Commodifying the California Dream

In our latest guest post, Ann Davis of Travelbloom explores California’s significance in the AMC drama Mad Men, including the cultural contrast between east and west in the 1960s and 1970s.

By Ann Davis

Warning: this article contains spoilers from Mad Men, including its seventh and final season.

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay”. In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper establishes his personal ethos when it comes to advertising. Unbeknownst to his peers, this ethos rests in stark contrast to Don’s personal struggle: he is unable to accept himself, represses his past, and is therefore a profoundly unhappy person. So where does one go to find acceptance in the 1960s? Not to New York City, where the majority of Mad Men takes place, but rather west, to California. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, California became emblematic of modern thinking and bohemian ideals, a hotspot for counterculture, the way of the future. Likewise, in Mad Men, Los Angeles is a city full of hope and potential, a symbolic contrast to New York.

Don’s New York style is entirely out of place in California, showing the culture clash between east and west coast. Photo: Screencap from Mad Men

Don Draper is an east coast ad man who struggles to adapt to a changing industry, as his internal struggles inhibit him from changing with the times. During periods of duress – marital issues, career trouble, identity crisis – he goes west, seeking escape in the Sunshine State. California is depicted as an idyllic dreamscape, both within the universe of Mad Men and on a meta-textual level. It’s aesthetically beautiful: sunshine, palm trees, blue skies, swimming pools, bikinis, bohemian fashion. Bohemian is a key word when it comes to 1960s California. Don’s first visit to Los Angeles is disrupted by his involvement with a group of people who encapsulate this California fantasy: wealthy, educated drifters who lounge poolside, take drugs, and have casual sex with each other. A woman invites Don to join them. “Who are you?”, he asks. “I’m Joy”, she replies (S2E11). When the Madison Avenue ad men need to escape reality, they go west to the fantasy world of California.

Part of what makes California so idealized is that it’s a place of acceptance. Behaviour that deviates from the status quo is part of the west coast fantasy. But for Don Draper, California is home to the ultimate symbol of acceptance: Anna. Anna Draper knows Don’s biggest secret: he is not Don Draper. During the Korean War, he stole the identity of his dead commanding officer (Anna’s husband) in order to secure a better life for himself. Anna’s forgiveness and reassurance that what he is doing is okay allows Don to be at peace with himself when he visits her. However, acceptance from others does not equate to self-acceptance, and Don struggles to capture the same feelings of acceptance in California after Anna’s death in Season 4. After visiting California for a highly unsuccessful business trip in Season 6, he laments “I don’t know what happened … I usually feel better out there” (S6E10).

It is only with Anna that Don is able to reconcile with himself. Photo: Tumblr

He tries to reconstruct the California fantasy with his secretary-turned-wife Megan Calvet. Though initially living and working with Don in New York, Megan moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Through her own participation in the California dream, she transforms from Don’s idealized wife to a self-actualized woman. When Don is fired in New York, he seeks solace in California, offering to finally move in with Megan in Los Angeles. By this point, Megan does not offer Don the same unconditional acceptance that Anna Draper offered, and he is not welcome. The two divorce. Without unconditional acceptance from another, California is no longer refuge for Don, and he must seek this acceptance elsewhere.

Megan’s character transformation is emphasized through costume design. As she embraces the California lifestyle, her fashion follows suit. Photo: Screencaps from Mad Men

Don’s search begins on the east coast, where he opens up about his past in an effort to pitch an ad to Hershey’s. Rigid east coast companies are unwilling to accept deviance from the status quo, and Don is subsequently suspended from his ad agency. With nowhere else to go, Don ventures west one final time, eventually following Anna Draper’s niece to a spiritual retreat in the hills outside of Los Angeles. The Esalen-like retreat exemplifies California’s bohemian, progressive attitudes of self-acceptance and spiritual enlightenment. It is here, during the series finale, that Don bares his soul to Peggy, his protégé, and experiences catharsis during a confessional seminar. It is here, in the sunshine of California, that Don accepts himself and is able to reassure himself that what he is doing is okay. He is okay.

Don achieves self-acceptance by embracing California. The strong visual cues in Mad Men’s final scene emphasize this shift to the west coast. Photo: AMC

It is here that he realizes the value of self-acceptance, the bohemian movement, and the California fantasy.

The California fantasy will sell Coca-Cola, and we will buy it.

This Coca-Cola advertisement is the final impression we’re left with, at the end of Mad Men.

Ann Davis is a digital content creator from Ottawa. Currently based in Nottingham, England, she founded Travelbloom in 2019 to document her move from Canada to the UK. You can find more of her work here.

