Mad Men is one of those historical TV shows which is pleasant to look at, but has almost no historical verity to it. In this, it reminds me of the HBO/BBC production of Rome, a television series I’d characterize as “Los Angeles and Chav scum in togas.” Historical drama generally tries to portray itself as historically accurate, but it’s generally telling us more about the way we are now than the way we were then.
Mad Men is no different. It gets a lot of small physical details mostly right, which sort of magically transport you to the era of my parents’ photo albums. The ugly furnishings and silly “modern” liquor tumblers. The narrow lapel suits and greasy haircuts. The dumb skinny ties. The fact that everyone chain smokes, and people drink at work and everywhere else, all the time. The glasses frames that make all the women look like nerds. That sort of superficial detail is what the American entertainment industry has done right for the last 20 years or so; in fact, it’s the only thing they’ve done right for the last 20 years or so.
Another achievement, seemingly unique in the recent annals of television: some of the women in this program actually look female. Of course, there are a bunch of hilarious superficial anachronisms: beyond the non-1961-era suits and dresses … everyone on this show sports an accent that didn’t exist until around 1980 or so. Close enough; it’s only television.
Despite the annoying anachronisms, Mad Men is great fun to watch, in much the same way Archie Bunker was fun to watch. As a friend put it, Mad Men is kind of like watching Halo night in a 21st-century fraternity house”with costumes. I’m not watching as one of the enlightened ones for the meathead sanctimony; I’m watching it for the sleazy gropings, the postmodern cool guys, the hilarity of high office drama, the female-looking women and the drinking of enormous quantities of booze. Plus, everyone smokes; modern television has entirely not enough smoking!
Mad Men has a lot of fun at the expense of their ideas of what the creative class did for a living and for kicks in 1961. This is richly ironic, as most people who enjoy this sort of program tend to work in similarly vapid “creative” endeavors involving selling underpants on the internet, or doing the same sort of nonsense as the ad men on an interpersonal level using some psycho-therapeutic bilge.
I think it likely, your profession will one day appear as preposterous and vapid as Don Draper’s 1960s era ad copy did. Does anyone actually think professions such as “life coach,” or “diversity officer” or even “C++ programmer” won’t seem absurd and dated 50 years from now? I suppose there are a lot of modern Panglossians who think they are living in some sort of high era of moral and intellectual sophistication”“the best of all possible worlds,” rather than a shabby age of cultural decline. Such people will find a lot to feel smug about in watching Mad Men. The reason modern SWPLers are able to experience this smugness is the very definition of cultural decline: they never spoke to their grandparents about the way things actually were in the old days. The smug chuckling over people’s health habits in those days is also amusingly ironic. Sure, smoking is bad for you. I hear it said maintaining that sort of blood alcohol level is also considered unhealthy. However … one of the more striking things about actual photos from the era is how slim and fit everyone looks. Whatever modern people think we know about diet and exercise; they were doing something better in the old days. In 50 years, we’ll probably laugh at early 21st-century vegetable-eating tubs of pork flab, pompously tittering at the slim, fit Don Draper eating a steak and hoovering a smoke with his whisky chaser.
Mad Men makes the obligatory genuflection at the false god of the counterculture; making dumb nihilist beatniks appear to be somehow in on a secret that the ad men like Draper can’t fathom, when in reality, all they really have on Draper is an inferior drug stash. Booze and smokes, after all, were the background relaxants and cerebral stimulants of America’s greatest years. Booze and smokes split the atom and conquered the moon. Beatnik drugs are responsible for cultural innovations such as teaching second graders how to put a condom on a banana. Real beatniks made the imaginary misogyny of “Mad Men” seem like small beer. One would be hard pressed to find a mainstream 1960s novel as appallingly misogynistic as Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, which more or less treats women as if they were animated cadavers for the pleasure of the grubbins heroes of that sordid tale. That sort of irony is one of the unspoken tragedies of the mainstreaming of the counter culture. While the cultural revolution of the 1960s claims to have freed women from the sexist chains of their evil white male overlords, women are now “free” … well, to work unpleasant office jobs and to be chased down like pieces of meat. Rather like the situationportrayed in Mad Men, except modern pants-suit-chasing executives aren’t as well dressed as Don Draper, and work isn’t as much fun. The writer for the series admitted to using countercultural writers of the era: Kerouac, Cheever, and Gurley-Brown as historical source material, apparently in absence of actually knowing anyone who was alive in those days. This isn’t much different from using Father Coughlin broadcasts to learn about the cultural norms of 1930s era Reform Judaism.
