Thoughts on Understanding Cultures: Bryce Starts Watching Mad Men

Mad Men: Season OneNetflix just added Mad Men to its streaming options the other week, and I’d heard so much about it that I couldn’t resist diving in to see what all the fuss was. (One of the nice things about not having television? The world is my guinea pig. I usually don’t start watching shows until I know they’re worth my time in the long run.) Anyway, I told Denisa about the premise, and we were skeptical (60s advertising office? Really?) but we gave it a shot.

First off, my thoughts on the show in general: it’s a strange beast, but I can’t stop watching. Hardly any of the characters are really appealing, and yet I root for them anyway. Maybe that implies some sort of a moral flaw in my own personality. I mean, the main character is a drinking, narcissistic adulterer–and I want him to succeed. Why is that? Mainly because he’s better than 90% of the other characters portrayed in the series. And he’s got a wife I really want to be happy. She deserves him stepping up and being a better man.

There are overarching plot lines and character developments, and those are all fascinating, but in the end, this show succeeds so well because it presents us with a slice of life that’s totally foreign to what we’re familiar with. And that’s what I wanted to write about.

So often, I think we make the assumption that other cultures and civilizations can be understood by us with relatively little exertion. People are all people, after all. They want the same things. Breathe the same air. There are universal constants, right?

But then I watch a show like Mad Men–which occurs in America just 50 years ago, and I completely don’t understand the people in the show. They might as well be in another country. Their values are not my values. The way women are treated, the way men are basically lords of whatever they feel like doing, the blatant racism, (the constant drinking and smoking, which–while foreign to me–I assume still happens today in some circles). It’s hard for me to believe that our culture has come so far in such a short time. I mean, these are basically my grandparents. The ones who spoiled me and were always genial and funny.

Was this really how life was like then?

In some ways, I’m sure it was. All the smoking, for one thing. It’s so easy to look at it now and sort of scoff at their attitudes to cigarettes. Even the doctors are puffing away at them in the examination rooms. But then again, what will people fifty years from now think about some of the things we do today? Things we all assume are just fine and dandy, but which prove to be really dangerous. Lead paint used to be the bee’s knees, after all. Now if you find any of the stuff in your house, you practically have to call in a hazmat team. Are cell phones like that? Wifi signals? Artificial sweeteners? Who knows. We shouldn’t forget that science is all too eager to jump in feet first in the name of “progress” and “innovation.”

But I digress.

In other areas, I’m not sure if Mad Men does a good job portraying an era. But they put in details from that time period that make you believe it, whether it’s true or not. I loved how in one episode, one of the secretaries has just seen The Apartment, in which a secretary is used by her boss–just for sex. She’s being used in the same way, and it makes her reevaluate her relationship. Using pop culture of the time to inform actions of the plot? Fantastic. Then there’s the constant Kennedy/Nixon references, all of which take on layers of meaning because we as viewers know the future of these people already.

True or not, the show’s brilliant.

What I’m trying to get at is that in the space of two generations, life has fundamentally shifted in America. Yes, there are certainly chain smoking, drinking,Ā chauvinistic, racist alcoholics out there today, but I’d like to think that they’re not as uniformly accepted as these characters are. And this is in the same country, in less than half a century. How in the world can anyone pretend to understand a culture that lived a thousand years ago? You can study it, you can know as much as you want to about it, but until you see that culture living and breathing in front of you, I don’t imagine you’ll really have a clue about it–and even then, good luck understanding it.

It’s really easy to sit back and cherry pick what a culture is doing “wrong.” But that’s using your own worldview to evaluate someone else’s. They’d have just as easy of a time pointing out the flaws in what you do. Being richer doesn’t make you right. Being more technologically advanced doesn’t make you better.

And . . . I’ll get off my soap box for now.

In any case, I’d be interested in hearing from any Mad Men fans out there who actually were alive in the early 60s and remember what it was like. How true to life does Mad Men feel?

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