollis, Pete seizes upon this opportunity to try and find out something about the consumer behavior of African Americans. Because he wants to know why Hollis bought an RCA television set and not the brand they are representing, he suddenly stops the elevator between two floors, once the other passengers have gotten out. He aggressively challenges Hollis to an honest conversation, which, owing to the difference in social status between the two men, seems possible only in the extraordinary situation that an elevator, brought to a standstill, offers. Hollis, in turn, perceives this disruption as a threatening transgression of precisely the boundary that normally separates him from his passengers, ascribing to him the role of a semi-invisible audience of their banter. Pressurized, he gives a candid answer, although it is not the one Pete wants to hear: “We’ve got bigger problems to worry about than TV, okay” (MM 3.5). Pete insists on pursuing this conversation, explaining that when it comes to consumer brands, “the idea is that everyone is going to have a house, a car, a television. The American dream.” Hollis, however, does not take the pitch and instead, smiling weakly, sets the elevator in motion again. His way of preserving his dignity is to insist on the boundary that, in this work place, relegates him to the silent minority. Precisely because it is such a slight gesture of empowerment, the fact that he can determine when to set the elevator in motion again draws attention to the fact, that for many African Americans, the vision Pete invokes has remained an empty promise, still held in abeyance. They have yet to arrive at the executive suite, which they are only allowed to clean. Hollis, in fact, is only supposed to leave the elevator on the ground floor, to exit the building.

And yet, the intimacy that the employees and partners of Sterling Cooper share with this elevator operator suspends, for the brief period of the ride up and down the floors of this office building, the segregation on which their work environment is based. If, in the first three seasons of Mad Men, African Americans only appear in menial jobs, on the periphery of the narrative action, the shared scenes in the elevator anticipate a post-racist world, possible but not yet achieved. At the same time, the exclusion of African Americans from the main activities of the agency comes to be further underscored by virtue of the fact that this contact can take place only in the closed space of an elevator, in motion to boot. Drawing attention to the very limited agency open to African Americans in the advertisement world of Madison Avenue, corresponding as it does to the spatial confinement of this constricted post, pits something against the social prejudices of all those whom they convey from one floor to the next. There is a position external to this office world, which cannot be subsumed into its ordinary everyday routine, and which, instead, takes place parallel to it — namely in the elevator. At the same time, this external point of view, only glimpsed intermittently from the margins, also renders visible how confined the world of white middle and upper class privilege in fact is, even if, at the beginning of Mad Men, it is still more or less a self-confident one. 

After the third season of the show, there will be no more African American elevator operators. In the Time & Life Building on the Avenue of the Americas, into which the newly founded agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce moves, everyone must operate the elevators themselves; even if, to the end, Bert, an old school man, cannot bring himself to do this. Shortly before Don and his partners are once more forced to leave these offices, something crucial has actually changed, including the fact that they have begun hiring African American women as secretaries. In the seventh season we see Don standing in the elevator, somewhat bewildered as he gazes at the bevy of children surrounding him. Among them are two African American kids with their mother. They, too, have been invited to the agency to serve as a focus group for a new toy. Now Don is the one to stand guard as the elevator door opens, cautiously protecting the children as they pass by him before he himself enters the foyer.

In Mad Men, the elevators in general function as the spatial counterpart to outside shots of the office building in which the agency is located. In contrast to the classic office film, however, the camera never pans up and down along these glass façades so as to visualize the connection between the various floors. Instead, this movement is exclusively undertaken by the elevators, in which, in almost every episode, we see characters being transported up or down the building. In contrast to The Apartment, however, what is at issue is less the predominantly erotic exchanges that connect people working on different floors of the office. Rather, the focus is more on the spontaneous meetings that can occur between the different floors and the unexpected possibilities that these open up. It is, for example, in an elevator that Peggy meets Joyce (Zosia Mamet), who is working as an assistant photo editor at Life magazine. She will subsequently introduce Peggy to the art scene in Greenwich Village, an experience that will soon after encourage her to slowly disengage herself from the environment of the close-knit ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn, in which her family lives, and forge a very different social life for herself in Manhattan.

