The XX Factor

We’re Just As Drunk and Reckless as the “Mad Men”

I’m not sure I buy Katie Roiphe’s theory in the New York Times that modern Americans just aren’t having as much fun as they used to-certainly not fun as she defines it. She compares our contemporary lifestyles to the fictional lives of the Mad Men characters and wonders if part of the appeal of the show might be the sense that we’re missing something these days, buying organic milk and going to the gym instead of drinking and smoking and cheating a la Don Draper.

Roiphe writes: “Watching all the feverish and melancholic adultery, the pregnant women drinking, the 7-year-olds learning to mix the perfect Tom Collins, we can’t help but experience a puritanical frisson about how much better, saner, more sensible our own lives are. But is there also the tiniest bit of wistfulness, the slight but unmistakable hint of longing toward all that stylish chaos, all that selfish, retrograde abandon?”

I wouldn’t describe the Drapers’ lives as chaotic, exactly. Complicated, sure, but that’s an important distinction. Let’s put aside for the moment the sense that this thought-provoking essay might be conflating a fictional show with a real time period. If we just consider the narrative boundaries of Mad Men , where’s the chaos? In fact, there are rules on top of rules, rules about who gets to cheat (men), about what constitutes a woman’s highest calling (marriage and children). There is drinking to excess, to be sure, but not drinking to chaos-indeed, the surest way to lose colleagues’ respect is to be a man who can’t hold his liquor, like Freddy Rumsen or, most recently, like Don Draper himself. (“He’s pathetic,” one of Draper’s underlings remarked in Sunday night’s episode when Draper’s secretary had to bring her soused boss his keys.)

Roiphe references “our own undoubtedly healthier, more upstanding times,” and again, I just don’t know about that. More upstanding, really? By which definition? Some folks would consider the practice of openly living with someone before marriage-much more common now than in the early ‘60s-to be the opposite of upstanding. Roiphe wonders if the contemporary equivalents of Draper are having as much “fun,” are “hanging out with the same boozy fluidity” with the same “wild bursts of bad behavior.” I’m not sold on this definition of fun, but if I were, I’d argue we’re having just as much fun as ever. Recklessness and living in the moment-heck, isn’t that what the housing bubble and profligate credit card spending were all about?

This is the sort of social commentary that begs for hard data. For instance: If we lack old-fashioned “boozy fluidity,” surely that means we’re drinking less than we were during Mad Men days. Right? Well, no. According to this new Gallup study, the number of adult Americans who say they drink is currently at its highest recorded level in 25 years. The nation experienced a record low in drinking in 1958, just a few years before the fictional setting for the first season of Mad Men. (For more debunking, see Amanda’s recent post on Roiphe’s essay ).

The fact that we go to the gym or that there are a lot of gluten-shunning vegans ( Chelsea Clinton! ) floating around these days doesn’t prove that we don’t have fun anymore. I can take any stray anecdote and use it to prove any old point, but that doesn’t make it true.

Also, one last point. Conjuring the exhaustive and exhausting puritanicalism of the modern day, Roiphe references modern-day “young parents in a Draper-like milieu” who would surely express “unbridled shock” if you were to confess to them that you gave your baby nonorganic milk. Who are these parents and why have I never met them? I confess I am myself exhausted … by the contempt for modern-day helicopter parents, or whatever you want to call them. The whole phenomenon of overly protective, spoiled and spoiling parents seems like a straw man hyped up in so many press accounts. Of course, to prove that I’d have to pull out some hard data.