What the Mad Men Tell Us

The Mad Men return this Sunday night!  That would be AMC’s saga of the glam Madison Avenue advertising agency world of the early-to-mid-1960s.  It is a look back to a bygone, politically incorrect era that, to this day, exerts much influence on culture and politics.  The show offers us a window to the past – the era of the Beatles, the Civil Rights Act, and the pivotal Johnson/Goldwater presidential election.  Looking back, we can see how far we’ve come, culturally and politically- and also what we’ve lost along the way.

Glamor.  The show portrays the lives of a handful of troubled, impeccably-dressed characters who booze, smoke, schmooze, and sex all day and night.   While engaged in such titillating behavior, the men all wear sharply tailored suits with skinny everything (lapels, ties, trousers) and short, pomade-sculpted hair.  The women wear brightly colored suits and frocks, stiffly tailored or crisp with crinoline.   Attire and presentation was a function of occasion and station.  Maids and elevator operators wore uniforms that denoted a specific function or purpose.  And no one turned up at the office wearing flip flops and denim.  Looking back, it’s easy to see we’ve lost this element of glamor, formality, and occasion in the modern era.

Optimism.  The Ozzie and Harriet era was an optimistic time in America.  By most accounts, people believed in economic opportunity and American exceptionalism.  The post-war economy was booming, and America was the undisputed, benevolent economic and political super power.  Certainly this outlook is represented, for example, in the upbeat music of the era (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and, in the show, through the rosy, go-go advertising mindset at the firm, Sterling-Cooper.

Race relations.  Clearly, in this respect, we are better off now, in the sense that blacks do not face the legal barriers and stultifying cultural bias that impeded economic opportunity.  The few black characters in Mad Men are maids, elevator operators, and scandalous “mixed race” girlfriends, not account executives at Sterling-Cooper.  Not president of the United States.

Women.  In this respect, we’ve “come a long way,” too, in the sense that women have far greater career opportunity.  My own mother, who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s has discussed her perception that the expected career options for women were: teacher, nurse, secretary.  In Mad Men, the young go-getter “Peggy” breaks away from this zeitgeist to pursue her goal of producing ad work for the agency.  Yet the very capable and formidable “Joan” seems not to aim beyond “head secretary” and “doctor’s wife.”  In short, the role of women in 2010 may be less “certain” or scripted by society, but there is undeniably more freedom to set and pursue life goals.

Politics.  Mad Men is a show about characters, more than anything.  So politics serves as background for the show, with only certain political events, such as the Kennedy-Nixon race and subsequent assignation of President Kennedy making a direct appearance in the plot.  It will be interesting to see how the show references the Johnson-Goldwater campaigns in this new season, which begins in 1964.  The year marked an epic battle between the forces of statism, which won (Great Society), and Goldwater-style conservatism, which suffered a massive set-back.  I hope the writers, who I imagine to be Hollywood liberals, will offer a thoughtful reference to this critical moment in American politics and not use it as merely a proxy for bashing Goldwater conservatism.

Generations.  One crucial point to note about Mad Men is that it is a show primarily about the “Silent Generation” – people born too late to serve in World War II but too early to be Baby Boomers.  This is a generation too established and traditional to squeal in teenage euphoria for the Beatles, traipse to Woodstock, or protest the Vietnam draft.  Most of this generation, in other words, was gainfully employed and saddled with family obligations by the early 1960s.  And, yet, they still bore the burden of contending with all the turmoil and change associated with the aforementioned aspects of life in America.  After so much attention paid over the years to the WWII and Baby Boom generations, Mad Men offers a welcome glimpse at the youthful days of the Silent Generation.  Now in their 60s and 70s, this surely counts as something we will be losing, too.