Day two of Popular Culture Week is upon us. We respectable negroes are a generous lot and love to include our friends. Accordingly, we are giving Werner Herzog's Bear of the great blog I Used to be Amused and Now I Just Try to Be Disgusted some shine. Be careful though, Werner is a very angry, embittered, Leinenkugel Red drinking history professor, scholar, gentlemen, and rogue. Plus, he can swear in German...in total, useful traits for a left-leaning pundit to have. In this guest post, Werner reflects on history, memory, and nostalgia in AMC's great (and still much under-appreciated) series Mad Men:
As my friends and family know, I generally don’t watch dramatic shows on television because most of them are driven by plot twists rather than character, and missing one means that nothing makes sense anymore. However, my fiance’s sister gave her the first season of Mad Men on DVD, and Lori and I have slowly been making our way through it. Despite its charms, Mad Men’s main themes are undergirded by a smug sense of self-satisfaction about the past it depicts, an attitude that contributes to our blindness towards the world surrounding us in the present.
Before getting into my critique, I should at least give Mad Men some of the praise that it deserves. The acting is great, the cinematography superb, and the set design is delectable porn for lovers of mid-century décor like me. Sex permeates the show, but in ways more frank and realistic than just about any other series I’ve ever seen on television. Also, let’s not forget that the sexpot secretary Joan, played wonderfully by Christina Hendricks, shows off actual curves and a thick, fleshy body type that has practically been banned from television and film in recent years (despite the fact that it is more healthy and attractive than the reigning skeletal ideal for women.) And, unlike just about every other show on the vast wasteland that is American television in the 21st Century, Mad Men has me hooked.
That being said, the show’s central conceit wears thin, especially for a historian like yours truly. Right from the beginning of the first episode the main message is this: “Look how much healthier, more open, less racist, sexist, and homophobic and just plain better we are today compared to those horribly ignorant troglodytes in 1960.” Has there ever been a more didactic show on the boob tube outside of Davy and Goliath? In each episode whole scenes exist which practically scream this conceit out with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. For example, every time Gentile characters mention Jews on the show, they spew anti-Semitism in ways that don’t move the plot. (Interestingly, it deals with racism much less directly, at least in the episodes I’ve seen so far.) While sexual harassment directed towards women used to go completely unpunished, every male denizen of Sterling-Cooper comes off as a misogynistic sexual predator. The ubiquitous lit cigs in ever scene constantly testify to just how far we’ve come, baby.
In the show’s defense, Mad Men’s message stands as a needed corrective to the ways television and film have often handled the 1950s. Shows like Happy Days and films such as American Graffiti propagated the even more simplistic narrative that “the 1950s were a joyous time of carefree living before America lost its innocence in the bacchanalia of the 1960s.” This interpretation has remained quite durable; when my father grew up in the fifties he lived in a house without running water, yet he will swear up and down that everything was better back then. The durability of the “lost innocence” canard can be explained by its appeal to the large number of reactionaries in this country who are not pleased with the consequences of the sixties, particularly in regards to racial equality, expanded opportunities for women, and gay rights.
Unlike most great science fiction, Mad Men does not use its setting in another reality to hold a mirror up to our society so that we may see its faults in high relief (this is something that Star Trek did time and time again.) Rather, it reassures viewers that “we” are better than all that. (The “we” addressed on the series seems to be “liberal-minded bourgeois types,” but that’s a different story.) Of course, we aren’t. In our contemporary society police still murder people, and guess what, they still tend to be overwhelmingly black (as the case of Oscar Grant reminds us yet again.) Women now hold some of the most important positions in our government, but we still inhabit a pervasively misogynistic culture. In fact, more and more women –especially those wealthy enough to afford it- are giving in to the feminine mystique and choosing to stay at home. Mad Men implies that closeted, self-hating gay men are a relic of the past, but the recent Larry Craig case ought to dispel that notion. If Mad Men slightly changed its tone, perhaps it could turn its criticisms of the past onto the present. We then might see Don Draper representing our modern day soulless materialism, Betty Draper the perils of feminized domesticity, and Salvatore Romano the victim of continuing homophobia rather than dysfunctional members of an oppressive society that has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Can we honestly say that it really has?