Entry from September 19, 2011

No one should be surprised to see from last night’s Emmy awards that the TV and media culture’s love affair with Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” continues unabated. If you didn’t know that the show had already won as best drama series — though TV’s own “Mad Men” style hype prefers outstanding drama series — three years running and was now winning for a fourth time, you could tell by the homage paid to it in the new TV season by shows like “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am” that seek to exploit the same appeal to currently popular taste for the faded chic of the 1960s. Yet this appeal is not that of the revolutionary late-1960s. The world of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and the social breakdown that these things both portended and embodied is still too familiar to us. Rather, people love and can’t get enough of the pre-revolutionary period: a time when traditional social and especially sexual roles were still intact.

Maybe that’s because “Mad Men” belongs to what the critic Mark Greif once called “the genre of Now We Know Better.”

We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over. ‘Have we ever hired any Jews?’ — ‘Not on my watch.’ ‘Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology; it looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.’ It’s only a short further wait until a pregnant mother inhales a tumbler of whisky and lights up a Chesterfield; or a heart attack victim complains that he can’t understand what happened: ‘All these years I thought it would be the ulcer. Did everything they told me. Drank the cream, ate the butter. And I get hit by a coronary.’ We’re meant to save a little snort, too, for the ad agency’s closeted gay art director as he dismisses psychological research: ‘We’re supposed to believe that people are living one way, and secretly thinking the exact opposite? . . . Ridiculous!’ — a line delivered with a limp-wristed wave.

Mr Greif, you will gather, was not in favor of the genre of Now We Know Better. “It’s a commonplace that portrayal of the past can be used to criticise the present,” he wrote in The London Review of Books. “What of those cases in which criticism of the past is used to congratulate the present?” His sour progressivism was naturally much less impressed with our social progress since the bad old days than he assumed the show’s makers were.

But its imitators and knock-offs seem to suggest that Now We Know Better was not really what “Mad Men” was going for in the first place. What he sees as its creators’ nostalgia for the male chauvinism of old isn’t so secret after all. The really interesting question is this: is that nostalgia exclusively masculine? Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times, for one, thinks not

It’s tempting to brand all this retro programming as wish fulfillment for network executives trying to ride the success of “Mad Men” to suit their own tastes and universal male fantasies. But it’s not of course. Most of network television nowadays is for women and about women. And these nostalgic series may be to female audiences what series like “Combat!” and “Band of Brothers” have been for so many men — a chance to relive historic battles in all their glory as well as horror. Many men are fascinated by their predecessors’ exploits and sacrifices at Guadalcanal or the Battle of the Bulge. And plenty of women are increasingly curious about their mothers’ struggles with illegal abortion, men-only clubs and mandatory girdles — “Band of Bunnies.”

Without denying the truth of this analysis, maybe it’s not all relived “horror” for the female fans of shows like this. Maybe they find their appeal in the way they get back out into the open the sexual economy that still exists surreptitiously and has always existed in some form or another and use the 1960s setting to by-pass the contemporary feminist pretense that modern and up-to-date women have risen above that sort of thing. To be sure, there is an element of horror for such women in seeing what their mothers and grandmothers had to endure, but it’s not as if today’s version of sexual freedom is without parallel horrors of its own. Maybe some of these women even have the smallest inkling that the horror lies in unbridled sexual freedom itself.

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