Of course, people didn’t behave in the “made for TV” way. For example, while I’m sure there was plenty of sexism and seducing of coworkers in the early 1960s, the extremes portrayed “Mad Men” are historical fiction. I’m pretty sure people were less interested in passing themselves around like trays of tea biscuits in the old days. It seems obvious to me on a number of levels. The practical issues immediately come to mind: birth control pills, widespread social disapproval, the fact that abortion was a serious crime, the fact that adultery was still considered a crime, the fact that family law was completely different in those days: no fault divorce was not granted in any state in America until 1969. Divorce was virtually impossible in many civilized parts of the world of 1961. As for the casual sexism portrayed in the era; why is it I am able to think of dozens of famous scientists, writers and political figures from this era who happened to be women?
Certainly women didn’t have the bludgeon of political correctness in those days. They were also generally expected to eventually quit work to raise a family. In normal societies where people get married and reproduce themselves without requiring the intervention of trillion dollar social engineering programs, this is how things generally function.
The idea that housewives led some kind of bizarro life of suburban alienation while their evil husbands were off sleeping with everyone is … well, besides being historically doubtful, it is mathematically impossible. Think about it for a minute. Who are their husbands off rogering? If you believe the premise of this program, there are something like 4-5 women for every man. While such a world would be a nice place for a man of my poor moral fiber to live in, it doesn’t have much to do with reality. As for the whole suburban alienation bit; yeah, I’ve heard that before”it seemed to leap from Betty Friedan’s page into the collective consciousness at some point. The General Social Survey has been measuring the “happiness” levels of American citizens for decades. Despite all the “progress” in warding off suburban alienation by turning women into office drudges, American women are a lot more unhappy now than they were in those days. In those horrid olden times of sexist barbarity, women couldn’t turn their brains into Swiss cheese with antidepressants either: yet, women were measurably happier. It wouldn’t be polite of me to speculate the reasons why this is so, but it is worth noticing things were not so bad as they were portrayed in Mad Men and the prevailing narrative, even in the stygian depths of 1961 sexist depravity.
It’s interesting the way class politics are presented. I’m sure the Ivy League ruled the world then as they do now, but the idea that “I had to assume an officer’s identity to make my way in the world” seems, well, rather preposterous. In particular because there is a working class female character who doesn’t seem to have Draper’s gothic class mobility problems. By the way, Draper’s class anxieties are hilarious, because it’s what every urban liberal ding-dong who grew up in the suburbs thinks about himself. He pictures himself as having escaped some horrible past and family trauma in the suburbs for the high privilege of living in the sophisticated metropolis near enlightened gay people.
Speaking of gay people; why is it that gay men on television always must be portrayed as mincing fairies? Yes, we get it: the Italian guy has secret forbidden desires. How likely is it someone like this would have acted that much of a Nancy boy in 1961, even if he did work in (gads, I am rolling my eyes typing this) the “art department?” Isn’t it supposed to be considered bad to stereotype homosexual men in this manner? I don’t recall Rock Hudson being this fey in 1961, though we know now that he was certainly fond of his forbidden desires.
Finally, the most galling anachronism is the lack of manners. People were more refined in 1961 than they are now, just as they were more refined in sartorial style. While it makes for good television drama to have a bunch of immaculately coiffed goons making beetle-brows and gritting their teeth at each other, sort of like a Brooks Brothers version of professional wrestling, that sort of histrionic behavior simply wasn’t done by gentlemen. I realize that this is a foreign concept to modern people, but I’m here to tell you: people had good manners in the old days. It was considered important.
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Modern people have certainly developed a similarly byzantine set of status rules for “polite society” to replace the antiquated WASP folkways of fair play and avuncular good manners. Really, we’ve replaced all the outdated cultural totems of 1961. Instead of valuing sexual fidelity, we sort our recyclables. Instead of general consideration for the feelings of others, we have developed a sort of Kabuki theater of politically correct groveling. Rather than fly-fishing, sailing and hunting, the modern upper middle class goes on ecological vacations to third world hellholes to marinate in their superior state of moral consciousness. Upper middle-class sanctimony is now generally directed at people who drive large cars, or who make “insensitive” jokes, rather than the old WASP vilification of people who abandon their families, or who cheat and steal. Being rude and egotistical is now considered “being yourself.” Back in the dark ages of 1961, you couldn’t be that much of a jerk any more than you could come into work wearing sweatpants.
Those two facts are probably not unrelated.