In Mad Men, History Is a Main Character

Released: 9/17/2009 4:15 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Temple University
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Newswise — Everyone, or so it seems, is talking about Mad Men. Set in 1960’s New York City, Mad Men centers on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a high-level advertising creative director at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue. The series has won numerous awards, including three Golden Globes, a BAFTA and six Emmys in 2008, and many are speculating about the outcome for the 2009 Emmys—held on September 20th.

In anticipation of Sunday’s awards, Temple historian Beth Bailey commented on the show’s historical accuracy and how that accuracy helps to move the drama forward.

“Mad Men uses historically accurate detail — selected with enormous sophistication and care — to create a sense of character, personality, and relationship,” said Bailey. Each character has a well-thought-out back story that is embodied in the way they dress, the furnishings they choose and the places in which they appear. These are not just a backdrop. They are essential to the logic of the plot.”

Also enormously accurate, said Bailey, are “the nasty sexism and unthinking racism” depicted in the show. “But what’s most striking is the way the system perverts the lives and relationships of both men and women,” Bailey noted. “The women are not good, innocent victims who are trying hard to persevere against all odds; they are playing angles, too. They are not blameless.

“The show serves as a condemnation not of simple male oppression or patriarchy, but of a gender system and power system in which both sexes are complicit,” Bailey said.

And yet, according to Bailey, the ways in which the women characters have had their aspirations thwarted is accurate. “When this show is set, half of all brides were 19 or younger; there was a lot of talk about MRS degrees, and many women left college to get married.

“That women went to good colleges to become secretaries to boorish young men is, in fact, where it stood,” she said.

It was also a time when there was a lot at stake for those trying to navigate public and private identities, Bailey explained.

“There is definitely a soap opera strand with Don’s secret identity, but the show also very realistically depicts characters, such as Salvatore, a gay man, and Peggy, an unwed mother, whose options would be different if their secrets were out.”

Bailey is professor of history in College of Liberal Arts. Her research interests include 20th century U.S. cultural and social history and the history of gender and sexuality. In Sex in the Heartland, Bailey argues that the sexual revolution was forged in towns and cities alike, as "ordinary" people struggled over the boundaries of public and private sexual behavior in postwar America. Her forthcoming book, America's Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force, will be available this fall from Harvard University Press.


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