TV Retro Sexism

At the New York Times, Maureen Dowd wonders about the relative glut of retro-themed TV shows set at the uncool end of the 1960s, i.e. 1960 to approx. 1967.

Maureen Dowd sees two interconnected reasons for commissioning new TV shows focused on the Playboy Club in the early 1960s or Pan Am stewardesses in the early 1960s*. The first reason Ms. Dowd identifies is the success of Mad Men, which mirrors my initial thoughts at reading about these particular additions to the US TV line-up. “My, someone is trying to get a piece of Mad Men“.

The second and more problematic reason Maureen Dowd detects, both for the success of Mad Men and the appearance of copycat shows, is the more or less overt desire of many men to return to an era when gender roles were clearly defined, men were king (at least as long as they were WASP men) and women were submissive.

I’ve blogged about my thoughts on Mad Men before. And again, I agree with Marueen Dowd, because it was always pretty clear to me – even before I actually saw an episode, way back when Mad Men was first making waves and gaining acclaim – that the retro sexism and the look back at the “good old times” of the early 1960s, made to look for more attractive than they ever were in reality, were a huge part of the appeal of the show.

Now retro and costume dramas generally feed on nostalgia for supposedly better times when men were men, women were women, clothes were more elegant (unless you actually had to wear them, of course), drinking and smoking was possible without feeling guilty about it and life in general was simpler. This nostalgia impulse is the reason behind the success of Mad Men in the US, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes in the UK, the unanimous fawning about Downton Abbey and the fact the Cold Case remained on the air for several seasons (because the retro episodes of Cold Case were always the best).

Quite a few of those retro shows play on a mix of superficial condescension towards the past (“Look, she’s drinking and smoking and pregnant! – Thank heavens, we know better now”) and a latent desire for returning to a less politically correct time. It’s this impulse which made Gene Hunt from Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes a sex symbol in Britain, which baffled everyone, including the writers and the actor. It is also telling that the TV producer quoted in the Maureen Dowd article singles out the Christina Hendricks character from Mad Men, an intelligent woman who uses her sex appeal to get what she wants, that is men buying her things, instead of the much more interesting Peggy and Rachel characters, who use their smarts and business savvy to get ahead in their chosen careers. There are a lot of people, mostly straight white men, who long for a return to the world of the 1950s and early 1960s.

This is also answers the question why those American retro shows are all set in the early 1960s. Because the early 1960s were the last time when the old sexism, racism, homophobia, etc… was still socially somewhat acceptable, yet the mores were already beginning to change, particularly with regards to sex. A lot of the raunchier plotlines in Mad Men, let alone Playboy Club and Pan Am, wouldn’t have been possible to the same degree in the 1950s or before. The early 1960s were the sweet spot for straight white American men, though not so sweet for everybody else.

It’s also interesting that while both British and American retro shows walk the fine line between “Look how unenlightened those people are” and “But damn, wasn’t it cool?”, the British ones generally manage to keep the balance better. Mad Men is very pretty to look at – almost too pretty, considering that everything is done up in the latest styles and no one has furniture, clothes, cars, etc… that date from an earlier decade – but it’s essentially hollow. Mad Men does address the social issues of the time, often in painfully blatant dialogue, but it rarely tackles them. It seems as if the only actual problem the Mad Men writers have with the early 1960s is the fact that people drink and smoke with abandon and sleep with women they are not married to. Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc… are dutifully mentioned, but not really dealt with. And I sincerely doubt that the Playboy and Pan Am shows will be any better – most likely they’ll be worse.

Meanwhile, British retro shows like Inspector George Gently, which is set during the same period as Mad Men, and Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, set during the early 1970s and early 1980s respectively, are grittier and less stylish, but they have a lot more heart.

I just chanced to watch an Inspector George Gently episode set in a Playboy type club, i.e. the same territory covered by the upcoming US show. Yes, there was some skin on display, but the episode itself dealt with the doublestandard facing women who worked in such clubs and the men who went there and also touched on issues such as rape, access to contraception and abortion, etc…

As for Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, the hints are there from the very beginning that the 1970s or respectively 1980s are a fantasy assembled from individual memories and pop cultural detritus, though it still looks more like the actual 1970s or respectively 1980s than the overly stylish Mad Men world. And in the very final episode, it’s not only becomes clear that we have indeed been watching a collective fantasy, the Jim Keats character basically throws the fact that it’s all a fantasy into the faces of the assembled cast (“Did you think this was a real police station? They were never like this in reality”) and by association the viewers as well. By contrast, I don’t think that Mad Men is even aware that it’s a fantasy and there’s no Jim Keats to tell the truth either.

