About a year ago I remember asking my father in-law if he watched Mad Men. His answer was pretty clear: “I tried to watch it, but I didn’t like it. I mean, when I was young during the ’60s, I HATED these people. I mean, they stood for everything I hated in the world.” Well, no mincing words or any kind of ambiguity there, huh. I understand how he feels. It’s like glorifying some of the one percenters — many of whom can be a truly loathsome bunch. But there was something that Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, said to Stephen Colbert on his show that struck me. Now, both Colbert and Weiner are about the same age as I am, and it’s kind of odd to me (at least from a generational point of view) that people in my generation are the dominant culture creators now. I’m so used to Baby Boomers taking center stage, that it seems like I didn’t notice when people of my age were in the spotlight. Anyway, back to Weiner and his view of the ’60s. Colbert asked him about the perspective of the show (i.e., whose stories are being told here), and Weiner kind of went off on a diatribe about standard ’60s narrative handed down to us by Boomers:
“What would it like to be an adult who went through, say, some fairly interesting things like World War II and the Great Depression. And then this (the ’60s) comes along – and there was tremendous change…and the cliched turbulence and free love and things like that. But there was free love in the 1920s, there’s free love in the 1930s, and the Beatnik movement of the ’50s…no one invented any of this. What really happened was that there was a generation that was asked very little of. They got education, they got a lot of entertainment, they got a lot of spending money, they became the focus of the economy, of everything. There was a war they were supposed to fight — some of them didn’t. The generation before them, all of them fought. They (the Boomers) have a very sort of demanding thing…I experience it in real life. They’ll come up to me and say, “Well what happened to this? Or what happened to that?” And I’m like, “I’m not telling your story. I’m telling the story of your parents, or your grandparents.” And so I don’t have a judgement on it necessarily…that sounded really judgmental. It did.”
“Get Caught In Ticking Traps”
I’ll cut Matthew Weiner some slack at getting historical issues wrong. After all, he’s talking about white, largely suburban kids from middle to upper middle class lives here. That’s really the focus of his ire. Does he have a point? Sure. His story is about the parents of white middle-class Boomers. So, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Woodstock, drug culture, hippies, the Anti-War movement, and even Civil Rights tend to be in the margins when we watch Mad Men. Why? Because the parents are running the show at the moment and Mad Men is about their day-to-day of being an adult working in advertising and feeling the pressures of running a business, keeping clients happy, trying to be creative, and trying not to lose your identity. Or as the sociologist C. Wright Mills once wrote in his book, The Sociological Imagination: “Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles…”
“Whatever happened to all that lovely hippie shit?”
Every generation wants to think that they are special; that their experiences are unique and should be in the public spotlight. With the ’60s generation, that’s been the case for a long, long time. When Boomers turned 30, it was a big deal. When they turned 40, it was an even bigger deal. And so on and so on. So it’s refreshing to see that Mad Men marginalized the ’60s generation. Oh sure, they are there. But guess what? They are treated as more fleeting annoyances than “Oh my God! These kids are changing our world…for the worse!” Nope. If anything, there’s a kind of acceptance that “the kids” are going to do what they want to do, and when they are finished, they will get jobs, have families, pay mortgages, have affairs, drink, take drugs, and do many of the things they did, because, well, that’s part of life in the U.S.
“Social Security has run out for you and me. We do whatever we can. Gotta duck when the shit hits the fan.”
Matthew Weiner, Stephen Colbert and those in their late 30s to late 40s are part of the latchkey kid generation. Divorce, both parents working, blended families, eroding middle class, late Cold War proxy wars…these are some of the things that we grew up in. Rebelling against that was kind of pointless. In its place percolated a kind of punk nihilism in the pop culture of the Gen X’ers, and now that those X’ers are in positions of relative power and influence, there’s more than a bit of sneering at Boomers. But at the same time, many of the Generation X do look up to the accomplishments of Boomers. I know I do — especially when it comes to music. But sometimes to tell and interesting story, you have to leapfrog over the standard narrative to find something novel. And I think that’s what Mad Men does. It doesn’t glorify the era, nor is it an extended critique of the World War II generation and the world they wrought. Rather, it’s more of an examination of those series of traps that C. Wright Mills alluded to and how people (no matter the era) have tremendous difficulties in overcoming their troubles.