It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Decade: Cultural & Social Revolutions of The 1960s Through The Lens of Mad Men

NOTE: This is an essay I wrote for my World Since 1914 course, which had me write a paper on anything dealing with well the world since 1914. Naturally I picked Mad Men as my topic and decided to discuss how the series reflects the changing times of the 1960s.

Cigarettes, sex, and advertising.  Typically these are not the thoughts that come to mind when the 1960s are brought up, yet in recent years they’ve become defining terms.  This way of thinking is largely due to the phenomena that AMC’s flagship series Mad Men has become.  Premiering in 2007, the series focuses on the lives of middle to upper class advertising agents throughout the ‘60s.  On the surface the show’s time period exists to give the series a glamorous set design; an excuse to have the men in tailored suits and women in elegant dresses.  Yet the show’s time period does so much more then just add stunning visuals, rather it defines the entire series.  Mad Men plays out as an intellectual study of people’s lives in the 1960s as they attempt to survive and adapt to America’s radical social and cultural revolutions.At the very heart of Mad Men is the story of ad man Don Draper.  A sophisticated, suave, creative gentleman filled with intrigue, mystery, and wonder.  But the man we follow wasn’t always Don Draper as before the Korean War he was Dick Whitman, a humble farm boy.  He volunteered to join the army in an attempt to get away from his home life, but when Dick saw the harsh reality of war he realized it was more than he could handle.  Early on his commanding officer is killed and Dick himself badly injured in an attack, giving him the opportunity to switch their dog tags in attempt to get out of the war quickly as the officer only had three months left to serve.  With no one else around to see Dick steal his lieutenant’s identity he became Don Draper. Dick Whitman was the son of an abusive father and a whore, a man who ran away from his past. But  as Don Draper he’s a Madison Avenue socialite, a family man with kids, and the most sought after ad man working in the business.  It’s this duality that Don lives with that becomes a central theme throughout the series.

Though it’s not just the duality of Dick and Don, but also the duality of the adults of the old world and the youths of the upcoming generation.  Many of the characters struggle to keep up with the vastly changing times.  The pilot episode begins in 1960 with Don sitting at a bar sketching ideas down on a napkin in attempt to overcome a marketing emergency as a recent Reader’s Digest publicized that smoking can lead to dangerous health diseases, namely lung cancer.  This marks a massive shift in tobacco advertising as they can longer use doctors or health facts to market the product.  In addition it also shows a change in the general public as smoking begins its move from pleasurable pastime to a negative vice.  Many of the older characters such as Don continue to smoke enormous amounts throughout the show as their addiction has already kicked in, while the younger characters such as Pete Campbell, the young up and coming account executive, is rarely ever seen smoking.  Don will continue to smoke until the day he dies, as it’s just something he’s use to, but Pete in his early thirties has too much to risk gaining a smoking habit. A newly married man with the hopes of a kid on the way, Pete must remain health conscious.

It isn’t just cigarettes Pete must be careful of as the number one pass time of the fine men at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency is drinking.  Every meeting, Christmas party, or get together in the office is simply an excuse to drink.  Scotch and various other alcohols are steadily provided to the workers at almost all hours.  Every office has a plentiful flow of liquor and it is consumed constantly throughout the workday and into the evening.  Yet once again it’s the older office members that spend their time chugging drinks down while Pete and the younger workers try to conserve their amount of daily alcohol intake.  When Don grabs a drink in the office it’s normal, but if Pete goes for a drink it’s a much bigger deal.  It’s a clear sign of either celebration or concern.  But for Don it may just mean it’s three o’clock.

While Don represents the cuff of the adult generation, it’s his new secretary Peggy Olson who characterizes the young generation.  Don may be placed as the main character, but the most consistent ongoing plot seems to be Peggy’s rise to power within the male dominated advertising world.  Her character is often used as a physical representation of the on going struggle for women’s rights in the 1960s as she fights her way into the boy’s club that is Sterling Cooper.  In the pilot Peggy gets a job as Don’s secretary, but due to her natural gift in advertising she makes her way up to junior copywriter by the end of the first season.  This is a crucial role as it makes her the first women copywriter since before World War II at the agency.  At first Peggy is typically stuck with only products geared towards women, but as she proves herself more and more she is able to rise above the rest of her coworkers to become the best copywriter in the office.