*I wonder how much they had to pay to Hugh Hefner for the rights to the Playboy Club name and insignia. Though it’s clear why they chose Pan Am, because as the airline is no more, there won’t be legal problems. Though I still wish they’d have chosen Braniff, because their planes and uniforms were so much cooler. My Dad actually did fly Braniff once during the colourful period. I’m so jealous.

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9 Responses to TV Retro Sexism

  1. Laran says:

    Your reflections about why people seem to look out for historical fantasies in their daily telly dose sparked lots of thoughts in my own head (I’ve never really thought about it that way). It makes sense – people are looking for *something* and historical settings are there to provide it. As a historian, I am always quite intrigued by the very many different ways history can be meaningful (or at least vaguely interesting) to people. Your post reminds me of Nietzsche’s essay on the different purposes historiography can serve: when society focusses to much onto the past – instead of looking into the future – it is concerning and signifies decline of the society in question, loosing its positive attitude towards the future and mourning a past long gone… Even so this imagery of decline is somewhat period specific and an outdated concept, this evaluation of obsession with one’s past rings true to my ears – as lined out by your words: return to the simpler days, begone but holding more promise than a possibly frightening and disturbing future.

    Especially regarding gender this isn’t very promising. If turning to the past seems easier than evoking bright visions of the future – will this apparent need for security leave ideas like freedom of choice, heterogenity etc behind?

    • Cora says:

      Well, it seems to my outsider eyes that the US has been moving backwards with regards to attitudes, mentality, etc… for a while now. And IMO those TV shows set in the early 1960s that never were are a symptom of that. It’s also telling that the women in those shows are stewardesses, secretaries, playboy bunnies, i.e. professions in which women were/are viewed as subservient, pretty and sexually available. We don’t see shows about schoolteachers or doctors in the 1960s after all.

      As for Britain, I’m not sure because costume dramas like Downton Abbey or those Jane Austen adaptions are obviously fantasy (and I suspect at least partly made because they sell well overseas), though they hearken back to a time when Britain was a world power. I’m not so sure about the ones set during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, because those weren’t good times for the UK, not even with the rosy tinted nostalgia glasses on.

      As for Germany, we seem to be having a mini-boom of historical TV programming lately, e.g. bio-pics about Carl and Bertha Benz or some women who drove around the world in her car in the 1930s. And historical fiction by German authors is also doing well, often medieval stuff with lots of violence against women such as Die Wanderhure (going by the trailer for the TV adaption at any rate – I didn’t actually read it).

      And considering the constant complaints that science fiction is dying or at least interest in science fiction is declining, but that both fantasy and historical fiction, usually in the form of romances with more fantasy than history, is doing just well, we’re in big trouble, if Nietzsche was right. Of course, it doesn’t help that pretty much every future vision offered these days is dystopian to some degree.

      • Laran says:

        Thanks for the analysis – it seems to point to different cultural interests and agendas behind historical films and series in the US, England and Germany. Makes a lot of sense – our cultures are quite different, after all.

        It seems to me that the ubiquitous medieval witchcraft violence against women burning at the stake fiction serves feelings of superiority. Even so my idea of “Die Wanderhure” is very vague, the title alone suggests that it is one of those very very fictitious tales of very, very dark medieval times when people were killed on the fly, Adam and Eve the main reference frame for nearly everything, superstition demanded regular bloody sacrifices and every woman fitting the modern alternative healing type prone to be executed. How easy to feel good while reading/watching: nowadays we are so very different! We don’t have superstitions any more, instead we know how the world really works, we don’t take the Church seriously, women can do every job they like and in total we are very enlightened, tolerant and rational.

        • Cora says:

          Yesterday, I chanced to walk past a display table full of historical novels by German authors. They all seemed to be about violence against women in medieval and Renaissance times, witch hunts, the Spanish inquisition and that sort of thing. I have no idea why such books are popular (and even at reduced prices, I wasn’t keen to find out), but you may be on to something there that people (mostly women probably) read those books to feel the pleasant shudder at how bad things were for women back then and how much better they are now. Still an odd phenomenon.