If, then, the elevator, moving as it does between the different floors, connects different social groups as well as offices, which, in the ordinary work routine, would remain neatly ­severed from each other, the individual scenes that take place there present both a spatial and a temporal condensation. In this mobile space within the larger office space, strangers are not only involuntarily made privy to conversations between the others, more often than not of personal nature, but meetings also occur here that have unexpected consequences. Owing to the confined space, furthermore, the passengers stand so close together that for the duration of the ride, all claim to privacy comes to be suspended. Especially for Don, who desperately tries to hide behind the polished façade of his self-fashioned persona, the social permeability and proximity that the elevator forces upon him, is disconcerting. For this reason he insists on observing certain rules of courtesy and once even orders another man to take off his hat because a woman has gotten into the elevator with them. 

The elevator does not, of course, represent a completely open space, but rather a prominent liminal space, whose area is as limited, as the spatial distance it can travel up and down is clearly predetermined. At the same time, it constitutes a free space not only in that it forges a connection between the different floors and the people located there but also in that it serves to demarcate the boundary between inside and outside. Characters who step into the elevator are neither in the entirely private sphere of their homes nor are they embedded in the rigorously regulated hierarchies of the workplace. On this enclosed and yet disengaged stage-within-a-stage they can, thus, speak to each other with impunity, confide in each other, or offer up information that, in the offices of SCDP, they would only divulge behind closed doors. And precisely because these conversations almost always occur with strangers present, even if those speaking to each other are oblivious to their audience, the communication exchanged takes on a performative quality; it becomes an action of sorts. In the elevator, the stage is set for things still to be carried out or followed through in the workplace, as it is also the place where people react to and comment on the nasty power struggles that took place shortly before in the office. Indeed, the elevator often emerges as the site for decision-making, given that the journey between entering the building and arriving at the office often also signifies a passage in a figural sense. As such, the elevator represents a counter-site, along the lines of what Michel Foucault has called a hetero­topia: “actually realized utopias in which the real emplacements that can be found within the culture are, at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable.” 

As an actual and at the same time operative place, which, in the sense of a counter-site is inscribed into the ordinary ­workplace, the elevator in Mad Men offers space for critical comments on the ugly power structures pertaining particularly to the discrimination of women in the advertisement agencies on Madison Avenue. In the very first episode of Mad Men, Peggy is introduced to us as she takes the elevator up on her first day of work. While standing there, she is forced to stoically bear the sexist comments that Ken (Aaron Staton) is making about her to his work buddies. When, upon leaving the elevator, the young men realize that they have been speaking about a new secretary working on their floor, Ken defends his impudent behavior by explaining that it can only be to her advantage to know what to expect from her new job. And even as late as season seven, Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) and Stan Rizzo (Jay R. ­Ferguson) will make fun of Peggy while accompanying her in the elevator, because she has no date on Valentine’s day. The elevator thus consistently serves as a stage to render visible that because she tenaciously refuses the role of the obliging woman who privileges her work over her private life, Peggy remains the object of masculinist ridicule despite her professional success. 

