Mad Men is losing me. I grew up on the cusp of the 50s moving into the 60s. I was 13 in 1963, a couple of years older than Don Draper’s daughter. My high school (catholic, all boys) was a bit socially retarded, so I spent all four years living out a slightly darker version of Happy Days including binge drinking on golf courses and pool-hopping (jumping into peoples’ pools when they were home.) I don’t have any great claim to juvenile delinquency but by the time I hit college (University of Michigan, 1968) the counter-culture was in full bloom and I wanted in. Without nostalgia. What fascinates me now about the 1950s culture is how short-lived this cocky, confident world was. It brings to mind the (much longer) reign of the classic Plains Indian culture that grew from Spanish horses into the iconic Sioux we came to know in 90% of the “cowboy movies.” Culturally speaking, the Plains Indian culture lasted a short time, approximately two hundred years from first horses to defeat of Sitting Bull. Why the comparison?
Why the comparison?
Well, let’s locate the 50s culturally first. Though many (including me) looked back on this time as chauvinist, repressive, intolerant, etc etc. the thrust of the culture wasn’t about repression but about economic expansion. The United States exited World War II with a strong national economy, its manufacturing intact and with the intelligence to treat its recent enemies (Japan, Germany, Italy) as markets for its products. Our closest competitor, the UK, beaten down by both World Wars, was deeply in dept (primarily to the US) and hit with a crisis of confidence that demoralized the once mighty empire. America was discovering not only its own domestic markets for its exploding panoply of consumer goods (often things no one ever knew they “needed”) but also world markets. It was a supremely confident time.
Naturally, much has been made of its chauvinism, but this I would argue was the way it had always been. The patriarchal farm family culture was moving to the city. Women hadn’t had time to figure out that the jobs men were doing they could just as easily do. Jobs no longer required that extra upper body strength and even freedom from pregnancy. The same was true of the ‘racist’ and ‘homophobic’ nature of the 1950s. It only deserves these titles looking back, now that we realize people were not treated equally, etc. It was by all standards, the last heyday of the American Male. (OK straight white male). He brought home the bacon whether at the GM factory or Madison Avenue. No one had the time or gumption to question that. As a nation we were exhausted by not only World War II but before it the long years of Depression and recession lasting arguably from 1929-1941. We were ready for some fun and wealth.
As the 1960s themes infiltrated this crystalline world of the American Male, the bastion quickly retreated and crumbled. People questioned established tastes in music, art, clothing. Women “rose” demanding freedom and equality. African Americans likewise realized there was no reason they should be held back. People tried new drugs. People questioned the patriarchal government (and military) culminating in massive resistance to the Vietnam War. People questioned the basic tenets of Don Draper’s world—that success was a worthy goal, that men were natural leaders, that one should not be ashamed of one’s privileges however you came by them (including birth and race).
The 1960s essentially have given us the world we live in now. People don’t trust the government. People are divided. Patriotism is widely scorned. We still have a strong military but they are not universally appreciated. Minority political gripes are the news daily, add to that many new angry subcultures: environmentalists, feminists, gays.
It’s difficult now to defend the uniqueness of America, especially in the enclaves of the hip and educated who relate to a world of globalism, digital connection, and hope for dramatic change that may or may not come. Though fully snobs, many are underemployed or unemployed. They want simultaneously “in” to the American Dream (wealth) but would like it on their own terms—hip wealth like Apple and Google. Our debt grows, but has not yet frightened us into change even as we watch other Western countries plummet into frightening austerity (Greece, Spain, who will follow?)
So, Don Draper of the 1950s is like Sitting Bull before his defeat. Did the Indians actually think they could defeat the US cavalry? Did they think their culture was the equal to the onslaught that was about to absorb them and decimate their beloved buffalo? Before 1876 they could believe this, afterwards, they could not.
Don Draper’s world did not die in a battle like Little Big Horn. Some might say it lives today (they attack it withi issues like Income Inequality and the Executive Pay Crisis). But it’s been dying ever since I went to college in 1968. We didn’t know it then but the world of the 50s was already largely over.
Now Matthew Weiner is going to entertain me by watching the Rise of the 60s on Mad Men? Am I supposed to cheer for change? I am nostalgic. For last season already.