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Thoughts, Musings and Opinions about Theology, Politics, and Life in Seminary.

The Myth of the Edenic 1950s

OR It’s All Connected: Mad Men, Woodstock, John Piper, Baby Boomers, Feminism, Racism, Revisionism

I am going to attempt my mammoth posting on the topic above, if that topic makes any sense to you (or to me, for that madmenmatter). It may be a little muddled and circuitous, but bear with me. As some of you may be aware, George and I have recently gotten into the series: “Mad Men”. If you are aware of this, it is probably because I tend to share at great length about cable shows I am addicted to into (think: The Wire). Anyway, in addition to the wonderful acting, beautiful cinematography and photography, masterfully tight plot, character development and levels of tension unparalleled in a TV show, I have–above all–been struck by one thing: how f’d the 1950s were. Now, before anyone corrects me, I know that the show takes place in the 1960s. However, it takes place (so far) during the early 1960s (1960-1963), and a major focus of the show  is the looming uncertainty and sense of foreboding experienced by characters and institutions that came to maturity, started families, etc. in the 1950s as their world began to undergo a major shift. So, the mentality of the show and its characters is largely one of the 1950s–a mentality that is actually heightened in the face of a perceived threat. This (how totally f’d the 50s seemed in this show) was funny to me, because one is always hearing about how things have essentially gone to shit (why do I bother to censor “f***” but not “shit”? a matter of degree, I guess) in the intervening years, with the social movements of the 1960s fingered as the culprits. Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice this about the show. In Alessandra Stanley’s Review in the Times, she opens with this observation:

Retrospective winks at past ignorance are what makes “Mad Men” so funny and, at times, so chilling.

“Mad Men” mocks and celebrates forbidden vices, the drinking, smoking and promiscuity that in the advertising business of the 1960s flowed heedlessly, without health warnings or the sour taint of political incorrectness. From the start, the show has mined hindsight for wicked humor: a child playing dangerously with a dry-cleaning bag is chided only for messing up the clothes inside; a pastoral family picnic ends with the mom tossing the entire basket of trash onto lush, pristine park grounds; the presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon is marketed as a young, handsome Navy hero.

Even more than in the first two years, this new season, which begins on Sunday on AMC, stresses the less amusing side of that innocence, leading viewers to look back, aghast at, and enthralled by, a world so familiar and so primitive. Characters on “Mad Men” struggle in shame and secrecy with the very things that today are openly, incessantly boasted and blogged about: humble roots, broken homes, homosexuality, unwed motherhood, caring for senile parents.

Is there anything to add here, or is this all that needs to be said? I want to suggest that there is more to be said, and a specific audience that needs to hear it. Not surprisingly–due to the usual content of this blog and the identity and interests of its writer–I feel that there is more to be said to Christians, specifically. The idealization of pre-1960s America is widespread in evangelical Christian circles, and makes up a large part of the rhetoric coming from the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. However, I think it is worth taking a look at the “dark side” that Mad Men highlights. Obviously, I am aware that the show is fictional, but there are no doubt corollaries from the period, and they are not fictional.

In my original draft of this blog, I segued into my list of “what was really wrong with the 1950s” and tried to do copious amounts of research to back everything up. I gave it some thought and decided that anyone can google statistics, do a little Wikipedia cutting and pasting, make a point and call it a day. Blogs, frankly, should not be where we get our “facts”, but where we read opinions, reflections and musings. So, here are my thoughts:

There are some things that have changed since the 1950s that are self evident and not in need of a fact check: we wear seatbelts, we know not to drink and smoke when pregnant, legal racial discrimination is no longer on the books, secretaries are not addressed as “sweetheart” (most of the time) and referred to as “girls”. People do not drink and smoke indoors throughout the workday or go to strip clubs for business meetings. In the midst of the American culture wars, Christians conveniently forget what went right in the 60s and 70s: movements advocating gender and racial equality (including the oft-maligned feminist movement) brought about some of these unequivocally positive (and Christian) changes, and movements advocating corporate accountability and responsibility meant that corporations had to tell the truth before personal responsibility even enterered into the equation (smoking causes cancer, alcohol affects a developing baby, asbestos is toxic, pollution affects communities).

As well, some of the developments and changes that took place during this era may seem less obvious and more ambiguous, in terms of moral value. Primarily, here, I am referring to the feminist movement. As my friend Dan Porter maintains, Don Draper–of Mad Men–is not endearingly, chronically unfaithful–he is a sex addict. That is, he is not a case study for the malaise inherent in the 1950s marriage. At the same time, his outrageously high rate of infidelity and his wife’s long-delayed response do highlight something important and disturbing about this era: the lack of opportunity available to women and the dependent nature of their status made a don’t-ask-don’t-tell response to extramarital affairs on the part of the husband far more likely, thus enabling the behavior or at least making it less taboo. We need only look as far as any public figure from the period to see that mistresses were commonplace; only in the 1980s and 90s would the public outcry and attention to Bill Clinton’s misbehavior be imaginable. No one moved to impeach Roosevelt or Kennedy or Eisenhower; powerful men could have extramarital affairs if they and their wives remained quiet.