It is also on this stage-within-a-stage that the irreconcilable contradictions between personal ambition and romance that those women who want to pursue their American dream in the world of advertising face can be obliquely addressed. In the poignant final tableau of “The Beautiful Girls” (MM 4.9), we see the psychologist Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) standing next to Peggy and Joan in the elevator at the end of a work day during which each one of them was confronted with a romantic dilemma. Faye has been forced to realize that she can only stay with Don if she is willing to take on the role of surrogate mother to his children, at the expense of her own career. Joan has had to make it perfectly clear to Roger that although they had a sexual encounter the night before, because they are both married, they cannot renew their affair once more. And Peggy begins to harbor doubts about her relation with Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer) because his radical politics are diametrically opposed to her vision of herself as a future creative director on Madison Avenue. Joan is already standing pensively in the elevator, next to a clearly devastated Faye, when Peggy ­arrives, asking them to wait for her. As she enters, greeting them, both are forced to regain their composure. Then, for a few seconds, with Peggy standing in between the two other women, the camera slowly moves forward. Each one is lost in thought, realizing that they are at some turning point in their lives, compelled to make a painful yet necessary decision. Though, as professional women, they have a common predicament, they do not speak to each other. Suspended between work and leisure, each is caught in her own solitude. The choice each one knows she will have to make is one she cannot share with the other two women. It is the price of their self-reliance. And yet, despite their emotional agitation, each holds her elegant pose, standing perfectly upright and looking forward as the elevator doors slowly close in front of them. Because Peggy is standing in the middle, we catch a final glimpse of her through the open gap just before the doors close completely. The trace of a smile seems to be flickering across her face. Like the other two women, she is determined to keep moving.

If, then, the elevator consistently serves as the site for articulating the gender trouble that reflects the arduous battle for recognition that, to the end, both Joan and Peggy cannot fully win, it is here, also, that two seminal conversations between the two women take place. Both serve to cruelly illustrate the impossibility of making the right decision because, as professional women trying to move up to the executive floors on Madison Avenue, they repeatedly find themselves in a situation that confronts them with a false choice. During the first of these two conversations, Peggy is reprimanded by Joan as they are taking the elevator down at the end of a particularly difficult day at the office. Peggy has just fired the young copy writer, Joey (Matt Long), because of the pornographic caricature he made of Joan and taped to her window. Peggy thinks that in so doing she has successfully defended her colleague, while Joan reads this as a patronizing gesture of self-assertion, through which both have only lost esteem in the eyes of the men. As she ­tauntingly ­explains: “No matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon. So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch” (MM 4.8).

The two women cannot come up with a resolution to the gendered conflict they are compelled to engage with daily in the offices of the agency. In this counter-site, they can only voice the conflictedness of their defense strategy. Joan is as justified in having recourse to her erotic charm as Peggy is in defending herself against sexual insults by the young men working on her team. And yet, both are also subjected to the tacit codes of a masculinist (and paternalistic) system that remains disrespectful to them. What is, in turn, effectively contested here is the sexism rampant in the agency. In contrast to the romantic dilemmas they cannot share with Dr. Miller, Joan and Peggy are able to openly articulate their conflicting interpretation of how best to respond to Joey’s insubordination. At the end of the journey down, furthermore, the difference in attitude between them remains unresolved in a productive sense. What has emerged in the heterotopia of the elevator is the recognition of the process they are involved in. Although there is, as yet, no way of settling the gender trouble they pose as professional women, they are at least aware of the aporia of their position. 

The second conversation Joan and Peggy have in an elevator also reflects and contests the condescension shown to them by their colleagues. Although at this point in the show we are in the late 1960s, they still have not gained any adequate recognition in an advertisement world that is still dominated by men. After a meeting at McCann Erickson, during which Joan had been forced to repeatedly bear degrading remarks regarding her breasts, she uses the ride down to assure her sister in arms: “I want to burn this place down” (MM 7.8). Although Peggy is quick to voice her sympathy, her understanding bears a trace of critique. Because she wants to succeed at all costs as a copy editor on Madison Avenue, hoping one day to become creative director herself, she is also willing to put up with certain insulting behavior, especially when she realizes that it cannot be avoided. Now she is the one to reprimand Joan, telling her that, given the way she dresses, she has to expect such remarks. In so doing, Peggy shows herself to be caught up in the very prejudices that also injure her as a professional woman. Yet what is also rendered visible is that she has no choice other than coming to terms with this lack of acknowledgement. Joan, in turn, can afford not to make any concessions regarding her self-fashioning and refuse to compromise herself, given that, as one of the partners of SC&P, she made an enormous profit when the agency was sold to McCann Erickson. Once again, the elevator serves as the stage for a moment of self-recognition. As professional women in the advertisement business, both can only make a false choice. Neither strategically accommodating prejudices nor idiosyncratically resisting these will result in their being taken seriously. Puzzled, Peggy continues to gaze at Joan, who, having arrived at the ground level, simply leaves the elevator without saying a word. And yet, the disagreement they were able to address in the elevator also anticipates the two different paths they will ultimately take: Peggy’s patient perseverance at McCann Erickson and Joan’s radical break with this company, choosing instead to found a business of her own. 

