BBC Home > BBC News > Magazine

Mad Men and the 60s - the decade is in the detail

06 September 10 12:35
Jon Hamm
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News, Washington

US drama Mad Men has won praise for its vivid recreation of the 1960s. But anyone looking for a classic depiction of the decade will be disappointed.

The 1960s is a decade like no other.

The right word is "is" and not "was" because no decade of the past seems quite so vivid now to those who weren't there.

Ask somebody not alive in the 1960s about the decade and they might reel off hippies, flower power, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, JFK and Woodstock.

The creative minds of television and film - when looking back - have always seemed more interested in the late 1960s.

But the first three series of Mad Men are set in the early years of the decade and it's not all about the Beatles and the Twist.

The show has earned plaudits for capturing the decor, dress, and drinking of the period. But perhaps more importantly, it has acknowledged the un-60sness of the early 1960s.

"There is an acute problem of periodisation," says Maurice Isserman, professor of history at Hamilton College, New York. "In some ways the 1960s didn't start until 1963 with Kennedy being shot or 1965 and the [Vietnam] escalation.

"The first half of the 1960s were culturally part of the 1950s. Kennedy was not a man of the 60s."

And like his fellow womaniser, Don Draper, Mad Men's conflicted anti-hero, does not seem like a man of the decade either.

He has no interest in politics, can barely summon the energy to raise an eyebrow at Greenwich Village beatniks and is unmoved by the civil rights movement.

The fourth series - set in 1965 - deals with the world changing and threatening to leave characters like Don behind.

"We can see that people, who were cutting edge in the 50s, are no longer," says Prof Michael Kazin, co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s.

Keeping the pulse

Natasha Vargas-Cooper, author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, agrees.

"What we really see in the fourth season is with the rise of youth culture, how difficult it is for somebody of Don's cohort to stay in touch and stay relevant."

Whereas in the first couple of seasons the mohair-suited slicks of the ad agencies were at the centre of a bright and exciting world, now more important things keep happening just in their peripheral vision.

"It's no longer their moment," says Ms Vargas-Cooper. "[It was a time] when culture and popular culture was made largely by and for adults. Young people take over and they haven't let go since."

One of the talking points around Mad Men has always been its handling of sexism. This is the era of pioneering feminist Betty Friedan and the three main characters - Peggy, Joan and Betty - all have battles to fight.

Peggy breaks into the male-dominated world of copy-writing, but it isn't easy going.

Because she's a woman, she's supposed to be grateful that her talent has been recognised and is expected to put up with endless ribaldry from inferior male colleagues.

Everyday sexism

The newly formulated ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Price might hire the odd woman, homosexual or beatnik out of necessity, but it's not a bastion of social radicalism.

This view of the ad agencies of 1960s Manhattan might not tell the whole picture, says Prof Kazin, whose mother spent her career in advertising.

"[Don Draper's workplace] looks more like an agency in Chicago. New York agencies were all full from the 1950s with a lot more Jewish people, a lot of people with left-wing views. It was much more of a counter-cultural place.

"[Mad Men is] more like a portrait of a bank."

For Ms Vargas-Cooper, the show is more powerful when it tackles the humdrum sexism of everyday life.

"All the un-PC stuff that happens in the bedroom and the home life feels more painful to watch."

But of course, there are many people who revel in the show's portrayal of a "non-PC" era.

"One of the reasons young people are attracted to the show is that it is pretty naughty and exciting to watch men be men and women be women," says Ms Vargas-Cooper.

Spirit of the 50s

If the treatment of sexism is a dominant theme, the portrayal of racism is less in the foreground.

The black characters in Mad Men clean the floors of the office, man the lifts, wait tables and act as housekeepers. Carla, the calming presence in the Draper household in the earlier seasons, has attended civil rights marches, but more than that we never seem likely to find out.

A character makes a slightly disparaging reference to civil rights, a secretary drops a casually racist joke, but the issue is never tackled head on.

