The Oppressive Rectangularity of the Fluorescent Light

Curator's Note

Is there a lighting fixture more oppressive than the fluorescent light, with its buzzing rectangularity?

Peggy, oppressed by fluorescent lights.

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)...

The Crowd office

The Crowd, medium shot of John Sims.

...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

Office set from The Apartment

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.

Mad Men Light Plot

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.

Joan lectures Peggy, in Mad Men.

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.

Peggy, trapped between her typewriter and the ceiling, on Mad Men.
Her obvious dysphoria and humiliation are emphasized with a series of shots in which men (even a closeted gay character!) lasciviously eye Peggy at her desk.

Office lothario two -- a closeted gay man.

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.


And so often, the men of Sterling Cooper are shown alone in darkened offices -- Pete and Don in particular. Until Jeremy's post,  it never had occured to me before how much Sterling Cooper inverts the gendering of public and private spaces, or how much the mise-en-scene underscores this division.  It's the women who are public and constantly exposed, the men who are able to escape into the dark privacy of their offices.  Unlike the men in the images of The Crowd and The Apartment, womenthe rows of desks, under the harsh lights, in Mad Men.  The men of Sterling Cooper may move confidently through this space, but they also always have a private and more intimate destination where thay can go.

Jeremy's post reminds us, once again, of just how cinematic contemporary US television looks. Such observations pose serious challenges for us as scholars: how do we theorize the new TV aesthetic; and how do we identify the formal properties and open them out to meaning. Is this not another good example of how technological advancements and broadcast implementation are irrevocably changing not only how we study television but how it watch and think about it?

Jeremy’s perceptive visual analysis of Sterling-Cooper’s corporate headquarters does underscore the debt this cookie-cutter layout owes to certain cinematic precedents, such as King Vidor’s The Crowd and especially Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, but what I find most interesting is how he also demonstrates a shift in emphasis. What strikes me most about both his and Allison’s posts is how the visual dynamics of this scene is less preoccupied with interrogating the old hot-button issues of conformity and how the rat race is dehumanizing, but more the stripping bare of how identity politics plays out in the way the setting is constructed and the shots are framed, which is probably more of where our passions lie in 2007-2009—as well as those of Mad Men’s creative team.

Thanks, Allison, for pointing out the gender reversal of public/private space in MM. I didn't think of it in precisely those terms before. Also, I missed the obvious: The Crowd/Apartment victims of corporate dehumanization are both men while MM places women in those positions.


I need to look more closely at the set design of the private offices next. Bertram Cooper's, with its Asian decor (feng shui, before feng shui was known in the West), most notably rejects the aesthetic repression of the fluorescent light grid; but Don's office and most of the others are also lit by fluorescents. How are they shot and how does he move beneath them?


And what of the sets outside of the Stirling-Cooper offices? I love Don's lover's beatnik pad! So anti-corporate! But then, so is Don and Betty's suburban home.


Lots to think about! Thanks, everyone, for your comments.



Jeremy Butler

My colleague, Chuck Kleinhans, pointed me in the direction of a piece from In Camera detailing some of the post-production work done on the eps in season 2:

There's also a piece in American Cinematographer that I link to above.


Jeremy Butler

 I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene Never disclosed, but hastened to again, Foretold to other eyes on the same screen . . . Hart Crane, The Bridge 


A stunningly observant post from Jeremy!


BTW: I learned from John Ott's Health and Light that fluorescent lighting produces a kind of unreality because, like the "panoramic sleights" of the movies, it make use of our persistence of vision. The gas in the tube is sparked on a cycle adjusted to the human mind's ability to perceive difference. Movies are really slide shows that we can't perceive fast enough to see as they are. In a room with fluorescent lighting, the room is actually dark part of the time, but we don't detect the lack of illumination because our brains carry the image of the lit room over the dark hiatus. Much of Mad Men transpires in fluorescent unreality.

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