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Mad Men and Hairspray: Two Views of 1960

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Q: What do advertising executives and big-haired, big-hearted teenage girls have in common?

A: Both existed on the cusp dividing the Dark Ages of the 1950s from the tumultuous changes leading to enlightenment in the 60s.

Coincidentally, both got air time this week on the small and large screens of popular culture. But there the similarities end. Mad Men, a new series on A&E, presents the world of Madison Avenue where men shape American society and women serve them coffee along with sugar, cream and blowjobs. Hairspray, as anyone who isn’t living with Bin Laden in his cave surely knows, is the movie version of the Broadway musical version of the original movie by John Waters.

In 1963 I dropped out of college and spent a year in the advertising offices of U.S. News and World Report. I’d minored in “secretarial science” as typing was then called, and discovered a love of Gregg shorthand I still harbor, even though it was a dead language by 1968 or thereabouts. I couldn’t wait to enter the world of American business, to dress up in high heels and stockings, sit at my own desk with my own typewriter, take dictation from my boss and translate the squiggly Gregg symbols into clean coherent correspondence.

The first instructions each of my two bosses gave me were on precisely how to prepare their coffee. Within a month or so I developed a severe and lifelong allergy to office work. Within a year I quit to get married.

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To say that watching Mad Men was painful is an understatement. The show’s got all the details down: the men as Masters of the Universe and their secretaries as appendages, the eternal cigarette-in-mouth and smoke-filled rooms, the sleazy “creative” meetings of ad execs and clients who, in the first episode, are the makers of Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The show exaggerates sexual innuendos, hinting that every secretary is or soon will be someone’s mistress. Unless I was in denial—and I don’t think I was–nothing like this went on in the staid offices of USN&WR. The saving grace of that job was the group of four or five “girls” I hung with. We met for coffee in the morning, went to French and Chinese restaurants for lunch, had gossip fests in the ladies’ room and remained friends long after I left. I would’ve known if any of those girls were puttin’ out. In any case, the Sexual Revolution didn’t begin on the stroke of midnight 1960, but several gradual years later–and TV has to spice things up, in this case depicting the secretarial life as glamorous and intriguing, when in fact it was stultifying.

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Mad Men hit me over the head with brutal reminders of how horrible life was for women back in the day. No wonder I became, just a few years later, violently feminist—and I do mean violently. It took another decade for me to calm down, before I could discuss women’s issues without getting completely hysterical—and I wasn’t alone. It’s a wonder the women’s movement accomplished anything, but Mad Men is a reminder of how much it did acccomplish. Don’t buy that bullshit that “women’s libbers” only did trivial acts like burning bras: The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s was vitally necessary, and was an agent of change. Can anyone say Hillary? Better yet, say clitoris.

Speaking of which, there’s a bone-chilling, or rather cunt-chilling scene in Mad Men of a gynecological exam, prerequisite to going on The Pill. That scene alone is worth the cost of cable—and provides an eye-opener, for those who still need it, about American women’s health care pre-feminism. I hope millions of people tune in to Mad Men for its educational value, even though I won’t be watching anymore–as I said, it’s just too painful.

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Hairspray, on the other hand, is about as far away from pain as you can get without leaving the country. I saw the original too long ago to make intelligent comparisons, but I seem to recall it as a small picture, with the theme of integration as almost incidental, so elegantly was it slipped into a plot centered on a chubby girl who loves to dance. In this version, integration is front and center, with the message writ large. Still, Hairspray is, as the critics agree, a feel-good movie, and after Mad Men I appreciated that.

The song and dance numbers segue in and out of dialog without a glitch. If they seem a little clichéd, well, that’s because they’re typical of the big Broadway musical. The other side of cliché, though, is tradition, and Hairspray sticks to the best. It opens with Tracy Turnblad (Nicole Bronsky) waking up to sing Good Morning Baltimore, setting an upbeat tone. I Know Where I’ve Been, sung by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) leading a civil rights march fits the theatrical tradition of goosebump material. And Christopher Walken and John Travolta, as Mr. and Mrs. Turnblad, pay homage to millions of Hollywood pas de deux as they dance among the laundry. (They also stuck to traditional homophobia by never actually kissing.)

What struck me most about Hairspray is how sweet and kind everyone—except the villains of course—behaves, from the few outright bigots to the “Negro” marchers. While the latter’s reasonable attitude is somewhat exaggerated, it feels accurate: my memories of the early civil rights movement are of peaceful dignified marches that only turned riotous when cops intervened or dogs were unleashed. I’m curious to see how African-Americans, particularly those of the younger generation, respond to Hairspray.


Ironically, while Tracy Turnblad and friends integrated television, the Emeryville Theater where I watched them do so was, for perhaps the first time since What’s Love Got to do With It? integrated as well. Not too many current movies capture crossover audiences, and for that achievement alone Hairspray deserves an Oscar.

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2 responses »

  1. I really hope you don’t stop watching Mad Men. I’ve seen three episodes and I think as painful as it is, it seems more related to life right now than 1960. It becomes very darkly satisfying as it begins to take apart the men as well as the women. And the sex is very serious, not some night time soap. I like reality and anyone who can use the term “cunt-chilling”(by the way there is no better description) will surely enjoy the depth and humor of what is to come.

  2. That gyno scene in Mad Men devastated me, too, just killed me. But one of the reasons it did was because it is really not all that different than what is going on all over the Red States when it comes to women’s health, right now. We have lost so much ground it is freakin’ bonechilling.

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