Peggy also stylistically represents the change in time as the role of young female worker has her often-changing hairstyles in attempts to keep up with the latest trends.  In the first season she has a simple ponytail that purposely makes her look plain and not stick out.  Peggy at the time, like many women, has little confidence in herself or her role as a female in the workplace.  She tries hard to just blend in and do merely what is expected of her.  Under the ill-bearing advice by Joan, head of secretaries at Sterling Cooper, Peggy attempts to make a move on Don after he stands up for her against a mean comment from Pete but her advance is immediately turned down.  Don sets her firmly in her place stating he’s her boss, not boyfriend.  Overwhelmed by a world where she’s told the only way to survive is to “show a little skin” (“Smoke Gets Through Your Eyes”) and women are treated merely as objects for the men’s entertainment.  A prime example of the men’s typical view towards the women comes from the season one episode “Nixon VS Kennedy” where another account executive Ken chases and pins a girl down during the office election results party merely to settle a bet about what color her panties are.  The rest of the office laughs at them and the girl gets up smiling, not minding that she was just forced against her will to the ground and her underwear shown to the whole office.  Only Peggy shows a true face of concern, not understanding how such an action could be considered not only acceptable but also entertaining.

Midway through the second season as Peggy begins to gain confidence in herself and her role within the office she decides to get a radically different haircut, opting for one much more modern and in fashion at the time of 1962.  The new style reflects how she no longer is the quiet little girl, but rather a trendy working women on the rise.  With her newfound faith in herself after landing the Popsicle account all on her own Peggy marches straight up to senior partner Rodger Sterling and demands she have her own office after being cramped in the same busy room as the new copy machine (a technical marvel and bewilderment on all the workers accounts).  Rodger says yes right away to which Peggy is stunned at the ease of her request.  He replies, “You young women are very aggressive…there are thirty men out there who didn’t have the balls to ask me.”  Proud and satisfied at her own achievement she moves into her new office, surpassing her fellow male co-workers, teeming with jealously.

Peggy’s rise in independence is best shown in the third episode of season three entitled “My Old Kentucky Home” where she and two fellow copywriters are stuck at work on the weekend tasked with working mandatory overtime to come up with pitches for Bacardi Rum.  Bored and out of ideas they decide to take a different approach to the job and proceed to smoke marijuana.  At first her coworkers are hesitant to allow her to join, thinking she wont be able to handle it.  She insists and assertively announces the fantastic line, “I’m Peggy Olson and I want to smoke marijuana.”  While Peggy and the boys smoke, her secretary Olive sits outside with great concern towards the behavior Peggy is showing.  Olive is an older, middle-aged female secretary who finds many of Peggy’s actions off-putting and struggles to meet her needs.  She is appalled by the idea that Peggy is smoking drugs and attempting to be one of the boys.  When Olive confronts her of the dangers of her experimental activities Peggy merely stares at her and utters:

“The thing is, I have a job. I have my own office, with my name on the door. And I have a secretary, that’s you. And I am not scared of any of this.  But you’re scared. Oh my God, you’re scared.  Don’t worry about me. I’m going to do everything you want for me. I’m going to be fine Olive.  I really am.”

Peggy is part of a new generation of women who are successful and independent, free to make her own decisions.  The very notion of this scares the old fashion Olive, a women who while in favor of the change in gender roles, is not necessarily ready for what can come with it.

While at work Peggy is the only woman that fits in the younger generation, the fourth season presents her a new friend that allows the series to branch out and illustrate a different group of people who were beginning to thrive at the time. This works as Mad Men’s introduction to the 1960s counter-culture movement.  While early on in the first season Don has an affair with a younger women who spent most of her time with beatniks, which would later become a part of the foundation of ‘60s counterculture, it isn’t until season four that Mad Men demonstrates the philosophy’s rise.  The series then takes a look at how the beatnik culture is slowly transforming into what will become apart of the hippie movement as the year turns to 1965.  For this reason Peggy becomes friends with Joyce, a girl her age that works in the same building as the agency’s new office.  In episode four of season four, “The Rejected”, Joyce brings Peggy to a party with her friends that happens takes place in an abandoned warehouse that Joyce jokes must have used to be a sweatshop.  In the background a video of bizarre images and clips switching between showing destruction and showing happiness plays, edited together with written titles such as “Technology is tomorrow” and “Resistance”. Peggy and Joyce smoke marijuana and listen to noticeably harsh loud music while people around them talk of war and peace.  Peggy discusses how she has a boyfriend to which her friend plainly states, “He doesn’t own your vagina.”  This is unlike any other scene in Mad Men, a sharp contrast to the business extravagance the show normally focuses on.  The volume is loud, the lighting is dark with tints of glowing reddish colors, and the language is directly vulgar.  While the men of Sterling Cooper may have often been pigs, they wouldn’t outright use such direct language.

