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Culture Warrior: History, Nostalgia, and ‘Mad Men’

By  · Published on September 17th, 2009

Not many popular television shows are also period pieces. When dealing with a period narrative that only takes place within the running time of a feature film, the temporal limitations therein can help the filmmaker sustain a consistent approach to that history – even making that history their own, like in Inglourious Basterds – because their preoccupation with such history has a definite end point as the credits roll. However, with a television show, which inundates itself with intertwining narratives and characters for a more enduring span of time, and does not always contain a foreseeable endpoint, a consistent approach to a historical period must carefully remain in check. Some quality period shows have avoided potential inconsistencies and anachronisms through overt, indulgent stylization, history be damned (like HBO’s Deadwood) or immerse themselves in fantastical narratives that allow deviations from reality (the same network’s Carnivàle). These trends stand in dark contrast to AMC’s Mad Men, a show that attempts a straightforward, realistic retelling of recent history stratified with detailed historical accuracy.

The 1950s have played a hugely influential role in American popular culture, both in shaping and motivating the questioning of American value systems. The Reagan administration was famous for championing a return to the “simpler times” of this era, bouncing off the squeaky-clean impression of the 50s popularized in media through the Cleavers and the accepted idea of the white picket fence and the flourishing of suburbia as essential ingredients of the American Dream. But a counter-movement immediately spurred in response to this interpretation, pointing out that behind the whitewashed picket fence of the 1950s lived an era of social repression and oppressive conformism characterized by racism, sexism, political paranoia, and a constant fear of annihilation and otherness. To interpret the 1950s as an ideal era of American purity, then, would be to disregard the important social progress made since; and this image of the 1950s no longer stands as a historically accurate description, but rather a façade framed by the haze of nostalgia – an era that never actually existed the way it was remembered. From TV shows like The Twilight Zone to films like Far From Heaven, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Revolutionary Road, media objects have radically demystified the Reagan interpretation of the era to the point of parody. Blanket demystification works for the limited running time of movies, but for a television show to last, it needs to tell us more than what we already know. Rather than endorse the façade or tear the skeletons from the suburban walls of this era, Mad Men’s success can be credited in part with how it adeptly explores layers of the era itself and our fascination with it in profound and revealing ways that avoid the myth-demystification pendulum.

Mad Men thus far takes place in those first few years of the 1960s, the time when the white picket fence gradually gave way to the seeds predicting the radical social upheaval that would bring American culture into how we know the late years of that decade today. Though Mad Men goes to great lengths to preserve the details of its place and time, the creators seem to acknowledge that it’s impossible to watch such a show without the perspective of hindsight. It’s impossible not to acknowledge the fact that we know more than the characters regarding the impending changes to their social surroundings when Pete Campbell asks the African-American elevator operator about the brand of his television set and ignores the response “We have more important things to do than watch television” (Episode 3.5, “The Fog”) or when Roger Sterling’s daughter announces her wedding date as November 23, 1963, the day after JFK’s assassination (Episode 3.2, “Love Among the Ruins”)

Yet Mad Men doesn’t handle the iconic events and struggles of the decade ham-fistedly. It never feels like there’s a checklist of historical events the show goes through, which would potentially reduce its larger narrative trajectory to “Hey, remember when that Cuban missile crisis happened? That was crazy!”-type historical-nostalgic winking. The events shape the periphery of the narrative and character struggles – like the paranoia of the Cuban missile crisis permeating the Madison Avenue office as Don Draper’s personal life breaks down at the end of season 2 – but it never simplistically defines them and their surrounding culture in a unidirectional manner. It resonates in the background, making a slow and unseen influence only acknowledgeable over time, just as many major tragic world events or social changes do in our lives. They also, more importantly, reflect and reveal dominant cultural priorities of the time, like Marilyn Monroe’s death and its effect on the women of Sterling/Cooper (Episode 2.9, “Six Month Leave”)

I’ve found particularly interesting how the show handles the minor events of the early 1960s, those occurrences that not thought of as defining moments of that tumultuous decade; events that were certainly a big deal in their day and time, but have not remained apparent to those not alive at the time. A great example of this is “Flight 1,” (Episode 2.2), which used the American Airlines Flight 1 crash to allow Pete to reassess his personal and professional priorities, thus enriching the character. In this season’s “The Arrangements,” (Episode 3.4) the death of Betty’s father and its loss-of-innocence affect on Sally Draper is complemented by news coverage of the infamous photograph of Thích Qu?ng ??c’s self-immolation. This iconic image has played so many roles within popular culture that for some it was never associated with a specific place and time, and its use in the show simultaneously restores the temporal reality of the event, insinuates its social significance, and uses it to further characterize the personal struggles of the characters in Mad Men.

Unlike films that seek to reveal the many myths of mid-twentieth century America, Mad Men doesn’t view popular interpretation of this era as a huge façade hiding racist and sexist skeletons in its closet ripe for the outing, but instead sees the white picket fence as equally relevant to the reality ignored around it – they exist mutually. The ignorance of the eponymous “mad men” to the impending social changes that will surround them stand as a result of thoroughly implemented social structures that the white men of the show, yes, enforce and embody, but just as equally follow and conform per the standards and social expectations of their fellow men – a process posited as essential to success in the personal and professional culture of early-60s Manhattan. And these social structures are not wholly demonized, demystified, and dismissed as a façade nor are they celebrated as the best in American values. My personal friend and colleague Linde Murugan, as a research project, is examining the social politics explored in Mad Men through its use of women’s fashion: what the women of the show wear and the expectations therein are part of the process of their limited and subordinate social role in a man’s world, but fashion is something that can simultaneously – and without contradiction – be admired and valued on its own aesthetic merits. The oppressive social systems and misguided value structures of the era may have stagnated progress and given birth to the polarizing, violent culture wars later in the decade, but this doesn’t mean they weren’t reflective of very real value structures that permeate in American society even to this day. (This is why admiration and disgust are often simultaneous emotions with which we approach the characters of Mad Men, centralized in the walking contradiction that is Don Draper.) The façade, then, sometimes reveals itself to be just as strikingly real as the reality that it clouds.

Perhaps Mad Men’s best contribution to the duel interpretations of the era is its ongoing illustration of the essential role of the media in manufacturing this façade. From his admiration of Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) (Episode 2.5, “The New Girl”) to his directorial instruction of Salvatore regarding the shooting of a commercial (“The Arrangements”), Don Draper displays an intricate, complex, almost cinephilic knowledge of how visual media operates and influences spectators throughout. In one of the series’ most famous moments (Episode 1.13, “The Wheel”), Don lays out the processes of nostalgia and the painful power of memory, but in the best interest of his pitch, doesn’t discuss how nostalgia distorts memory, how it makes us recall things not exactly how they were (like Reagan’s white picket fence), for nostalgia isn’t a recollection of history, but a memory tainted through the haze of the ideal – which is essentially what nostalgia is. The haze of the ideal is where the men of Sterling/Cooper live every day, too preoccupied by how they perceive reality and its “natural” power structures (not actively enforcing oppression, but simply acting in a way consistent with the rest of the culture around them) to predict or prepare for the total dismantling of everything they’ve come to know to be true by the end of the decade. It’s continually fascinating to see the subtle process of this inevitability play out week in and week out. As Don Draper knows so well to the point of fault, reality is only what we need people to believe it to be.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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