Where are all the angry white mad men?
It’s a show that deals with the most ideologically contested decade in living memory, but neither the Left nor Right have stepped up to the plate and dragged Mad Men into the culture wars.
The third season of Mad Men, the cult hit TV show set (thus far) in a Kennedy-era ad agency, is about to be broadcast in Australia by cable channel Movie Extra. The show is now closing in on 1964 - the year when the Sixties really began to swing.
By the season’s finale JFK will be history and the Beatles three months away from setting off the baby boomer youthquake that, within four years, will have torn the US and, to a greater or lesser extent, the rest of the Western world in two, setting in motion a host of rancorous political conflicts that are still being played out five decades later.
Which raises the question - why haven’t the culture warriors of Left and Right been all over this juicy slice of retro-cool pop culture like Don Draper on a pneumatic blonde?
Sure there’s endless media commentary about the show’s surface dazzle: the meticulous period detail, lush art direction, impeccably costumed characters. But a trawl through the blogosphere and op-ed columns turns up disappointingly little about what the show means politically.
Does it suggest that what individuals have gained in the way of personal freedoms is outweighed by what society lost in terms of social capital? Is the conflicted alpha male Don Draper a good role model for 21st century blokes or an acceptable lust object for post-feminist women? Was the world a better place back when you could unselfconsciously down a Scotch in front of your boss at 10am then bust out a blackface routine without worrying about offending the likes of Harry Connick Jnr?
It’s not like the issue of whether the years 1945-63 are a lost Eden of strong family values, good manners and civic mindedness or a dark age of stifling suburban conformity and rampant bigotry hasn’t been the focal point of the culture wars between Left and Right for almost a half a century.
In fact, it’s not like this is even just a debating point for ideologues - it’s something that decides elections. Richard Nixon won two because a majority of American voters, not least many white working class ones who’d previously voted Democrat, wanted the pre-1964 America - or at least as much of it as could be reconstituted - back.
And what, ultimately, was the secret of John Howard¹’ political success if not his soothing promise to return a change-weary nation, as far as feasible, to the relaxed and comfortable Fifties? Was any Australian politician ever as mercilessly lampooned as a relic of the Menzies era? And has any Australian politician ever harvested so many votes, chiefly from what was previously Labor’s rusted-on working and lower middle class constituency, by frustrating the agendas of those lobby groups and communities feminists, homosexuals, multiculturalists, environmentalists, republicans, reconciliation advocates, inner city elites most hostile to the values of his Fifties childhood?
Avatar’s been out for four minutes and we’re already drowning in pontifications about whether the antics of some gangly blue aliens amount to sanctimonious hippie propaganda or a powerful indictment of American imperial adventurism. Mad Men¹s heading into its fourth year and we¹re still waiting for some harrumphing conservative columnist to wax lyrical over its beguiling presentation of a world unsullied by “political correctness gone mad”, or some leftist cultural studies academic to convene a seminar on the show’s “playful critique of phallocentric discourses and mid-20th century representations of femininity”.
I blame Generation X. Born in the shadows of, but at some distance from, the tsunami of social change that marked the Sixties they’re showing a disturbing lack of interest in what Xer president Barack Obama once dismissed as “the psychodramas of the baby-boom generation”. As the boomers shuffle off the stage, debate over whether the Eisenhower/Menzies era was the best or the worst of times is dying off with them. The Xers now belatedly taking control of the political system and fourth estate just don¹t feel they have a dog in this fight. They just dig the retro fashion and pre-political correctness outrageousness, man.
- Nigel Bowen’s interview with Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner appears in the February/March edition of GQ, on sale now. The third season of Mad Men will be shown on Movie Extra at 8.30pm on Thursday from February 25.
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