The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing

Technology connects us like never before. Halt and Catch Fire takes place during the computer boom that started it all, emphasizing the importance of human connection.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

When AMC released Halt and Catch Fire in 2014, people were quick to dismiss it as “Mad Men but in the 80s! With tech!” Now, it’s no secret that we love Mad Men here at the Rambler, but I think the comparisons did Halt and Catch Fire a disservice. The show remained criminally underrated and under-watched for four seasons, over which it grew into one of the most profoundly human shows on television.

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From left: Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, and Scoot McNairy, stars of Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: AMC

It starts at an interesting moment in history: the 1980s, when computers are not yet ubiquitous but the industry is on the cusp of … something. We know, of course, just how important computers will become, that the tech industry will explode and eventually everyone will have computers not only in their homes but in their pockets. The characters in the middle of that history, however, remain in a constant struggle to get ahead of the curve, to create the thing that will change everything. A lot of period shows rely on this kind of dramatic irony, where viewers know what the characters don’t. We can’t reach through the screen and tell them that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will beat them to the punch. But it’s fascinating to watch them keep trying anyway.

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Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) predicts the future. Photo: Giphy

Somewhere along the way, though, Halt and Catch Fire realized that the real draw was not seeing the slow birth of the Information Age, but the people at the heart of it. The dreamers and creators who so badly want to leave a mark and change the world and end up changing themselves in the process.

Joe MacMillan (the always amazing Lee Pace) starts off as a fairly typical male antihero akin to those that dominate prestige television—you know, Tony Soprano, Walter White, or, yeah, Don Draper. Joe is a visionary who manipulates, cheats, and talks his way into a fledgling Texas software company in order to transform it into a PC company to rival IBM. But the show quickly stopped trying to emulate other prestige dramas and Joe, rather than a villain or even an antihero, became the voice of the show’s underdog humanity. Joe sees what others don’t, that technology has the potential to change the way we interact with one another. So it’s fitting that Joe is the one to utter the words that could serve as Halt and Catch Fire’s thesis statement: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

That thing, in my view, is connection. Throughout its run, Halt and Catch Fire consistently emphasizes that behind all those screens and wires and lines of code are human beings, desperately seeking connection in a world that is often forbidding. It’s no surprise that Joe, an openly bisexual man, would eventually want to build something that brings people together and lets them be who they really are.

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Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in Halt and Catch Fire. Photo: IMDb

It’s easy to be cynical about the Internet these days. But we forget that it can be a wonderful space for people to share their creativity and interests and connect with other people they might otherwise never meet. Over and over again, Halt and Catch Fire shows us that what matters is less the technology that connects us than it is the people who use it.

The Pain of Nostalgia

Nostalgia hurts us. Reliving past joys causes us pain, but why? And why does this nostalgia translate to media we enjoyed at a different time in our lives?

By Serena Ypelaar

Have you ever felt inclined to revel in the past but found that it just hurt too much?

Last night, The Wizard of Oz (1939) was on TV and I felt instinctively drawn to it. Why? Because The Wizard of Oz was my favourite film as a kid, from when I was about three or four. It’ll always have very strong sentimental value and I’ll always feel quite attached to it. It’s also an excellent film for its time, a cinematic masterpiece that makes a big impact even now.

But when I tried to watch the film yesterday (admittedly after a very long and trying day), I almost physically couldn’t handle it. Instantly, I found myself on the verge of tears, regardless of what was happening in the story at any given time. (For the record, it was the part in which the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) infiltrate the witch’s fortress trying to rescue Dorothy (Judy Garland). Dorothy was calling for her Auntie Em in the crystal ball as the hourglass trickled down, and I was done for.) I felt that familiar clenching in my chest that strikes when I feel intense nostalgia (or interestingly, when I feel anxious). But this pain seems the most potent when I’m thinking about good days gone by, and how far removed I am from them now.

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The Wizard of Oz (1939). Photo: Flickr

My childhood is a safe haven which in times of difficulty I sometimes crave. While I won’t be short-sighted enough to assume this is the case for everyone, I want to examine nostalgia as a common element of the human experience, whether it’s for one’s childhood or a different time in one’s life.

Why couldn’t I watch the film without experiencing physical and emotional pain? Because nostalgia is so powerful that we feel victim to it, and any past emotions we felt are felt again – this time accompanied by loss. We’re not in that moment anymore and we can never be again. We’ve learned in The Great Gatsby (1925) that “you can’t repeat the past”, and trying to recreate it can cause intense suffering. But nostalgia gives us so much deeply rooted longing that we’re often gripped by it unexpectedly.

