I have argued before that “Mad Men” is a fundamentally unhistorical rendition of how most Americans felt and behaved in late First Turning (the High) America. To summarize, my point was basically that most of the roles are played by Generation X (born 1961-1981) who meticulously “look” like circa-1960 business-world people—but who fail to reflect the authentic mood of the era as it was lived and experienced. Instead, the actors come across as Gen-Xers dressed in 1960 clothing and trapped in 1960 social mannerisms. Let me put aside all instance in “Mad Men” where the script is simply impossible—like characters telling each other to “get in touch with their feelings.” Even aside from such obvious anachronisms, most scenes (to my eye and ear) are suffused with a sense of oppressive tension and cynicism.
Well, in this column, Stepanie Coontz (well-known author and first-wave Boomer) begs to differ. She says that “Mad Men” is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the period. Yet she says so for reasons which I think pretty much support my own assessment. She says the show accurately portrays the suffocating gender chauvinism that prevailed in America just before the sexual revolution began to set things right. I agree that it does this. And, I would argue, it does this so effectively because the cast is so clearly ill-at-ease in the world they inhabit. To take contemporary Gen-Xers and thrust them back into 1960 life roles would be tantamount to physically throwing just about anyone into a jail cell. No one looks comfortable when they are locked up.
I would argue that to portray a period in which everyone feels out of place is probably not an accurate portrayal. Coontz, of course, may disagree. She may say that most Americans really were, objectively, miserable in the 1950s. Most likely what she really means to say is that most Americans, men and women, *should* have felt miserable if they had only known how they were being abused by their own social norms. But then again most Americans didn’t really come to this understanding until after the ‘60s were over… and after Coontz had launched her writing career.
Ponder the epistemological question. To what extent should the mood or tone of an era be judged by standards not widely held until after the era was over? The best way to think about this question is to imagine how Hollywood, in the year 2060, will portray our own America circa 2010. (The Washington Post Outlook section had a recent essay on exactly this question.) What horrible injustices will we be accused of tolerating daily? One can imagine many candidates. To the left, what may come most easily to mind is how we all routinely ravage the environment; to the right, how we routinely terminate the lives of millions of the unborn. (Both candidates were mentioned in the Post piece.) I submit that no one really knows and that to subject our own present-day world to such a radical perspective, which might require each of us to confess crimes to a tribunal organized by the new regime, would not be an accurate representation of what it actually feels like today to live in our world.
Let me bring this discussion back around to generations, turnings, and cyclical versus linear time. One thing Bill and I discovered many years ago, even before The Fourth Turning appeared, was that most people who really do not like our perspective on history have fairly strong ideological motivations. These tend to be people whose ideology colors their perspective on history, who see history moving from absolute error toward absolute rectitude, and who (therefore) are really bothered by a view of history that is not linear. In this view, the idea that there might be something archetypal in a bygone generation or era of history seems bizarre, even perverse. There can be no archetype for social dysfunction and blatant injustice. It’s like a disease. When it’s over, you hope and expect it never returns.