A decade ago this past week, AMC’s Mad Men premiered, depicting Madison Avenue in 1960s from the perspective of protagonist Don Draper and a host of others. It’s a subtle, slow burn of a show that explores many aspects of human nature. On the surface, it glamorizes a glorious past in New York City, when men wore suits and women dresses, when cocktails were classy and smoking was…well, legal in restaurants.
Yet, to see Mad Men as simply a phenomenon that makes booze, sex and sexism cool is to miss the point — and the key to its success. Whereas the world of the Sixties in New York is romanticized stylistically early on, cracks beneath the surface are excavated, made visible immediately. The fissures in the changing society that make up the show’s context grow throughout the seasons, and the formerly glamorous things in life, like day drinking or adultery, devolve into sad addictions.
Mad Men thrived because it made the period relatable. Those with no memory of the time project caricatures on it: it was rank with sexism, racism and hypocrisy, etc. What is easy to overlook is that the human beings at the time struggled with the very same things that we do today. There is nothing new under the sun, the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, and we share a humity with those we tend to view with derision.
Mad Men‘s characters yearn to belong, to distinguish themselves, they hope to escape their past and build a better future. Each faces the question of what values, habits, traditions and beliefs to leave behind and which to hold on to, while the world changes around them. The social expectations of parenthood and the desire for career success pull in opposite directions, familiar to those who today struggle to “have it all.” The characters recognize social ills of the day, like racism and sexism, in varying degrees, and respond to them in a variety of ways, some infuriating, even as the limitations that lead them to do so are understandable.
Well-crafted pop culture phenomenons like Mad Men don’t simply make the past cool; they also illuminate the nuance of the age, where relatable humans fight familiar battles in a different context.
It is popular on the left to delegitimize the founding generation, in spite of their nearly unrivaled aggregate genius (What are the odds that God would put them all in one spot?), because some of them owned slaves. Again, racism, sexism, superstition, backwardness, all of these characteristics are slapped on a period in which some of the greatest strides in political philosophy were made, and the wisdom its greatest thinkers offer is deemed illegitimate. Yet it was another pop culture sensation — the Broadway smash Hamilton — that let us know that 18th century could be “cool” and contained people with all the depth that we do today.
Of course, Hamilton does this by injecting modern views about immigrants and minorities in a manner that is not plausible for the period (and it does not intend for it to be so). It also unfairly depicts James Madison, John Adams and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Jefferson, even while bringing one of the most underrated founders and framers, Alexander Hamilton into the public consciousness.
Hamilton, and outsider, struggles to prove himself and succeed on his own merits. (He’s gotta holler just to be heard.) The meritocracy the real Hamilton pushed for in America was vivified and made relatable in his musical biography. He is depicted as passionate and ambitious, not merely a stuffy intellectual of a slave-owning generation. His failings, such as his infidelity, are neither ignored nor glamorized.
In spite of that, it manages to humanize men and women who lived over 200 years ago. By doing so, it undermines the arrogant way in which people today dismiss, derogate or denigrate them.
Historian Paul Johnson once wrote the following:
The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.
Though not real works of history, Mad Men, Hamilton and others bring to life eras that are dead, frozen in stereotype. By doing so, they remind us that the symptoms of the human condition are nothing new, nor are the inhabitants of the past stupid, immoral or insignificant for having not solved them.
Such stories are not only useful in staying our hand from broad-brushing our ancestors in a negative light. Conservatives are prone to idolize the founding era and America in the two decades following the Second World War. Stories that humanize those periods are a healthy reality-check for us as well. Much as we have blind spots today, so did they.
By contrast, others who see themselves as on the right side of history look back with contempt at those on the wrong side of it. All too often, we see people of the past as benighted. How could they be so stupid or bigoted or *gasp* old fashioned? The truth is that every era, to some degree, gets some things right and some things wrong. For example, I hope and believe that future humans will look back at the legalization of abortion and wonder what we could have been thinking.
One power of stories like Mad Men and Hamilton — of art containing more than a ham-handed message — is that they help us to put ourselves in the shoes of other human beings and understand their choices, however imperfect. We can begin to recognize that their failures and shortcomings do not show that they are bad people. Perhaps we can then shine some humility on the shadow of moral superiority we so offhandedly let creep over our own choices and values.