One of my favourite TV series, Mad Men, uses the concept of nostalgia to great advantage in the final episode of its first season. When Don Draper makes an advertising pitch for the newly patented Kodak carousel slide projector, he delivers a presentation so moving that one of his colleagues runs from the room in tears.

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Mad Men 1.13, “The Wheel” (2007)

Knowing that nostalgia is supposed to hurt may not mitigate our tumultuous experience, but it can offer some shared comfort as we all navigate the inevitable passage of time.

The question is, do we choose to brave the pain and relive our wonderful memories, or do we stuff them away to avoid the emotional turmoil? The second option is arguably worse for emotional health in the long run – though it’s admittedly hard to look back on a golden age from a new and learned perspective.

But then again, aren’t our good memories worth it?

Historical Looks on Film: A Rant

Period dramas often fudge the accuracy of historical costumes, resulting in possible misconceptions and a flawed feel. But what happens when a series puts the work into capturing period-specific attire?

By Sadie MacDonald

Let’s talk about a trope I am resentfully fascinated by: inaccurate fashion in historical films. Many such films reflect the standards of attractiveness at the time they were made, often at the expense of historical accuracy.

This trend isn’t new. William Makepeace Thackeray’s illustrations for Vanity Fair show the characters in contemporary 1840s fashion rather than Regency attire, as Thackeray claimed “I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous.”

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On the left, apparently “hideous” costumes, and on the right, one of Thackeray’s… improvements. Photo Credit: Left, Sisters Dancing, Marino Bovi; right, A Family Party at Brighton, William Thackeray, scanned by Gerald Ajam.

Let’s start off our look at film examples with Disney. Snow White (1937) has a tidily-curled bob; the accentuated waists of Cinderella’s (1950) gowns evoke Christian Dior’s “New Look”; Ariel (1989) sports voluminous bangs and a wedding dress with sleeves that Princess Diana would approve of; Rapunzel’s (2010) side-part and gently-waved straight hair look very stylish for the late 2000s.

An example from the Golden Age of Cinema is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. While the costumes of the film revel in lavish stylings of antebellum American Southern dress, Vivien Leigh’s bright red lipstick and sculpted eyebrows belong more in 1939 than 1860.

It’s easy to see this convention in 1980s films. Check out the perm on the 1940s mother in A Christmas Story, or EVERYONE in Dirty Dancing, which is ostensibly set in the 1960s.

Recent films are also guilty. Pride and Prejudice (2005) is a major offender, as the Bennet sisters run around with wispy unsecured bangs and long, loose hair. It seems unfair for me to target The Tudors and Reign, as the dubious accuracy of those shows’ costuming has been endlessly lampooned, and neither show makes pretensions to historical accuracy.

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But it’s so hard to resist making fun of the show’s choices. Photo: Frock Flicks, which does a hilarious takedown of Mary’s wedding dress.

This trend is especially jarring when inconsistently applied in a film. The love interest in the 1996 French film Ridicule has straight hair, thick bangs, and simple make-up, but the unsympathetic characters of the French court look more accurate. A male example from the 90s would be Jack from Titanic, who has boyishly-floppy locks parted in the middle. Villain Cal, however, looks more period-appropriate. Clearly the film creators were okay with maintaining less-flattering historical looks for antagonistic characters, but not heroes.

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Sometimes you gotta toss your anachronistic hair. Photo: Pinterest

This illustrates that anachronistic costuming choices are not necessarily borne from laziness. In addition to making main characters look attractive and sympathetic, inaccurate fashion can also help convey aspects of character. The titular character in Marie Antoinette (2006) owns a pair of Converse sneakers to emphasize that she is a childish teenager. A Knight’s Tale puts leading lady Jocelyn in punk-rock hairstyles to illustrate her rebelliousness.

Anachronistic fashion doesn’t have to be sloppy. But when accuracy is taken into account, the results are worth it.

Take the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries. The tightly-curled hair might look funny at first, but it adds to the detailed Regency environment, the elements of which come together to bring Jane Austen’s world vibrantly to life.

Mad Men is a recent triumphant example. The actors are decked out in proper attire right down to their undergarments, as costume designer Janie Bryant understood how important this detail was to creating 1960s silhouettes. Here, historical accuracy is not exclusive with creativity, as costuming on Mad Men also reflect the characters’ personalities.

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Lookin’ good! Photo: Pinterest

These examples use costuming not to make the characters look attractive to modern sensibilities, but to fully immerse viewers in the period. If anything else, shouldn’t film be immersive?