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All gone to look for America: Mad Men‘s treatment of nostalgia

The popularity of Mad Men has been variously attributed to its highly stylized look, its explication of antiquated gender and racial norms, and nostalgia for a time when drinking and smoking were not sequestered to designated zones but instead celebrated in the workplace as necessary ingredients for a proper professional life. But much of Mad Men’s lasting appeal lay in its complicated relationship with nostalgia. Hollywood fare typically adheres to historian Michael Kammen’s declaration that “nostalgia, with its wistful memories, is essentially history without guilt.” To view Mad Men, though, is to be inundated with uncomfortable truths from America’s past that, too often, linger in the present. There’s no shortage of guilt. The show’s most powerful analytical lens magnifies the construction of our present world—a world increasingly feared as absurd, and no longer tenable or sustainable.

One of Mad Men’s central themes reveals the tensions dominating daily life in postwar modernity, when the nuclear family was fetishized as the source of all social and emotional gratification, marginalizing former sites of community in favor of, as historian Elaine Tyler May describes, the safe haven of the home in the midst of the threatening chaos of the Cold War world. This impossible burden placed on the family meant that it could never really measure up to all of the hopes, dreams, and demands that were placed on it, making it a favorite target for advertisers playing on anxieties that one’s family was not meeting the idealized image put forth in popular television programs like Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet.

The postwar family quickly became a commodified community, and admen, like Mad Men’s Don Draper, amassed cultural power through their mastery of language and symbols employed to produce powerful ads aimed at a yearning to achieve the idyllic community and home that was the stuff of endless dreams that could never quite be reached—but maybe the purchase of just one more product would finally mean fulfillment. (Or — as Theodore White wrote in his series of books on The Making of the President beginning in 1960 that detailed how politicians were increasingly marketed and sold to the public like any other product — maybe the election of just one more president.)

Mad Men suggests to contemporary viewers the disturbing origins of the simulacra of life in a hyper-consumer culture of surfaces, where characters playact a script written and re-written by generations of Don Drapers. One of the most talked about shows in the series is “The Wheel,” the final episode of the first season that finally delves directly into the quandary that by then has been laid bare. “The wheel” of the title refers, most concretely, to the carousel of a Kodak slide projector—so familiar to baby boomers—that is the focus of an advertising campaign created by Draper. He sells the slide carousel as a “time machine” that invites “nostalgia,” which he translates from Greek (incorrectly) as “the pain from an old wound.” The carousel “takes us to a place where we ache to go,” says Draper, “back home again, to a place where we know we’re loved.” But, of course, as Thomas Wolfe had already stated in 1940, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Worse, as Mad Men continually makes plain, that “home,” whether in our individual or collective memories, never actually existed—Don Draper created it. “What you call love was invented by guys like me,” he reminds us, “to sell nylons.”

Thomas Jundt - Mad Men 1
The cast of Mad Men (2011). Image courtesy of AMC.

The “Kodak moments” of life arranged in the slide carousel represent, in those days before Facebook and Instagram, idealized images plucked from lives that are anything but ideal. They are snapshots of those “instants” that most mimic life as it appears in mediated forms in Life magazine, movies, television, and, of course, advertising. Context is erased and forgotten, providing the illusion that all of life once felt like that perfect moment captured on film, and if we could just travel back to that place and time we might once again be happy and loved. But, as Svetlana Boym has stated, “The past for the restorative nostalgic is a value for the present—the past is not a duration but a perfect snapshot.”

Even as Draper is selling the “time machine” ad campaign to Kodak executives, and desperately trying to convince himself that the life projected is the life he’s living, viewers can see that the idyllic family images on the slides are moments from his own family life that, although it appears perfect in pictures, we know to be anything but. Despite appearances that he’s living the postwar suburban American dream, we know that his relationship with his Grace Kelly-esque wife is crumbling, he drinks too much, and he spends too little time with his children. The Kodak moments permit the construction of a life that, in reality, has never existed, and foster the yearning for community in an imagined past free from the complexities, compromises, and disappointments that have always accompanied living. As Paul Simon once sang in his song “Kodachrome” about the popular slides that filled carousels: “They give us those nice bright colors / They give us the greens of summer / Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.”

The message is clear: our present nostalgia is for a world that exists only in media, advertising, and our imaginations. “There is no big lie. There is no system,” Draper warns a group of sixties counterculture activists, in a statement that captures the failed dreams of a generation. “The universe is indifferent.” That “universe,” in the context of Mad Men, is postwar corporate capitalism. As Simon concluded, “Everything looks worse in black and white.”

Faced with the inadequacy of the family to fulfill all that we seek in community, Americans retreat to their familiar posture of individualism. For Don Draper, this means leaving his family and immersing himself evermore deeply in the masculinity of postwar corporate capitalism. Draper and America increasingly measured manliness in terms of conquering consumer culture, women, and what Playboy founder Hugh Hefner liked to call “the great indoors.” Draper’s linguistic prowess (combined with his dreamy looks) makes him the master of this world, at once perfectly creating and embodying its signifiers. But beneath his surface of masculine perfection remains the reality of a deeply troubled and unhappy life. The impossible burden placed on individuals meant that they could never really measure up to all of the hopes, dreams, and demands that were placed on them.

In Mad Men’s final season, the erstwhile Sterling Cooper & Partners, the ad agency at its heart, is taken over by a monster corporation, and the world increasingly looks uncomfortably like our own. Don flees this indifferent universe. Heading west in his silver Cadillac, he is visited by the ghost of Bert Cooper, who cites Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Soon after this encounter, Don gives the car away to a small town kid who, like Draper in a previous life, dreams of making it big. But what meaning does a Cadillac hold in an America where, we learn, CEOs now travel in private Lear jets, leaving the rest of us ever further behind? “We’re flawed because we want so much more,” Don Draper once said of Americans, “We’re ruined, because we get these things and wish for what we had.” Many of us who are drawn to Mad Men feel this in our bones, and yearn for an America that might liberate us from our present state of disillusionment, delivering us, finally, to a mythical place of meaning and fulfillment.

Featured image courtesy of AMC.

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