Period dramas and historical accuracy: “Mad Men”
As the first part of the last season of Mad Men comes to an end, it seemed a good opportunity to reflect on my interest for period dramas and historical fictions. For an historian, watching period TV shows and films can sometimes be irritating. Even though I know that they are not academic works and that they do not necessarily aim to perfectly depict history, I more than once find myself grumbling at my screen (yes, I am looking at you, Downton Abbey!). However, from Boardwalk Empire to Ripper Street via, obviously, Mad Men, there are many quality period dramas which, while taking a few liberties with the stories of existing individuals, give the essence of what life looked like for a certain population at a certain time.
Mad Men has been criticised for its slow pace and its glazed paper look, which supposedly embellishes an idealised past. And perfectionists could probably find, and have actually found, many historically inaccurate details in the mise-en-scène, in the vocabulary, or in the broader protagonists’ story lines. It is true that the number of divorces among the ad men families portrayed in the show is far higher that what it was in the 1960s for example. Or that the vocabulary used is more modern that Mad Men writers think: they usually manage to avoid blatant anachronisms, but many recurrent idioms in the series, such as “feel good about”, or “I need to” were not so frequent in 1960s spoken language.
Mad Men is not a documentary, but it is quite powerful in giving its viewers a glimpse of the evolution of the American society during the 1960s, and of the everyday life of a – wealthy – part of this changing society. The historian Jeremy Varon states in his contribution to Mad Men, Mad World that “the show is more plausibly the staging of a fantasy than the rendering of history”. I disagree. Mad Men does not compare with academic research, I do not deny it, and it may well be a twenty-first century representation of the 1960s more than an exact replica of the period. But is not it the case for all historical works? Even professional historians cannot completely depart from their own environment – be it cultural, political, social, economic or academic – when writing about the past.
Matthew Weiner, the creator and the main screenwriter of the drama series, is known for his commitment to historical accuracy. Even “music is never an accident”: every song has its place and fits into the narrative. Alexandra Patsavas, the music supervisor, only used a few contemporary songs – four out of fifty-seven for the first three season – and only did two anachronistic choices. Material details are also carefully chosen, from clothes to kitchen utensils, from cars to television sets. Mad Men succeeds in making the 1960s visible and almost palpable.
But Mad Men is more than a beautiful representation of the past. It also challenges the images we have of the 1950s and 1960s, and reveals how chaotic the workplace could be, and, above all how entrenched racism and sexism were in everyday life. The writers are not afraid of uncomfortable discourses that still resonate today, on misogyny, homophobia, and racial conflicts. It is thus difficult to understand the critics who have blamed the series for its “misplaced nostalgia”. To quote the historian Claire B. Potter, Mad Men is “a forum for pondering sexism and racism”, even though it does focus on privileged white men and women. At first sight, it can look like historical accuracy is just about “getting the surface details right”, but Mad Men is also structured by more general trends and events, that give rhythm to the show, without being put on the foreground.
Mad Men has its flaws, and it could for instance look deeper into the civil rights movement, but it is “one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced”, and consequently is a not-so-guilty pleasure for historians. However, one might question the relevance of this quest for historical accuracy: after all, Games of Thrones has attracted more students in Medieval History than any TV show these last years, despite taking place in an overtly fantasy world.
 Dana Polan, “Maddening Times. Mad Men in Its History”, in Mad Men, Mad World. Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s, Duke University Press, 2013
Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were : American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Basic Books, 1993
Gary R. Edgerton (ed.), Mad Men. Dream Come True TV, I.B.Tauris&Co, 2011
Lauren M.E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, Robert A. Rushing (eds.), Mad Men, Mad World. Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s, Duke University Press, 2013