Monday, May 9, 2011

Mad Men Mondays: Reflections on the Past, Good and Bad

The clothes and glamour, the music, even those pink bathrooms: much seems alluring about the 1960s era of Mad Men.

While I frequently still want to build a time machine, I try and remember the progress we've made as a nation since that time. Here are five major reasons why I'm glad that it's 2011 and not 1961:

1) Consider the lack of diversity on the show, and how minorities on it are relegated to elevator operator or cleaning crew. It's a sea of white at Sterling Cooper. When Paul (a Caucasian) starts dating African American Sheila, he has a picture on his desk. A child someone brings in the offices asks, "Is that your maid?" My father recalls memories of the segregated South when in the army training camps. When I see Barack Obama, I consider how far we've come.
2) No character seems to pull on the heartstrings more than Sal, the closeted gay man at Sterling Cooper. Consider all he has to navigate (actually marrying Kitty), listening to his coworkers disparage Kurt who announces casually he's gay, deal with unexpected advances. I think of my friends who just happen to fall in love with people of their own gender, and consider what the world would have been like for them in 1961. In 2011, American society is pushing ahead with state recognized rights for people to commit themselves to whom they love. Isn't that a family value?
3) Choices for women. When Joan was getting married, it was just assumed she would step down from her role at Sterling Cooper. Some women embrace domestic life (I think of Pete's wife Trudy), and others seem not. Joan seems to fit in the latter category.
4) What if you were an alcoholic amid all this hard boozing? Duck Phillips was, and constantly had to deal with offers of drinks. Comedian Jim Gaffigan makes a joke that if you don't drink, everyone wants to know why. He said you don't do that with other things: "You don't use mayonnaise, why? Are you addicted to mayonnaise? Is it okay if I use mayonnaise? I could go outside." His point is right on. Why can't you just not want to drink? A neighbor says his idea of a tall cold one is an iced tea.
5) Smoking! My parents both worked in office building in the Mad Men era, and said, yes, people really did smoke that much. My mother recalled a friend who would have multiple cigarettes going at one time, and my father remembered a hole being burned in the desk. In 2011, you can't smoke in bars and restaurants in New York City, and it's becoming banned more and more. For non-smokers like me, that is a good thing.

Do you look longingly on some earlier eras? I do this with some, like the 1920s, 30s and 40s, but then think: would I really want to live through the Depression (consider an unemployment rate of 25 percent, and all your savings in the bank, poof, gone). Through world wars? No.

But I still do wish we could regain some things, particularly a lost innocence with childhood. It seems just accepted they are fair play (more like prey) for marketers. Why do American children need to be clutching to phones and text messaging? I don't think everything is necessarily "progress" - particularly in this area. Do you think that innocence can be recaptured?

I think of Don Henley signing in the End of the Innocence, "Now we've come so far so fast. But somewhere back there in the dust, that same small town in each of us." I think a lot of us want to recapture or long for times that were just more simple.

Listening to the love songs of the 1920s and 30s each week on The Big Broadcast, I wish there was more romance, a fading art. Love letters, does anyone write them? Do you have "a song" with your sweetheart? Go out for a night of dancing on the town? Were you courted, or did you court? Do gadgets come out during one-on-one dinners with your loved one?

I also wish we weren't as wasteful a culture as we are now. Growing up in a generation that hasn't really known widespread lack, I think we are far too wasteful with our money and overall unappreciative with what we do have. Luxury items (the highest end cable packages, gadgets, flashy gas-sucking cars and such) seem entitlements.

What do you think? Are you happy in 2011 as an American? Or would have rather been part of an earlier generation?


  1. I have mixed feelings about my generation. Realistically, I think I'm pretty happy living in the time period that I do. We've made great strides on social issues since the 60s---even since the 90s!---and I wouldn't want to live in a world where being gay or having an addiction or mental disorder meant you were a perpetual outcast. I wouldn't want to live in a world where women were absolutely expected to be domestic. And I really, really wouldn't want to live in a world where sexual harassment in the workplace is as accepted as it was decades before.

    At the same time, I do yearn for aspects of past decades, like paying more attention to dressing nicely. (I almost typed "fashion," and then realized that it's not even really fashion that I wish we paid more attention to, just dressing appropriately). My great-grandmother used to come visit us every year, and she would always come off the airplane dressed to the nines, because her generation treated air travel as something to dress up for. We were actually in the mall yesterday (a rare thing!) and I was really shocked by all the workout clothing and basically pajama pants that people were walking around in. I felt overdressed in a nice skirt and tank top!

  2. Dressing appropriately- yes! Not appropriate: seeing people walking around with any writing scrawled on their behinds, particularly words like "Juicy" or "Pink" - for kids, extremely creepy, for women embarrassing; pajama pants (I've had nightmares about being in public in my sleepwear!); and women wearing business suits with super short skirts (see it all the time in NYC).

    I agree about the social progresses. I also worry we are going backwards a bit (as I saw a poster for Mob Wives, and a news clip of Bristol Palin getting her own show). As I've written before, what is becoming of our language? Of civility? Of knowledge (not valued at all by our society, in spite of politicians' lip service to education)? I can't help but think our society continues to dumb down.

  3. I believe that I am living in what is the best possible time and place to be a woman (ok, France and the Netherlands might do us a few better, but you get my point!). I wouldn't change any of that. My issues have to do with consumerism and how it has damaged our personal relationships (and perhaps fashion choices, now that you note the "Juicy" writing on behinds!). I love that we have the option of working or staying home, etc., but I don't like that we feel so compelled to earn as much as humanly possible that we move far from family, etc.

    Basically, I blame rampant consumerism for all that ails us. I think we have the best opportunties that we've ever had as women, yet we are living in perhaps the worst possible period of time for damage caused by excessive consumption.

  4. Mob Wives? Oy. I also think social progress is ticking backward a bit and I find it extremely disheartening. I think our culture is also really going through a period of anti-intellectualism right now, which anguishes me. That's rarely more obvious than when Jason's students denounce reading and learning as "gay." Double whammy of horrible going on there.

  5. I had a French teacher who used to say American politicians kiss babies, but don't provide for them. On line at Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, I was speaking with a working mother who told me she wanted to stay at home (she had to go back to work after three months), but couldn't. I can't help but wonder if all this consumerism (at the cost of savings and living more simply) has robbed women of their choices?

    Anti-intellectualism is right. The less people are paying attention, the easier they are to control. I'd rather hear about what book someone's reading or news story stimulating thought than what gizmo they just purchased.

  6. The US is one of the few countries with no maternity leave for mothers among other failings like very high child birth fatalities...

  7. Carol - isn't that awful? Paternity leave is a whole other issue too. Why don't fathers get any valuable baby bonding time?