Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Popular Culture Pre-Inaugural Oasis Day 2: Of the Good Ol' Days and Mad Men

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:

The Straw Men on 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?


gordon gartrelle said...

I'm puzzled as to why people haven't commented on this one.

Since I've never seen the show, I can't talk specifics. I wonder, though...might the point of the show be to critique modern class, race, and gender relations? The 50s setting could simply allow for some critical distance.

Anonymous said...

The point might be to critique modern class race etc. but I agree with Lady Zora that it does a bad job.

For example, why depict, as the only gay character, a self hating closeted Italian American gay man with no visible ties to the vibrant and thriving gay cultures of New York City in the early sixties? Closeted at work? Sure, although an art director? Come on. Salvatore could have been networking and socializing with 99% of all the other advertising art directors in NYC.

It's as if the writers and producers only know a superficial history of the oppression of gays but nothing of actual gay history. Couldn't they even have watched Boys In The Band?

The same applies to the other characters in their varying identities.

What the show does do - fabulously- is costumes. Wow. I read that the costume designer even insists that the ladies' foundation garments are historically correct. That's awesome. Ditto for the sets.

aimai said...

I agree with this post, which brilliantly describes what's wrong with Mad Men despite so much of what is right, and also with Liza's post up above. This is a period of tremendous, if sometimes hidden, self discovery for women, gays, african americans--lots of people who were forced to the fringes of politics and mainstream culture but who were struggling to define a new reality for themselves. On the one hand, individuals caught up in the process might not realize their historical significance (which is the tack the show takes, that all these people are essentially uncritically and unconsciously acting out their situations and their lives) but on the other there's plenty of evidence that people were wrestling with this stuff very consciously and had been for a long time.

I look at the whole thing slightly askew--the characters are just a little bit older than my parents but my parents occupied a completely different world. A jewish world of politics and science. How "the war" was thought of--which war, btw? WWII or Korea, we keep trying to figure out which war the main character was in. How science, government, the academy, progress, etc...were thought of was a complex and multi stranded thing in american society even if the misogyny, racism, religious bigotry etc... were still on the front burner for most subgroups and classes.

At any rate, you've put your finger on why although I enjoyed what I saw of the first season I wasn't sure I wanted to keep watching. Because its not emotionally or morally or historically complex enough. Because it squints narrowly and shows only a few points of view. I would have loved an "upstairs/downstairs" or in this case "uptown/downtown/midtown" view of things with big chunks devoted to the african american experience, jews and gays, and as part of an equal split the white shoe advertising firms. That would have been fascinating and well worth it. But hard to do, no doubt.

(my husband's father, btw, was in one of the many "jewish" advertising firms that employed the men rejected by the kind of firm Mad Men depicts.)

Anonymous said...

Aimai, your parents and mine probably crossed paths.