One of the ad men has a black girlfriend and travels south to protest, but for the most part his colleagues are neither staunch defenders of racism, nor implacable foes. They just don't seem to care that much.

The Cold War appears, most notably with the Cuban Missile Crisis providing the backdrop for the last episode of the second series. And the shooting of JFK casts a pall over the marriage of Roger Sterling's daughter in the penultimate episode of the third series.

But Mad Men is not Forrest Gump. The much-screened Oscar winner represents one way to "do" the 1960s - giving your central character the chance to have a rattle through the major events of the decade.

Mad Men represents a more oblique way of doing it. Historical events intrude but never drown out the drama in the lives of the protagonists.

"A lot of the huge moments have played out on TV with Sally Draper [Don and Betty's daughter] watching," says Ms Vargas-Cooper.

And all the time it's emphasised how one person's decade can be very different from another.

"I used to ask my students to ask their parents what they remembered about the 1960s," says Prof Isserman. "Often the response from the parents was 'I missed the 1960s - I was living in the 1950s and suddenly it was the 1970s'."

Mad Men is a 21st Century view of the 1960s, hence its feel.

"We always view the past through the prism of the present," says Prof Isserman.

"When I was growing up cowboys had short hair. In the late 60s all the cowboys grew their hair long with dropping moustaches like they had stepped off the streets of Haight-Ashbury."

The fourth series of Mad Men begins on BBC Four on Wednesday 8 September, at 2200 BST

Below is a selection of your comments

Growing up in the 1960s, albeit in the UK not America, it sounds pretty much what I recall. The murder of JFK is actually one of my earliest memories, but apart from changes in popular music and the Vietnam war, most of the 'hot issues' of the contemporary thought on the 1960s just didn't impinge. I certainly don't recall racism being an issue.

Megan, Cheshire, UK

I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, in the 1960s. It was not exactly revolutionary. It was conservative, politically and otherwise; it was stuffy; every major event that happened, happened far away and to other people. It was Space Age optimism, it was suburban hell, it was Star Trek and it was Walter Cronkite and it was a strange centennial celebration of an independence that was never really wanted (including the worst song I have ever heard). It was Hell's Angels, it was the twist. It was Petula Clark and the Beatles and the Stones. It was many things, but it was not, I think, at all revolutionary. What was revolutionary about the 1960s was the effect later on - even today. That is what historians should perhaps examine.

D Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

For those who were teenagers the sixties began with Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Weston Jeans with 14" bottoms, winkle picker Chelsea boots, reel to reel tape recorders to supplement the Dansette record players and, in whispers, "the Pill". There was definitely still a 1950s flavour that didn't disappear until the mid 60s by which time the Beatles and the Stones ruled supreme on the pirate radio stations, Mods were pitched against rockers and the Mini was putting the car within reach of the under twenties. I guess the 50s lasted well into the 60s for older people like our parents, but for us the world changed when the Shadows released Apache.

Frank Bowron, Hatfield, England

I can't watch Mad Men. The way everything screams, 'Look everybody, this is the SIXTIES!!!' makes it impossible for anyone who actually remembers the mixed, uneven, confusing, lived-in Sixties to believe in the stage-set version the programme shoves down the viewer's throat.

Mr Henderson, Teddington, UK

I was aged 12 when 1960 hit . At that time I recollect that my place of birth and upbringing in the Midlands bore no resemblance in surroundings, dress, speech, lifestyle, politics, popular culture and attitudes as depicted in Mad Men. 1960 for me was an all-white, deprived, poor, scruffy era where we were constantly told to "pull our belts in " and "look forward to jam tomorrow "... much like it is for ordinary decent British folk today.

Keith Kettelwell, Bristol

It's a DRAMA. It can't tell you ANYTHING! Enough with the self-advertising - I thought the BBC didn't advertise?

Bryan Statham, Reading, UK

Share this

Related BBC sites