Equally critically contested in this heterotopic counter-site are the power struggles that the men themselves are involved in, sometimes even leading to bloody fist fights amongst them. Then again Pete and Ken can admit their rivalry with benevolent condescension in the elevator. Here, Pete can boast to the older partners about a contact he has at the New York Times while they mock his brazen careerism. Here, Michael Ginsberg can hurl his acerbic wit against his boss, furious at Don because he only presented his own ideas at a sales pitch for an ice cream brand. And, moving between the floors of the Time & Life building, the Machiavellian Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin) can assure his fellow senior executive manager, Roger, that he does not want to have him as his adversary, even while he has already long since set in motion a ploy by which he hopes to take over the agency completely. Rendered visible in these brief dialogues, which usually end in stubborn silence, is that an all-encompassing will to power regulates the relationship between fathers and sons as much as it does the one among peers. As Roger, also in an elevator, once assures Peggy: “It’s every man for himself” (MM 5.9). Yet the fact that the show’s characters can openly express their anger, their rivalry and their despair in precisely this mobile intermediary zone, and here contest the lacking equity of treatment rampant in the agency, allows for a utopian moment to flicker up, if only for the short period of time it takes for the journey between the floors. The critical comments that are allowed to be made here with impunity give a sense of how this workplace could be perfected. 

As Simon Frisch and Christiane Voss have argued, in cinema the elevator in general provides an aesthetically shaped social order, signifying a temporary concentration on a clearly circumscribed narrative situation. As such, it often emerges as the site where both happiness and suffering are initiated. If scenes that take place in an elevator in Mad Men, thus, often either initiate or put closure on a narrative sequence, the combination of movement and waiting specific to this site also serves a specific thematic function. In the elevator an action, a decision or an insight is temporarily suspended; it is put on hold so to speak. The moments of transition that are dramaturgically accentuated with each ride are as promising as they are potentially ­dangerous. They make up risky moments in the narrative that not only mirror conflicts in the careers as well as the romantic lives of those concerned, but also anticipate crises that could end in a fatal crash. Sometimes the question of transition simply pertains to an ominous accident, such as when Don happens to meet a former lover in an elevator in the Time & Life building, thereby arousing Megan’s jealousy. This small disturbance in their romantic happiness foreshadows the end of this marriage as well. Then again, the seclusion of the elevator can prevent a crisis that is about to set in. In “Hands and Knees” (MM 4.10) Don waves away another passenger, signaling to him to take a different elevator, after he has gotten in with Pete. He needs this seclusion to conduct a private conversation. In order to get the security clearance necessary for their agency to represent North American Aviation, he had blindly signed the government form asking about his personal data. Because he is now afraid that the Department of Defense, while doing his backup check, will discover the identity theft he committed in Korea and court-martial him for desertion, he wants Pete to speak to a friend he has in the government. Restricted to the small area of the elevator, which corresponds to Don’s premonition that the law may soon corner him, he is able to convince Pete of his fateful position. The latter will agree to give up this lucrative client, just in time to prevent a disaster, looming on the horizon, from taking place. 

