Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Don, Betty and Jackie Kennedy: On Mad Men and Periodisation

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Don, Betty and Jackie Kennedy: On Mad Men and Periodisation

Article excerpt

This essay considers the use of period detail and historical reference in Mad Men and the importance of periodisation to its mode of address. The embrace of period detail in Mad Men is at once loving and fetishistic and it belongs, as in all period film and television, to the politics of the present. But how is it that we watch Mad Men and think it represents a period? Flashes of patterned wallpaper, whiskey neat, contact lining for kitchen drawers, Ayn Rand, polaroids, skinny ties, new Hilton hotels, and Walter Cronkite all evoke a time when the world and how we might live in it was different in powerful ways. They comprise the evocative period setting for the series' central ethical dramas: Don Draper asks 'What do women want?' and dry old Roger Sterling can reply 'Who cares?' And it is as period drama that these ethical questions can offer a speculative political drama that at once disavows and proclaims its present-tense politics.

The series begins with the start of the Kennedy administration in 1960 and consistently refers to an image of cultural revolution associated with both the Kennedys and the 1960s. The story about the sixties which frames Mad Men centres on this image of cultural revolution periodised by new hopes and fears and by the decline of 'the American dream'. Is it nostalgia that draws an audience to this commercial period piece? After all, much its audience never experienced the sixties themselves or experienced it as children and thus in ways marginal to the dominant Mad Men narratives. Mad Men asks to be viewed as both a historiographical text-a writing of history-and a period drama. To both ends it uses period detail to foreground the difference between the lives of its audience and that on screen, stressing a radical difference between how early twenty-first century and 1960s experiences of gender, domesticity, family life, business, aesthetics, politics and many types of anxiety and pleasure are different. What that difference looks like is crucial to the way Mad Men represents history.

In its focus on appearances, on representing the difference of the sixties as iconically visible, it is possible to read Mad Men's appeal as nostalgic in Jean Baudrillard's terms-as circulating 'myths of origin of signs of reality'.1 Baudrillard famously accounts for nostalgia as the triumph of simulation over the real and his focus for elaborating this theory of simulation is, significantly, the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s-the period of Disneyland and An American Family (1973). Baudrillard argues that:

When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a plethora of myths of origin and of signs of reality-a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity. Escalation of the true, of lived experience, resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared. Panic-stricken production of the real and of the referential, parallel to and greater than the panic of material production: this is how simulation appears in the phase that concerns us- a strategy of the real, of the neoreal and the hyperreal that everywhere is the double of a strategy of deterrence.2

In Baudrillard's terms, reading this series as nostalgic means claiming it conveys little historical content. Although Mad Men in one sense seems to exemplify that nostalgia Baudrillard associates with a proliferating field of signs floating free of any anchoring historical meaning, we want to argue that Mad Men's investment in a myriad of period details continues to say a great deal about the sixties, the present, and the relation between them.

Within the frame established by its archival claims, Mad Men says many things that would otherwise seem outrageous or at least inappropriate for contemporary mainstream television drama. And whether outrageous or glamorous, Mad Men's use of historical detail and its period film claims are what make it so timely. …

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