The rave scene is split in two with a short clip of Don coming home from work and entering his apartment.  It’s the stark opposite of the party as he enters alone and in silence.  The room is lit so the only thing you can make out is Don himself.  It’s a harsh transition back and forth, but one that further illustrates the gap between generations.  Don rejects the notion of this new emergence of culture, while a girl like Peggy embraces it and feels quite comfortable in the different environment.

Beatniks aren’t the only influence of ‘60s counter culture represented in Mad Men, as the so-called British Invasion soon overcomes Madison Avenue bringing an entirely new wave of music stylings.  Music has always played an important part in the show with a classic old song from the timeframe playing at the end of each episode leading to the credits, but for the most part it is music that sounds more ‘50s than ‘60s when first heard.  They are typically quiet with mature sounding voices singing soft tunes as opposed to the rock and pop youthful music the 1960s are remembered for.  But in the show’s fourth season this all changes as the first episode in that season, “Public Relations”, ends with the song “Tobacco Road” by British pop band The Nashville Teens.  This marks a radically different type of ending for the series as it transitions from the old world ways of the 1950s to the upbeat rock and roll of the ‘60s.  It is in many ways the first truly positive ending for an episode as it leaves Don talking about how he recently created his own advertising agency and what he sees in his open future just as the British Invasion movement arrives and begins a whole new era of music.  The first Beatles reference even appears in the fourth season when Don buys his daughter tickets to see them in concert, to which she responds with ear blasting screams.  He doesn’t care for the British boy band himself, but with limited opportunities to be with his daughter after a recent divorce, which in itself is a break in the social norm, he must accept his daughter’s dissimilar tastes.  It’s clear this is a different world culturally then when audiences first were introduced to Don Draper.

This change in culture is greatly shown in the eighth episode of season four “The Summer Man”, which in many ways is a break from the norm of Mad Men.  The episode opens with a scene of Don swimming, cut with shots of Don writing in a journal with him voicing over with narration.  This is a narrative style that Mad Men has never done before.  Briefly they’ve done one-minute narrations of people reading letters before, but never has the series done a full on narration almost as if the show had suddenly turned into a film noir.  The episode acts as a turning point in Don’s life has he decides to start sobering up after dealing with a serious issue of drunkenness due to his divorce, but it also acts a turning point for the world around him as it’s in this episode that the new wave of music intertwines directly with Don for the first time.  While in the locker room for the pool he was swimming a younger man turns on his radio and plays The Rolling Stones hit song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.  Don looks specifically at the radio and then it cuts out to the music playing full volume over shots of Don walking out of the New York Athletic Club where he was swimming and to his work office with newfound confidence.  This is the first time the series has used non-diegetic music with lyrics over a scene so early, usually only using instrumental music softly in the background in the back half of the episode.  Yet here the music is clearly at the forefront, and in fact the focus is more on the audio than it is on the visuals, something incredibly rare for Mad Men, which is primarily visual heavy with often long moments of silence.  It further illustrates that this is a new era; it’s a new Don Draper.

Mad Men actually takes the British Invasion one step further and rather than just showing it through music the series literally as the London-based advertising agency Putnam, Powell, and Low buyout Sterling Cooper near the end of the second season, leading to company being British owned during the show’s third season.  It occurs a year before the explosion of British music takes America by storm and acts a prelude to the culture swap that’s soon to come.

As Mad Men now enters the later half of the 1960s the series begins to make even more changes as season four ends in the summer of 1965.  Three seasons were spent building up the world of Sterling Cooper and it’s workers, one season deconstructing the notion of who is Don Draper and introducing the changes of the time, and from here on the show will have to focus on even more transformations.  These characters have survived the Nixon VS Kennedy election, the Cuban Missal Crises, JFK’s assassination, and have watched Muhammad Ali, or rather, Cassius Clay take down Sonny Liston in their famous boxing match, but this is only the start of what’s to come as events such as the Vietnam War and the Moon landing that will change the entire nation are right around the corner.  America in 1960 is vastly different than in 1965, and as such so is the Don Draper of both times.  Not only is Mad Men entertaining as a piece of great television, it is a fantastic examination of the revolutionary setting that is America during the 1960s.


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