Revisiting the good old days of racism and sexism

Women were good for jumping out of cakes, but not much else in the 1920s depicted on “Boardwalk Empire” (Photo: Abbot Genser).

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Sept. 23, 2010 — Something tells me we might be flocking to TV’s nostalgic dramas a little too enthusiastically.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” have caught on.  They’re both great-looking shows.  “Mad Men” is made by a lot of people who worked on “The Sopranos,” so there’s a noticeable high quality in the way the show is filmed and lit.

“Boardwalk Empire,” depicting the luxury of the 1920s resort town of Atlantic City, has a sumptuous look that’s also easy on the eyes.  The show was apparently expensive to produce — $20 million alone, reportedly, for that premiere episode directed by Martin Scorsese — and it looks it.  Like “Mad Men” (seen on AMC), no expense seems to have been spared on “Boardwalk Empire” (seen on HBO) to reproduce the best and most authentic period clothing and furnishings.

They’re the elements that make these shows fun to watch (particularly “Mad Men,” since it’s a show about the 1960s, which plenty of people still living can still remember.  The 1920s?  Not so much).

Secretarial pool: The office gals of “Mad Men.” (AMC)

Of course, for everyone who likes “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire,” there are detractors.  Some people old enough to remember the world of New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960s have been nitpicking about some of the details on “Mad Men” — from the use of certain electric-typewriter models to aspects of the English language.

While “Mad Men” is now well into its fourth season, “Boardwalk Empire” just began, though we critics have seen the first six episodes.  For me, “Boardwalk Empire” hardly stands up to the pantheon of latter-day gangster classics that includes the first two “Godfather” movies, Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” and “The Sopranos.”   But it has many of the elements most people hope for in these things — mainly, warring factions and the violence that results, in this case, between figures whose names are familiar to gangland devotees — Johnny Torrio, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone.

But here’s something else to consider about “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire”: They both traffic casually in the racist and sexist attitudes of their times.  And it’s true that it would be difficult to depict these eras honestly if you didn’t account somehow for the second-class citizenship of groups such as women and African-Americans.

Now, the 1920s are pretty far off and relatively few people are still around who can remember them vividly.  In “Boardwalk Empire,” women have not yet won the right to vote.  And most of the women in the series are ditzy showgirls and prostitutes.

In “Mad Men,” whose era is much closer to our day, the women are housewives, executive secretaries or lower-rung executives who feel acutely that they’ll lose promotional opportunities to male competitors.  As for blacks, the only ones seen in this show are domestics and after-hours maintenance men.

And yet, “Mad Men” is celebrated for its style, with whole industries cropping up to market its dark mens’ suits, skinny ties and short, parted haircuts.   People who watch the show say they find it refreshing to see so much cigarette smoking and martini swilling.  Sure, those pursuits were fun — also unhealthy.

But something tells me that some people are nostalgic for more than just cigarettes and midday cocktails.  Sometimes it seems that the way some people have latched on to “Mad Men” — and will likely latch on to “Boardwalk Empire” — indicates a nostalgia for something else, perhaps a longing few people would admit out loud for a time when equality was not the norm and certain groups knew their place.

This element gets lost in the shuffle of acclaim that has been showered on both of these shows.  I happen to know people who can’t watch “Mad Men” because it serves as a reminder of a time when some groups lorded it over other groups.  They can’t stand the fact that people celebrate a show that seems to depict the days of racism and sexism in so favorable a light.  For these people, “Mad Men” makes them sick.

And I don’t blame them.  It’s a point of view worth thinking about.

Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com

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