22 September 2009

Mad Men: A Renaissance of Respectability

In the last few months, you could not even walk you dog down the street without your neighbor stopping you and asking, "Hey buddy-you see the new "Mad Men" episode last night?" (that is to say, in 2009, you actually know your neighbors). The show is a complete pop culture phenomenon, putting the dinosauric and dying AMC network back on the map. Besides the stellar writing and wonderful performances from the entire cast, there is more to their success that cannot be measured in Emmys and Golden Globes. Like any period film or series, the imagery hearkens back to a time that no longer exists in this world; something fantastic that cannot be imitated or duplicated.

Yes the show is smart and sexy and incredibly styled, but the thing that is most captivating for audiences is the nostalgia it creates for something lost in our current culture, and that is the notion of respect. While the 1950s and early 1960s were a time for various degrees of oppression, it was also a time when a firm handshake between men meant something, when raising your voice in a professional setting was looked down upon, and most of all, when there was inherent faith in the good of man. Now, our culture has taken cover under a guise of "freedom of speech" and "freedom of expression" to mask our new-found affinity for brash behavior. There are only so many episodes of Jerry Springer or Flavor of Love/I Love New York that can be stomached before the realization hits that the easiest and cheapest way to garner attention in our society is to cause some heightened form of disrespect against another person. It is not to say that I haven't found some amusement from outlandish behavior on some of my favorite shows, but it is important to remember that that is fiction and should stay that way. Somewhere along the way, the primary social function became dysfunction, and standing our proverbial ground meant losing a common sense of decency in the process.

The first thing you learn when studying communication is that every part of our being is conveying some message at any given time of day-the way we speak, the way we write, and even the way we dress. In the Mad Men-era, showing up to work in a full suit was the standard, not the exception. My father, to this day, still travels in a suit, scarf, and trailings of his finest cologne wafting through the air. The fact that I do not currently travel in a suit confuses him about as much as Facebook does, but I completely understand his viewpoint of dressing well to convey a message of self-worth. Caring about one's appearance directly translates into the amount of respect one expects from themselves and others.

Now, who is to say a 22-year-old knows anything about the 1950s? Frankly, I don't even remember the Berlin Wall, and only have vague memories of the time my mother embarrassingly bought me a New Kids on the Block school folder, but I can wish for a time when general pleasantries were exchanged among familiar and unfamiliar folk alike. A recent article from LA Confidential stated, "One of Mad Men's proudest accomplishments is not only appealing to the older generation who is more familiar with the era, but also to a younger crowd who yearns to learn of it.'…for most of the people on the show there is a vicarious thrill to looking at these people who were glamorous and put together and have this really sexy way of being in the world,' [says lead actor Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper on the show]". At the same time, there should be little romanticizing of this time period, with it's open displays of sexism, racism, and homophobia, but when identifying some of the defining characteristics of the 1950s and early '60s, one cannot deny the prevalence of respectable behavior. Simply speaking, it was cool to be nice.
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