An even more strikingly risky moment, which for Don anticipates both a personal and a professional crisis, occurs at the open door of an elevator in the fifth season. After Megan has confessed to him that she wants to stop working at the agency so as to fully concentrate on her acting career, he accompanies her to the elevator, where he takes leave of her by demonstratively giving her a passionate kiss before the door closes. Then, as though this were an afterthought, he once more presses the button. Although, almost immediately, the doors of the elevator next to the one that Megan just stepped into begin to open, he suspects that something is wrong. Standing on the threshold of the opening, he finds himself looking down into the dark abyss of the empty elevator shaft. More astonished than alarmed, he steps back. Then the doors close again. The concrete danger he was able to avert allows him to recognize how fragile his current living situation, including his marriage with Megan, is. In the following episodes, we see Don begin his downward spiral into acute alcoholism that will ultimately lead to his concrete fall from the grace of his fellow partners, and with it, once more, to a scene at an elevator. On the morning after his embarrassing Hershey’s sales pitch, the other partners inform Don that he is to take a vacation without a return date. ‘Duck’ Phillips has arrived early with the man who is meant to replace him, so that the two meet in the foyer. Cynically, his rival, Lou Avery (Allan Havey), asks Don whether he is going down, and even presses the button to call back the elevator for him. Then, we see Don standing inside the elevator alone as the doors close in front of his dispirited gaze.

The amazing second chance he gets, several months later, to return to the agency, is, in turn, also introduced with a ride in an elevator. This time we are with him in the moving vehicle as he rides up to the offices of SC&P. Initially we see only his back. Then, in the reverse shot, we are shown the gaze of uncertain anticipation flickering across his face, before the ding-sound of the elevator announces his arrival. The doors open like a curtain; then he walks, confident though cautious, across the threshold. At the beginning of the seventh season everything is, again, possible. 

The elevator comes to mark the passage from misfortune to good luck. Corresponding to its restricted path of movement up and down the office building, this counter-site signifies that even for those fortunate enough to have access to the executive offices, mobility upwards is limited. But precisely because these elevators are shown to go down no further than the ground floor, they also stand for the fact that radical crashes can be averted. The conversations that take place in elevators entail risky narrative moments because they open up opportunities whose outcome is as yet uncertain. The insights that characters are afforded here will have consequences, even if the characters themselves do not quite know which ones yet. And if the combination of movement and standstill so idiosyncratic to the elevator holds something suspended, this also corresponds to the narrative insertions that happen on this small stage-within-a-stage. It is here that we are presented with a serially conceived chain of short vignettes, in which the conversations between characters raise expectations, disclose something or offer an explanation of something. Performed here, in nuce, is the principle of serial storytelling itself. Whatever is addressed in the elevator responds to a prior occurrence much as, inevitably, it will have an aftereffect.

  • sex ratio
  • hierarchy
  • everyday life
  • heterotopia
  • 1960s
  • cultural imaginary
  • serial
  • power
  • sexism
  • America
  • Labor
  • architecture
  • USA
  • racism

My language

Selected content

Elisabeth Bronfen

is Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich and, since 2007, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. A specialist in the 19th and 20th century literature she has also written books and articles in the area of gender studies, psychoanalysis, film, cultural theory and visual culture. Current research projects include a book on Shakespeare and contemporary culture and another study on women war correspondents.

Other texts by Elisabeth Bronfen for DIAPHANES
Elisabeth Bronfen: Mad Men, Death and the American Dream

Matthew Weiner’s series Mad Men is more than a resonant time capsule. Elisabeth Bronfen’s claim is that the show not only thrives on a significant double voicing, reviving the literature, film, music and fashion of the past within and for the cultural concerns of the present. With Don Draper an embodiment of the prototypical con man, his precarious journey from poverty to fame and prosperity can also be seen as a continuation of the moral perfectionism so key to the American tradition. His fall and spiritual recovery is as much an individual story as a comment on the state of the nation. Mad Men reflects on the role television has come to play in this work of the cultural imaginary, both fragile and fruitful. We identify and sympathize with the people in this series not despite but because they are fictional representations, different yet also a mirror of ourselves.