Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Mad Men" & Memory

Unless you've been living under a rock or have had more productive things to do, the interwebs have been agog about the AMC series "Mad Men." I admit to being sucked in as much as anyone else. I tore through the 1st 2 seasons on DVD in a couple of weeks and now am fully engrossed.

What I find most interesting, however, is the current cultural reaction to the show. Much like The Sopranos, the show particularly excites the comments of cultural critics (these are just 2 that I particularly like), while at the same time seeming to engender a longing for the unmitigated cool of the late 50s & early 60s. Hilton and Banana Republic, among many others, are 2 companies actively promoting tie-ins to the show, playing explicitly off that cool factor. You can even "Mad Men" yourself. Yes, that's (kind-of) me up in the corner... Anyway, this seems to be borne out by the demographics of the viewership - relatively young (majority under 50) and quite wealthy (many making more than $100k/ year).

That's what interests me.

What excites me about the show is how you have to pay attention to really get it. It shows you how cool Don Draper is, how neat martini lunches were, how wholesome family life in the late 1950s and early 1960s was, and how simple life seemed. It takes you in, makes you inhabit those memories, evokes nostalgia for this simpler time, and then (pardon my language) poops all over those thoughts. This is a society on the cusp of something transformational. The Civil Rights movement and Vietnam particularly stalk this seasons' shows. The thing is, the main characters are all on the wrong side of that transformation. They're standing in the way of progress. If you're paying attention, if you think about what they're doing and why they're doing it, you're not supposed to like any of these characters. You may well be able to understand them but it's hard to really like them.

I write here quite a bit about nostalgia, how we today are as guilty of it as our predecessors ever were. I try to warn about the dangers of nostalgia. It leads us to ridiculous positions, like lionizing certain periods and peoples by fossilzing them by only 1 of their many characteristics. Nostalgia makes you say dumb things like calling one group of people "the greatest generation," thereby eliminating their many foibles and utterly negating the contributions of others.

I don't think "Mad Men" is playing into that (even if others, like Hilton and Banana, are trying to profit off of it anyway) but I began to worry that people aren't paying attention -- much like many viewers who don't understand that "The Colbert Report" is satire. But, then I took another look at those demographics of "Mad Men's" viewers. If the majority of the viewership is under 54 (or even under 49), they would likely only hazily remember this period. Most of these viewers wouldn't remember this period at all. But if they did, they were Don and Betty's kids -- Sally, Bobby, and Gene -- who are little more than window-decoration for the adults (not a surprise then that the actors who play the kids aren't even listed on the "Mad Men" website). Sally's emotions when her grandfather died are ignored. Bobby's little more than a nuisance to his parents. We haven't seen Gene in a number of episodes now. The parents do anything and everything but spend time with them or show any interest in them at all. Certainly, this isn't to say that all parents from this period ignored their children but it complicates the picture.

And the show overall does this well, stripping off the superficial veneer that nostalgia paints the past with, forcing you -- if you're paying attention -- to ask some tough questions about people, behavior, and events that we might not otherwise question. And doing that, I think, can only be a good thing.


Steve Muhlberger said...

I remember getting irritated by Andrew Sullivan repeatedly going on about how Jimmy Carter made him ashamed to be an American. Then I figured out one day exactly how young AS would have been and I was *really* irritated.

Steve Muhlberger said...

PS I remember the Mad Men era, too and not surprisingly am not very interested in it. It's not exotic enough to make the unattractive characters interesting.

If we are going to go for unattractive characters, give me *Rome.* :-)

Timh Gabriele said...

There seems to be a new development that has become prevalent in visual media that seems engineered specifically for a bifurcated populace growing either more media-savvy or more gullible. It's one that operates under the insiduous, though correct, assumption that viewers will project their own assumptions onto a narrative's intentions. It allows us to watch reality television as a ridiculing document of the superficiality of its cast, even as an alternate set of viewers seek to emulate those values. The networks win because they reach both sets of audiences. I'm not immune to this either. I watched three seasons of Entourage hoping something HORRIBLE would finally happen to these terrible people before I realized that it wasn't a critique but a lifestyle show, an animated Playboy or Details magazine complete with advertisements and all.

My impulse is to not treat Mad Men this way because I think it does have a lot to say, but it'd be hard to suspend its functioning as a mechanism of wish fulfillment for those attuned to projecting themselves onto the screen. Of course, this is reinforced by the advertising blitz that has accompanied the show's new viewership (the fallacy of the "Which Mad Men are you?" is in its presumption that you would even want to be a Mad Man in the first place). It's of value to the show's advertisers that the show's criticism of the hollowness of the consumer society, the destructive enterprise of deception, and the disapprobation of the intrinsic satisfaction of surfaces be masked in a way that still makes those things acceptable for all those potential consumers in the audience. This is only all too ironic when you consider that the show is about a bunch of ad guys bandaging wounds by diverting gazes. Mad Men would be remiss to change its approach by making its complex subject matter more digestible and compromising the integrity of the show (a task that I fear is already being undertaken through the show's uneasy relationship with its sponsors), but its subtlety leaves its dialogue with the audience somewhat strained.

What's far more shocking is how many audience members who idealize Sterling Cooper's power patriarchy fail to pick up on the show's none-too-subtle gender inequities, nuclear family dynamics, class/racial divides, etc. I think that speaks a great deal on how far we've come (or relapsed). After all, some of those guys at Sterling Cooper must have read The Man in the Gray Flannel Shirt or Revolutionary Road too at the time (Kinsey's a shoo-in for Norman Mailer's "White Negro").

Matthew Gabriele said...

Then again, sometimes, I wonder if people really watch the show...

See here.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Haven't watched it yet, but one of the things I do remember is that kids really weren't all that present in some ways. Parties often had 'kids' tables,' and little kids, especially, were put together to play, and then to bed. I remember an awful of lot of times where we were brought to places in our pjs and then woke up getting out of the car at home.

Neither seen much nor heard when the parents were working and socializing.

kjxo said...

I came to this site because I'm writing a graduate paper on the way medieval portrayals of women exist in Mad Men. I was hoping to find someone else who thought the same thing! Alas, just a review of the program in general. It's definitely something you should look into... I'm only a graduate student, but with your wealth of knowledge as a professor in the subject, you could really get into it. I'm finding 4,000 words on the topic easy to complete. I could honestly probably do my thesis on it!

Matthew Gabriele said...

kjxo, thanks for the note. I'd be interested in what kind of "medieval" portrayals you're finding in the show. I'd wonder if they're actually medieval or a kind of medievalism. Good luck with your research.