          I’m also reminded of the so-called “bodicerippers”, a particular kind of historical romance light on the history but heavy on rape (often by the alleged hero) and general violence against women. They were never all that popular in Germany and the two or three I read as a teenager nearly put me of romantic fiction for life. But those things sold like hotcakes in the US of the 1970s and 1980s, because they apparently fed on US anxieties about gender, feminism and sex. One theory is that those books allowed their female characters to enjoy sex without turning them into sluts, because if the sex was forced, it absolved them of blame.

          Of course, there were also the French Angelique novels by Anne Golon from the 1960s, which were also full of grisly violence, though at least Angelique’s husband refrained from raping her. I read through my aunt’s stack as a teenager and actually enjoyed them for whatever reason.

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  4. Jodie says:

    I’m with you, but I do wonder how entertainment can be created that does show the audience the real injustices that took place in the past if they’re all to be labelled pieces of entertainment which reflect ‘the good old days’ to people who want to return there. How do you show sexism, without showing oppressed women? How do you show the severe effects of a period of serious violence towards women (like the witch trials) without serious violence towards women? There’s lost of great stuff about the past that I agree is missing from media because it means people get to glorify the modern age over the ‘backwards’ past, but (just like now) there were really bad things as well that must be shown, because they can’t be ignored. Is it a matter of the slant a piece of entertainment takes towards such subjects that distinguishes ‘good examination’ and ‘subtle glorying in retro-sexism’ and can do you think you could define ‘rules’ for it, or is it just something you know when you see?

    • Cora says:

      It’s a difficult question and I’m not sure that I have the answer. From what I’ve seen of the Pan Am and Playboy Club shows, they seem to be an unquestioning glorification of the past going for the “But look. Wasn’t it all so much more beautiful back then?” factor. They don’t strike me as critical of the sexism faced by flight attendants and Playboy bunnies. For example, the Inspector Gently episode focusing on a Playboy type club still has pretty girls in pointy bras and does address the downsides of the time such as rampant sexism, women viewed as prostitutes, unavailability of contraception and abortion, etc… Meanwhile, the Pan Am show seems to have inspired a lot of comments along the lines, “Well, flying was glamorous back then and the flight attendants were stunningly beautiful, because those evil unions didn’t force airlines to employ them until they’re 65 like the flying grannies of today.” This is not really a mindset that needs fostering.

      Downton Abbey – which I personally found dull as dishwater, but loads of people disagree with me – seems to be a similar glorification of the past, at least most fans, particularly in the US, seemed to praise the beautiful gowns and setting and there also seems to be an “at least everybody knew their place back then” dynamic going on.

      With Mad Men I’m not sure. I don’t think the show necessarily condones the sexism and racism of the early 1960s, indeed it sometimes goes blatantly out of its way to drive those attitudes home. The first season also has a lot of “Look at how backwards these people are. They drink and they smoke all the time” going on. Never mind that you strongly suspect that the writers seem to consider the fact that Don Draper drinks and smokes and has sex with women other than his wife and supports the consumer society as worse than the inherently racist and sexist society he inhabits. But it doesn’t really do a whole lot with most of the subjects it touches either, e.g. the white character with the black girlfriend who becomes a civil rights activist or the deeply closeted gay character. These things just happen and are forgotten. The sexism is addressed more in the various female characters from zoned out housewife with the problem with no name via the secretary who uses sex to get ahead to the Peggy character who uses her smarts to infiltrate the male only world and will probably run the company in twenty years. The problem with Mad Men seems to be that the storytelling is all over the place and the show never decides what it wants to be and that it all looks so pretty, featuring extremely attractive people in gorgeous clothes and cool settings, that many people miss the fact that this is not a nice place to live.

      Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes did not really glamourise the 1970s and 1980s, the settings were mostly grimy and faded and it did address plenty of problems of the time. Nor does it fall into the Mad Men trap of “Will you look at how backwards those people are?” since Sam and Alex are not always right and Gene and Ray are not always wrong. But even that show couldn’t prevent that people started viewing Gene Hunt as an incredibly cool guy and sex symbol, which I don’t think was the intention at all.

      In short, it’s a fine line between unquestioning glorification of the past and realistic portrayal of good and bad sides and sometimes readers/viewers take away different things than intended. And I confess that I’m not really immune to the allure of pretty clothes and furnishings either, particularly when I was younger.

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