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.

Woodstock and the myth of the Sixties

So it is 40 years since Woodstock, which means we get people (who are cultural theory academics apparently) saying stuff like this:

To many people it kind of represents the 60s and we put that in quotation marks. All of the kind of optimism and energy of the counter-culture of the 1960s seems to have been temporarily placed at Woodstock.

It became the capital of the 60s for a brief period. And of course, I think one of the reasons Woodstock becomes so embraced, it wouldn’t be very many years before so much optimism of that period had in fact collapsed.

Basically, it is mythological bollocks.

Paul Lyons writes about how he sends his undergraduates out each year to interview people who lived during the Sixties.

He describes the reaction of students who are sent to interview baby boomers about their experiences during the decade. Inevitably these students complain that they are “not finding the right people” and that those they interviewed “weren’t really part of the Sixties.” This is because their subjects do not confirm to the tropic understanding of the Sixties held by these students: that the Sixties involved Woodstock, hippies, civil rights and the Vietnam War. For many, the sum of these tropes is the Sixties.

OK, so what is a trope? Hayden White says:

Tropic is the shadow from which all realistic discourse tries to flee. This flight, however, is futile; for tropics is the process by which all discourse constitutes the objects which it pretends only to describe realistically and to analyze objectively.

What he means is that tropes are organising concepts which in the case of history can obscure what we are actually trying to objectively consider. So, in the case of Lyons’ students, they are so fixated on the tropes of the Sixties – the sex, drugs, protest and rock and roll aspect of it – that they are unable to understand that in fact, that isn’t what constituted the experience of most people during the period. And by then denying the voice of the non-tropic recollections of history, the idea that those things constituted the decade becomes further reinforced.

You will probably find that, if you asked, most baby boomers have been to a hell of a lot less protest marches, taken less drugs, had sex with fewer people than most people 20 years younger than them. But not in all cases of course. Someone the other day was saying it would have been exciting to be young in the Sixties. Maybe – if you came from the socio-economic class where you could afford a higher education, where you might, maybe, at university have engaged with political movements. For the majority of young people growing up at the time, it was nothing like that. There is as much excitement and change and pioneering going on nowadays.

This is not to deny that there was signifiant cultural change during the Sixties and that many movements had powerful pioneers during that time to whom we should all be greatful. The women’s movement, the civil rights movements in America and the fight for Aboriginal rights in Australia, the anti-war movement were all critical and significant parts of change. However, they didn’t “happen” to everyone, and not everyone who lead those movements was young at the time.

Nonetheless, we mythologise. And Woodstock was not all peace and love anyway. There was at least one rape reported following the event in 1969 and probably a great deal more that went unreported, given the approach to dealing with rape at the time. And rape could be a very challenging area when intersected with the “free love” movement. It is notable that, by the 1980s, some women viewed their experiences with “free love” and the sexual revolution somewhat skeptically. While there was an undoubted change in the way women dealt with sex during the Sixties, the perspective that many women took by the 1980s was far from a total endorsement their sexual lives from the time. For example, Lillian Rubin interviewed one woman who argued that the revolution, which had freed them to say yes, also disabled them from saying no. “It was weird; it was so hard to say no,” said 38-year-old Paula…“The guys just took it for granted that you’d go to bed with them, and you felt like you had to explain it if you didn’t want to. Then if you tried, you couldn’t think of a good reason why not to, so you did it.” A number of other women interviewed by Rubin repeat this theme. Rubin herself notes that “it was the coercive force of a movement that, in fact, had wide appeal to women, while it also rested on a deeply entrenched structure of roles and relationships that was bound to corrupt the ideals on which it was founded.” Thus free love without sexual equality could lead to coercive expectations on women around sex.

Despite all this, when rapes occured at the Woodstock festival in 1999, it was seen as a condemnation of “young peope today” and moral panic about the manner in which this mythologised event was being diminished. And this is essentially the danger of mythologising and tropes. We can’t critical analyse in a past when we are too obsess with protecting it and with seeing it as representative of everything about an era. Nothing, no single event, and especially not an LSD fuelled orgy can represent an entire decade, and entire generation. To try and argue that it does oversimplifies and, in so doing, distorts the past. And by distorting the past and obscuring the analysis, we can’t understand it in all its complexity.

So, I might have liked to have been at Woodstock – although I tend to avoid music festivals where I have to camp…And it certainly is an interesting event which illustrates the peak, arguably, of a certain small subculture within North America at the time. But let’s not overblow its meaning, let’s not oversimplify what happened in the past.