In many ways this was because the 19th and early 20th century ideal of the nuclear family conferred status on women through marriage and family. This was also because opportunities outside the home were extremely limited. Women were both practically and morally tied to the home, and to economic dependence upon their husbands, which would certainly not have empowered them to hold husbands accountable to mutual standards of fidelity. Single women were able to work outside of the home, as secretaries, but this often meant subjection to harassment and belittlement of intellect, maturity and ability. When I mentioned to my mother that Mad Men painted a disturbing picture of the time in which she grew up, she said two things: 1. “this is why I make such a point about calling women your age women rather than girls–we had to work hard for that” and 2. “yes. during that period, college educated women worked as secretaries and did all of the real work for less money and less respect.” While a woman does not need to work outside of the home to be fulfilled or challenged intellectually or otherwise, there are certain God-given talents and abilities that the world would greatly benefit from and cannot be fully expressed in the home–groundbreaking scientific research, for example; specialized counseling; a gift for political advocacy on behalf of the voiceless or underprivileged. Should these be kept behind closed doors or receive unequal pay? If not, then we need to acknowledge that the 1950s had significant failings and that the feminist movement sought to address them, rather than to ruin the country and destroy the family, as many claim.

While many attack the feminist movement, few openly attack the civil rights movement; and yet the idealization of the 1950s disregards the institutional, structural and endemic oppression of minorities in this country. Further, the condemnation of all social activism from that period also condemns these movements for equal rights, and the principles that undergirded them.

Finally, health and safety. While we hear a lot these days about individuals making their own choices and government “getting out of the way”, it is important to note that corporations do not always love to tell the truth about their products or their production: without government regulation, consumer protection and worker protection, we would continue to have waste in our rivers (which caused cancer and other illnesses), workers exposed to asbestos in shipyards, embryos affected by mothers’ smoking and drinking, etc.

To summarize: My mother used to point out that the 1950s were not as perfect as conservative rhetoric would have us think, but it took the visual portrayal of Mad Men to really make me think deeply about this. While it is a fictional show and an exaggerated portrayal, it gave me pause as I considered what it would really have been like to live–especially as a woman–during this period. While feminism has certainly had its excesses, in terms of downplaying gender differences entirely and sometimes advocating for equality for equality’s sake, i.e. seeking the right to be just as sexually exploitive as men have traditionally been, it has also provided women with a world of choices rather than a world of socio-culturally prescribed roles and economic dependency. It has provided women with the opportunity to utilize gifts that previously lay dormant. While many in organizations like CBMW (see above) would say that prescribed roles are biblical and limitation is necessary, I do not see the American domestic ideal in the biblical tradition. Certainly there is a biblical precedent for work outside of the home, as in Proverbs 31, and female vocation, which would not have been possible without the movements of the 1960s, whatever their faults.

In otherwords, it’s all connected: you can’t have a return to the 1950s without the dark side of secrets, repression, pollution, racism, frustrated and dissatisfied wives, and more. To suggest anything else would be revisionism.

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4 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    Before watching Mad Men, I never realized or *felt* how deeply dislocating the social movements of the 60s and 70s were. Now I realize that those whose status was challenged by civil rights, feminism and the great society were people – like the white men who run Sterling Cooper – who had never conceived of any other way of living. Had never seen themselves in any other social position than the top (though Don Draper is different in this regard – and it already seems that his background will prepare him differently for the currents of the 60s). It’s amazing to see the characters making their way through the 60s blissfully ignorant of the social change that’s afoot. The Mongtgomery Bus Boycott has already happened. The march on Washington is only a few months away. When these developments do register, I’m imagining it will be a shock.

  2. quenouille says:

    Well written and thought out. Having parents who grew up in the 1950s I am aware that things were not nearly as idyllic as the myth of the ‘innocent’ 1950s depicts things. From the stories told to me I understand that people lived under a veneer of respectability, while all kinds of horrors and ugliness went on just as it does today. Wallpapering over a crack doesn’t mean the crack isn’t there.
    Even though the particulars may have changed, the general forces of progressiveness and conservatism played against each other then as now.

  3. Raq says:

    Excellent points. I think you might enjoy Back to Our Future by David Sirota, at least the first part, which deals with the creation of the Myth of the Fifties that happened during the 80s.

    He agrees with you, btw, that Mad Men is set in The Fifties.

  4. ... says:

    I find it funny that people often forget that it was the 1950s when the miniskirt was invented, when porn magazines became popular, when strip clubs became popular, when married (or unmarried) couples were having so much sex in the 50s and 60s that we had the largest baby boom in US history, and when PDA’s became extremely common. If you don’t believe me about the mini-skirts just look at the movie attack of the 50 foot woman poster. Now It is true that there was more sex in the 60s and sexual attitudes were more permissive. However, in the 50s they were very permissive about sex as well.

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