Mad Men Revisionism

I was an early fan of AMC’s Mad Men, but feel the show jumped the shark last year. If the current season’s premier is any indication, Matt Weiner’s freshman-level pedagogy will be all-but-clobbering us over the head this year, even more so than last year. (Sigh…)

Mad Men is part of Hollywood’s continual rewriting of life in the ’50s and early ’60s, a revisionist history where white men had it made (all due to exploitation, undeserved status, and racialist power, it should be mentioned), but where women and minorities were brutally oppressed, white sexuality was suppressed, etc. [See, for instance, Pleasantville (1998); Edward Scissorhands (1990); Far from Heaven (2002); any John Waters movie; etc.]

In, of all places the NYT, Susan Jacoby has a different memory of those years and laments the short shrift the realities of ’50s-life (for white males) have been given by Hollywood:

When I dream about my father, as I do even though he has been dead for more than a quarter of a century, I always wake up when I hear the crunch of tires rolling over rock salt — an unmistakable sound evoking the winters of my Michigan childhood in the 1950s and early ’60s. Dad, an accountant, would pull his car out of our icy driveway and head for his office long before first light. This was tax season, and he could keep his business and our family financially afloat only by working 80-hour weeks.

You won’t find Bob Jacoby or his unglamorous middle-class, middle-income contemporaries in “Mad Men,” the AMC series beginning its sixth season on Sunday. If we are to believe the message of popular culture, the last men on top — who came of age during World War II or in the decade after it — ran the show at work, at home and in bed…

My dad worked so hard that he wouldn’t have had time for routine adultery even if he had the desire. Furthermore, my supposedly powerless mother would have spotted any unexplained expenditure of more than $20 — not enough to rent a decent hotel room even in 1960 in Lansing, Mich. Some husbands certainly did exercise tight control over money, but the basic middle-class covenant of the time ceded power to women over everything domestic, including the family budget.

The cost of that covenant to women — the suppression of worldly opportunity — has been thoroughly told. The cost to men — in terms of stress, time lost with the families they were trying so hard to support and lack of freedom to pursue personal interests — has not been nearly as well documented…

So it is difficult to understand why social commentators cannot muster up more empathy for the older generation of men, who had no backup if something went wrong at work.

I am as hooked as anyone else on the cocktails and clothes, the sexual drama and office politics of “Mad Men.” But I would like to see just one scene in which a man is gulping coffee at 4:30 on a February morning. Perhaps he is also scanning a book on the kitchen counter, because he knows he will be too tired to read by the time he gets home around 10 o’clock. This man warms up his car and heads for work, while his wife and children sleep soundly under the covers.

This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood. Bookmark the permalink.