June 19, 2013

Watch your language

I've remarked before about how Mad Men is one of those shows many people assume I watch, and are invariably surprised when I tell them I've never seen it.  Like any good blogger, though, this doesn't stop me from having opinions about it.

One of the reasons I don't feel compelled to watch Mad Men is that, no matter how well it's done, it's always difficult to look at the past from the present.  When you look at a time period out of context, you're bound to view it through the filter of your own personal experience, applying the mores and customs of your time.  There's nothing wrong in admitting that - rare is the individual who can so inhabit that they don't let these prejudices show through.*

*Although, of course, it can be distorted and exaggerated for effect - usually due to an ideological bias.

In the case of Mad Men, I'd say offhand that if you want to see what the early 60s were really like, you'd probably be better off watching an episode of Route 66.  There you get the past unvarnished - as it happened, so to speak.  And that's always been my take on the matter: if I really wanted to revisit the 60s, I'd do it by watching a program made in the 60s.  Not only do you get the past in its original context, but even when you get a less-than-accurate portrayal, you get the benefit of seeing the contemporary-to-the-time  prejudices and stereotypes that tell you as much about the era as the program itself.

I bring this up because of an article I recently ran across.  I may be late to the party - this Atlantic piece was written over a year ago - but I think it speaks, far better than I could put it, to this very issue.  In "The Foreign Language of Mad Men," Benjamin Schmidt points out that the one area in which the show falls most short of the mark is in its use of language.  Specifically, the writers cannot completely bridge the cultural language gaps between the 60s and today, and in doing so they alter (subtly, to be sure) the internal structures, if you will, of these characters.  A sample:

As a historian, though, I'm particularly interested in the show's language. In my research, I've been struck again and again at just how profoundly language changes from decade to decade. New expressions, phrases, and meanings are constantly entering into English. How true to the jet age could Mad Men's dialogue really be? 

Schmidt puts it to the test through a computer program designed to analyze the use of particular words and phrases from books, TV programs and movies of the 60s, and compare them to Mad Men. As one might expect, there are certain words and phrases that pop up here and there that just don't belong, but these are relatively minor. What stands out, though, is that subtle aspect I mentioned. (By the way, you really need to read the whole article because it's quite provocative, but suffer me these few minutes to make a particular point.)

Schmidt mentions several phrases that don't fit the time period, either because they're presented in the wrong context or because they didn't enter the popular lexicon until a few years later.  But one thing he does deal with goes to the heart of what I wrote about at the beginning - the need to view a time period in context. Specifically, it concerns the difference between the words "need" and "have."

That raises an interesting question: can even the most common phrases disturb the environment if the vocabulary is too heavily weighted towards the modern? What seems to be the most ubiquitous mistake in Mad Men is so frequent as to be invisible: the phrase "I need to." Modern scripts set in 1960s, including Mad Men, use it constantly: it's about as frequent as everyday words like "good," "between," or "most." But to say "I need to" so much is a surprisingly modern practice: books, television shows, and movies from the 1960s use it at least ten times less often, and many never use it all. Sixties dialogue written back then used "ought to" far more often than modern imitators do. I checked several movies and TV seasons from 1960 to 1965, and all use "ought to" more often than "need to"; every modern show I could find set in the '60s does the reverse.

As Schmidt points out, this is more than just a question of getting the idiom right.  It strikes at the heart of our Oprahified culture, one in which "feeling" and "needing" are the norm.  Earlier, Schmidt mentioned that a review of over 100 Twlight Zone scripts shows that the phrase "feel good about" is never used even once.  Now, picking up on the use of "need to," he makes the point of how this distorts, ever so subtly, the actual cultural dynamic underlying the use of specific words and phrases:

Even more than anachronism, a core theme of Mad Men is the lost art of personal reserve, self-effacement, and mystery. When Don Draper says, "Tell Jimmy I need to talk to him" in season 2 instead of "I have to talk to him," it hits a slightly more narcissistic, self-revealing note than it should. A baby boomer might set up a business meeting by invoking his personal needs; but a member of the "silent generation"—particularly one living a double life like Draper—doesn't talk about himself quite so readily. If Mad Men used "need to" at the 60s rate, all those characteristics would be stronger.

Perhaps I'm letting my inner nerd show through, but I find this kind of detail endlessly fascinating, for in the use of "need to" rather than "have to," we once again filter the past through our own particular perspective.  We can't help it.  True, a little more research might have taken care of this particular detail, but one can never fully rid themselves of the present, which demonstrates the usefulness of going back to the original source documents - or, in the case of television, original era programming - to find the rhythm, the tenor of the times.

In conclusion, Schmidt reminds us that "The language of the past is fundamentally a foreign one. Scriptwriters and novelists can try to mimic it, but can never speak it like a true native."  However, even in this case there's a felix culpa, a happy fault that rewards the cultural archaeologist.  For, says Schmidt, "In the end, the show's departures from the past may let us see just how much everything has changed even more than its successes."

So the next time you watch Mad Men, keep in mind that the show is not a documentary, that what you're seeing is a fusion of two eras.  And then see if you can find an episode of Route 66.

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