Nice retrospective on an iconic G.I. (born 1901-1924) actress (b. 1915) who provided the stereotypical suburban mom to Boomer (born 1943-1960). When I watched the show as a fourth-grader circa 1960, I was more “the Beav’s” age, and my older brothers and cousins were more the age of Wally and Eddie. The older siblings were steadier, more responsible. We were all a bit wilder, a bit more risk prone, a bit more into our own little worlds. When June Cleaver said, “Ward, I’m very worried about the Beaver,” she had reason to be worried. She would have been terrified if she had known how many of us would later turn out.
I have argued before that “Mad Men” is a fundamentally unhistorical rendition of how most Americans felt and behaved in late First Turning (the High) America. To summarize, my point was basically that most of the roles are played by Generation X (born 1961-1981) who meticulously “look” like circa-1960 business-world people—but who fail to reflect the authentic mood of the era as it was lived and experienced. Instead, the actors come across as Gen-Xers dressed in 1960 clothing and trapped in 1960 social mannerisms. Let me put aside all instance in “Mad Men” where the script is simply impossible—like characters telling each other to “get in touch with their feelings.” Even aside from such obvious anachronisms, most scenes (to my eye and ear) are suffused with a sense of oppressive tension and cynicism.
Well, in this column, Stepanie Coontz (well-known author and first-wave Boomer) begs to differ. She says that “Mad Men” is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the period. Yet she says so for reasons which I think pretty much support my own assessment. She says the show accurately portrays the suffocating gender chauvinism that prevailed in America just before the sexual revolution began to set things right. I agree that it does this. And, I would argue, it does this so effectively because the cast is so clearly ill-at-ease in the world they inhabit. To take contemporary Gen-Xers and thrust them back into 1960 life roles would be tantamount to physically throwing just about anyone into a jail cell. No one looks comfortable when they are locked up.
I would argue that to portray a period in which everyone feels out of place is probably not an accurate portrayal. Coontz, of course, may disagree. She may say that most Americans really were, objectively, miserable in the 1950s. Most likely what she really means to say is that most Americans, men and women, *should* have felt miserable if they had only known how they were being abused by their own social norms. But then again most Americans didn’t really come to this understanding until after the ‘60s were over… and after Coontz had launched her writing career.
Ponder the epistemological question. To what extent should the mood or tone of an era be judged by standards not widely held until after the era was over? The best way to think about this question is to imagine how Hollywood, in the year 2060, will portray our own America circa 2010. (The Washington Post Outlook section had a recent essay on exactly this question.) What horrible injustices will we be accused of tolerating daily? One can imagine many candidates. To the left, what may come most easily to mind is how we all routinely ravage the environment; to the right, how we routinely terminate the lives of millions of the unborn. (Both candidates were mentioned in the Post piece.) I submit that no one really knows and that to subject our own present-day world to such a radical perspective, which might require each of us to confess crimes to a tribunal organized by the new regime, would not be an accurate representation of what it actually feels like today to live in our world.
Let me bring this discussion back around to generations, turnings, and cyclical versus linear time. One thing Bill and I discovered many years ago, even before The Fourth Turning appeared, was that most people who really do not like our perspective on history have fairly strong ideological motivations. These tend to be people whose ideology colors their perspective on history, who see history moving from absolute error toward absolute rectitude, and who (therefore) are really bothered by a view of history that is not linear. In this view, the idea that there might be something archetypal in a bygone generation or era of history seems bizarre, even perverse. There can be no archetype for social dysfunction and blatant injustice. It’s like a disease. When it’s over, you hope and expect it never returns.
When Boomer (born 1943-1960) GW Bush went to war, it was in traditional land-force “invasion” mode with trumpets blaring. When Generation X (born 1961-1981) Obama goes to war, it is with multiple levels of stealth, subterfuge, and deniability. Our assassin predator missions are way up. Our anti-terror surrogates are training in a still-growing number of countries. And now—to prevent or at least slow down Iran’s race to get nukes—we are apparently waging a full-scale commando assault just under the radar. News stories report mysterious explosions in Iranian factories, odd fatal “accidents” befalling top Iranian scientists, faulty alloys showing up in imported equipment, and horribly destructive computer viruses eating away at computers in Tehran. At some point, I suppose, Iran could just say, OK, we’ll declare war. But what’s clever about Obama’s approach is that the Iranian leadership may figure that, to declare war without any overt and large-scale aggression, may make them look weak. I wonder if it will work.
A great book will someday be written about this campaign. I love the description in the article about how you attack Iranian computers that are deliberately left off the net. You actually have to get someone to physically insert a thumb drive. Reminds me of the final scene in “Independence Day.”
First, when Carroll O’Connor played Archie Bunker, starting in 1971, he clearly played an middle- or even early wave G.I. (born 1901-1924) The guy looked smoked, somewhere (we Boomer (born 1943-1960) would have guessed) around 60. Yet O’Connor, age 46, was just barely a G.I. (last cohort, George Bush Sr’s birthyear). Now flash forward to this new show. Shatner, age 79 (first-wave Silent (born 1925-1942)), is actually playing the role of somebody younger, somebody age 72. (The new show is modeled after a wildly popular twitter site, shitmydadsays.com, wherein a 29-year-old relates 140-character epigrams given to him by his father.)
So, I guess I’m just amazed. These two shows are about the politically incorrect sayings of “old guys.” One appears nearly 40 years after the other. But the leading “old guy” actor of the more recent show is born only 6 years after the actor of the first. Wow. And Shatner actually looks younger now than O’Connor did back then.
Second, Stuever complains that Shatner’s character is much too tame compared to Archie Bunker and that the show passes up the opportunity to portray a tea-partying Boomer in his 50s today.
These are a couple of serious charges. Yet it would totally against archetype for Shatner—the very definition of a hip, postmodern Silent elder—to voice the gruff, hard, unenlightened, and unironic thoughts of Archie. And why not launch a show about Boomer culture warriors—right or left? The problem for TV drama is that this phenomenon is simply too serious and too central a part of America’s mood today to be treated in a light mood. With All in the Family circa 1973, everyone knew (and Boomers certainly knew) that Archie was weak, that his generation’s values agenda was toast, and that Boomers were taking over the culture. Therefore, Archie could be the butt of jokes. No one today believes that Boomers are weak in the culture or that their values-wars are unimportant. Americans of all ages are practically holding their breath. A funny, mocking TV sitcom about Boomer culture wars today would be like a funny mocking movie about the Great Society or the Apollo Moon Landing or the War on Poverty back in 1970. Simply unthinkable. Yes, one could launch a serious, well-reasoned critique of either. But no one would have considered it funny. G.I.s are supposed to build, Boomers to think. Those are the archetypes, and there is nothing to smile about. Reverse the terms (G.I.s thinking, Boomers doing), and sure you get a ton of laughs a minute.
An interesting generational take-off on All of the Family was That 70s Show—which was also very successful and ran for even more years. Red, the father, is (probably) a first-year Silent who fought in Korea rather than WWII. But he is very much a G.I. in nearly all of the same ways as Archie, though not with Archie’s really nasty edge. Red’s wife, Kitty, is also the G.I. female like Edith, except she’s smarter. The sadistic/pathetic moments between Archie and Edith are missing, which lightens the comedic effect. Red and Kitty’s next-door neighbors, Bob and Midge, are total Silent, with all of the outrageous midlife passages and youth-outbreak awkwardness (when they aren’t just playing the bland conformists) you would expect. The kids of course are all late-wave Boomers.