The Corner

Mad Men: Remaking the Past

This take in Prospect on Mad Men by Clive James, the UK-based Australian writer, critic and very much more, lurks behind a paywall, but, as with so much that James has written, it is very well worth reading in full if you have the chance (or the time to go through the registration process).

Some extracts:

In the second decade of the 21st century, the 20th century has already become a strange land, ripe to be looked back on through television fiction. If you were there, the results often taste wrong, especially if they look right …

…The general assumption is that a dazzling job has been done of reproducing the way things were in those days. It has, especially when it comes to things you can see. Right from the title sequence, which recalls the work that Saul Bass once did for Alfred Hitchcock, the look of the thing checks out in almost every detail…

Even those of us who were alive at the time will find it hard to find a fault, and those who weren’t might well be led to believe that the atmosphere of a high-powered advertising agency has indeed been captured…This, you are led to think, is the thing itself. But …

[Joan is] a parody, and even at the time she would have been thought of as too much. Her early conviction that the only desirable destiny of an office girl is to become a married woman is very plausible, but her incarnation of oomph is a put-up job by the show’s creator, who wants to give us a past much more clear-cut than it actually was…

 Most of the Mad Men carry on as if they read nothing except their own advertising copy. The only intellectual among them smokes a pipe, to indicate unusual thoughtfulness. The rest of them live in a world without books. Not even the supersmart Don Draper has a book in his house…

In Mad Men, the corporate world never questions its right to manipulate a captive audience. The truth of the matter was very different. Vance Packard had already published The Hidden Persuaders, and most of the people in the upper echelons of the consumer society had read it. Most of the Mad Men had read every issue of Mad magazine, a publication which, under the genial direction of its editor Harvey Kurtzman, was largely devoted to an unflinching linguistic analysis of salesmanship’s bogus eloquence…

In real time, some of the Mad Men—notably David Ogilvy—were already producing successful advertisements that parodied the assumptions of their own culture…Ogilvy’s autobiography Confessions of an Advertising Man was—and remains, in my view—one of the key critical works of modern times. If the Mad Men couldn’t look like Ogilvy—he was as handsome as Don Draper—then they certainly wanted to think like him. Armed with their readings of books like his, and eager to emulate his general taste and cultural hunger, the Mad Men were much more conscious of what they were involved in than the show makes them out to have been. They would have talked about it among themselves. There would have been subversive critiques a lot more penetrating than anything spouted by Peggy’s bad choice of radical boyfriend, the least smart rat in her rat-infested apartment…

 [W]e revel in the opportunity to look back and patronise the clever for not being quite clever enough to be living now. Mad Men is a marketing campaign: what it sells is a sense of superiority, and it sells it brilliantly.

More precisely than that, the show (no Breaking Bad, but hugely enjoyable nonetheless) tended to sell a sense of specifically liberal superiority.

‘Presentism’ is an ugly, but, these days, a dismayingly useful, word. On one definition it describes an “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts”. We live in an era that (allegedly) puts great emphasis on empathy, and yet it’s a quality that all too often seems lacking when we consider those who have come before us. That’s a mistake. 

Don’t get me wrong. Reinterpreting the past (and, for that matter, reinterpreting past interpretations of the past) is a useful, indeed necessary exercise, but caricaturing it (or romanticizing it) is something else altogether.  

 

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