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Beyond the Cool

Critically acclaimed TV show 'Mad Men' is more than entertainment

November 8, 2010 | by Stephen Anzaldi
Michael Allen, assistant professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, uses the TV show "Mad Men" to teach students about consumerism and social change in the early 1960s.
The critically acclaimed television series "Mad Men" depicts life in the advertising business on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s. But the show, which recently concluded its fourth season on AMC, is much more than a workplace drama. To Michael Allen, it is useful in teaching his students how shifts in the U.S. economy after World War II brought social and cultural change.

Allen is an assistant professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He also is a faculty fellow at the Public Affairs Residential College and teaches "Consumerism and Social Change in Mad Men America, 1960-1965" as a freshman seminar for students who live there.

Allen's research focuses on U.S. political culture since 1945. He has written a book about the Vietnam War and its legacies and is currently at work on a second book about antiwar politics in the 1970s and '80s.

His interest in "Mad Men" stretches well beyond the central character -- cool and mysterious ad man Don Draper. Allen notes how the show helps us better understand the rocky road that was the nuclear family of the mid-20th century.

"I think Don and his wife Betty's relationship provides great insight into why that family unit, historically speaking, fell apart, why it was unsustainable," he says. "So often what's called the breakdown of the traditional family is attributed to a kind of cultural revolution inspired by feminists, student radicals, rock music or something vague like that. But 'Mad Men' shows instead how this system failed to fulfill people and make them happy."

Allen spoke with Stephen Anzaldi, Northwestern News editor, about the class.

- How did you make the leap from teaching national security politics to "Mad Men?"

I'm a fan, not just of the drama, but also of the show's historical themes. As a historian, I work on politics from the ground up. "Mad Men" provides a good understanding of how ordinary people participated in history and produced change in politics broadly conceived. The show is useful in exposing students to the themes that emerge from my research even though it's often treating different historical dimensions or questions.

- What are some of the themes to which you allude?

For example, historical change -- be it political, cultural or social -- emerges through millions of small, individual decisions each day, from ideas and attitudes as much as anything else. One trick of writing history from the bottom up is to capture that process, to track the importance of ideas in daily life. "Mad Men" gets at those ideas and represents the mindset of the era, how ordinary people helped make monumental change in the 1960s.

- By individual decisions, you mean as related to consumerism and social change (as taken from the title of your class). Can you explain?

By decisions I mean: What to buy and why. Where to live. How to keep up with your neighbors. How to position yourself in your community. In class we'll discuss the ways women got involved in second-wave feminism, how they decided to enter the workplace, as well as the emergence of civil rights activism, which often occurred in commercial settings, such as lunch counters and drug stores.

- How would you explain the role of fiction in helping teach history?

Because I consider ideas and individual lives so essential to understanding history, fiction is always an appropriate source for getting at those things. But there's an important distinction between material created at the time and something such as "Mad Men" written many years after the fact. I always use fiction and pop culture of the period to help students grasp how and what people were thinking.

It's a greater challenge to use something produced later on. I've never done it to this degree, so I'm still sort of working it out. I don't want students to think "Mad Men" is necessarily true. One way of trying to cope with the interpretive issues surrounding this dilemma is to mix in contemporary primary source materials. I hope it allows them to see "Mad Men" is indeed quite representative of contemporary sources, so the things you see in "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," "The Apartment" or "Sex and the Single Girl" -- all sources from the time -- also show up in "Mad Men." Students get a historically accurate representation and yet also learn to identify differences when they see them.

- What, specifically, makes "Mad Men" accurate historically, visually and so on?

In part it's the details, from the clothes and décor to preoccupations of the time like middlebrow literature, psychology and heart disease, all of which play an important part in the first season. There are also frequent references to historical events like the Kennedy/Nixon campaign in season one or the Cuban Missile Crisis in season two. But more importantly the writers are well-versed in source materials from and about the period. Their familiarity with the literature, film and advertising of the late 1950s and early '60s gives them a deft feel for the complicated office politics, gender conventions and sexual mores of the day. For instance, Joan Harris, the office manager, embodies many ideas from Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl."

- How, if at all, does "Mad Men" fall short?

I don't think it fully addresses the complexity of race and ethnicity in the early 1960s. I also don't think it gives a full understanding of class and socioeconomic relations of the period. It doesn't always make clear the government policies and structural inequalities that underwrite its characters' lives. And what the producers of the show have said is that those issues existed largely away from Madison Avenue, and this show is about people like Don Draper. So it offers, perhaps, an accurate slice of that life, but even Madison Avenue was more diverse than the show suggests. Bill Bernbach and many other leaders of advertising's creative revolution in the early '60s were Jewish.

- Generally speaking, it's not the aim of fiction to draw a complete and balanced picture of any given topic.

Right, so one thing I try to do in class is provide sources that show the world outside "Mad Men." What's happening with the working class, or with African Americans, the people being excluded by the upper middle class consumer culture depicted on the show.

- Is there one character you like to follow?

There are several characters I really appreciate. If Don weren't so compelling and richly drawn, the show just wouldn't work. But I think Sal Romano is a fascinating character. Sal, played by actor Bryan Batt, is the Italian-American art director at Sterling Cooper. He hides his homosexuality, and so he plays a role within a role. He finds a way to show his true self to the viewer without his fellow characters sensing it. In a way, he shows that all the characters are playing roles. He makes it that much more apparent because we know how much he's covering up. That's one of the fascinating things about "Mad Men." You see that all these characters are playing roles, to some extent. It makes us aware of the socially conditioned aspects of our own lives.

Topics: People