Is there a lighting fixture more oppressive than the fluorescent light, with its buzzing rectangularity?
Mad Men continues a cinematic tradition of the workplace as a mise-en-scene of rigid conformity, despair, alienation and ennui that has previously been assayed by King Vidor in The Crowd (1928)...
...and, most pertinently, by Billy Wilder in The Apartment, which was released in the same year as Mad Men’s first-season time frame (1960). In The Apartment an array of fluorescent lights recedes into the far distance, positioning workers as rats in a maze designed to crush nonconformity, individuality and the human spirit
The mise-en-scene of the Sterling Cooper’s offices clearly delineates its power structure. Secretary Peggy is positioned outside executive Don’s office, a faceless “new girl.” The mid-level office lotharios, the “junior-account boys,” move past her desk with impunity, casually harassing her. To have an office is an obvious symbol of power—allowing the high-level philanders to exercise their libidos behind closed doors. In this clip, Joan chastises Peggy at her desk for complaining about the ubiquitous harassment.
In The Crowd, we see how a high-angle shot of a grid full of identical desks can diminish a character, making him look small and insignificant. But Mad Man’s directors and cinematographers have developed a preference for the low-angle shot, allowing them, much like Wilder, to pull a ceiling arrayed with fluorescent lights into the frame. Weekly television programs that need to be shot quickly, such as sitcoms and soap operas, typically hang lights where ceilings would be and consequently those genres rarely show ceilings. In contrast, Matt Weiner commissioned an elaborate lighting plan that put “practicals”—functioning fluorescent lights—into the ceiling to illuminate the Mad Men set.
Much has been made of the sleek, late-fifties/modernist look of the show and fluorescent lights are a key component of that look. Introduced to the public during the 1939 New York World’s Fair, they spread throughout factories during World War II and then became a defining feature of the office workplace in the 1950s.
Mad Men’s characters have different, emblematic relationships with the lighting grid. Powerful Don moves beneath them without hesitation, the master of any space he enters (except perhaps his beatnik girlfriend’s apartment). The voluptuous Joan is also quite mobile. When she towers over Peggy, her curves stand out against the grid of the ceiling, emphasizing how her masquerade of femininity is the source of her power. Peggy, however, is stuck at her desk. This scene is followed by a shot of Peggy from an extreme low angle, the camera moving to reveal her face from behind an iconic, but slightly anachronistic, Selectric typewriter.
The metaphoric glass ceiling that limits the women of Mad Men is incarnated in a literal one of acoustic tiles and fluorescent lights. It is only once Peggy escapes her desk, moving into an office after she becomes a copywriter, that the fluorescents no longer bear down upon her.