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Mad Men and the Sixties Re-Imaged

Following a seminar presentation about the way that films made in the Reagan-Bush era depicted the Sixties, a question was asked about Mad Men. It prompted me to contemplate the manner in which the vision of the early Sixties we see in Mad Men is such a contrast to that which was evident in films from the 1980s – and also the television series of the time such as The Wonder Years.  These films tended to depict the early Sixties as a time of hope and optimism, of innocent experimental sexuality and noble youngsters with the best intentions in their hearts. I guess you know from the first season that you are in a different world as the agency pitches for Nixon.

Mad Men shows nothing of the innocence and idealism which is so apparent in previous depictions of the era. The sex is exploitative and desperate, and the nobility and idealism is drowned in whiskey and pragmatism. Paul Kinsey’s black girlfriend is mocked by Joanie as an affectation and he only goes on the Freedom Rides because he has been dumped from a work trip. The characters are intolerant and misogynist and more interested in their own lives than what is happening in the world around them. And yet, they are still beautifully crafted as characters about whom we care. Nonetheless, this is a far cry from Kevin Arnold or Baby in Dirty Dancing. Twenty years ago, depictions of the early Sixties focused on the young and told stories of learning and growing and loving and caring. it is hard to conceptualise of such an adult program as Mad Men or even a film about similar characters being made.

The reasons for this are no doubt quite varied. The manner in which the past is depicted is strongly influenced by the present in which that representation is created. The character of Betty Draper and her household frustrations and boredoms reflects and builds on the kinds of depictions of 1950s housewives which Julianne Moore has made her own in The Hours and Far From Heaven.  But her location in the early Sixties, and the partnering of her with Don and all that goes along with Sterling Cooper is something new.

I would suggest that one reason that the depictions have changed so dramatically is that those making and writing Mad Men don’t have the kind of nostalgic stake in the Sixties which those making films during the 1980s did. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, for example, born in 1965, is not looking fondly back at his own childhood or the times of his growing up. Similarly, the audience too no longer needs to see the Sixties through the rose coloured glasses that have previously applied. while totally unscientific, I know that all the big fans I know of Mad Men fall firmly within the Generation X category – and the show’s strong internet and Twitter presence would seem to indicate its own awareness of this. without resorting to generational stereotyping, there is certainly something of the rebellion against the orthodoxy of the Sixties evident within a tranche of Gen Xers. Perhaps a harder view of the period appeals to us.

So I am sure there are a lot of other reasons why the depictions of the Sixties are so different. There is also something sort of voyeuristic about watching people behave in ways which are so socially and professionally unacceptable today. The dominance of consumer capitalism and advertising and branding also make it fascinating to look back at some of the beginnings of these things. I plan to investigate all this more fully – coming soon to an academic journal near you. Nonetheless, I am intrigued by the permission we now have to look at the Sixties in a different way.

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