The Roots of Counterculture: The Beat Movement in Mad Men

“Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose.”
-Allen Ginsberg

Image credit: http://vintagescientist.blogspot.com/2010/03/mad-men-beatnik-style.html

The “Beat Generation” was a term first coined by Jack Kerouac in On the Road in the late 1940’s to describe the ever-disillusioned youth who had been worn down by the confines of society. Along with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gary Snyder started the Beat literary movement that would later turn into a large anti-conformist undercurrent of American culture in the 50’s. With a longing for freedom and self-expression, they were adamantly opposed to the increasing emphasis on consumerism as well as society’s mainstream, one-way conveyor belt.

As this movement grew, New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco became the epicenters of beatnik culture. These groups advocated for self-isolation from society and soon became associated with breaking social norms, like experimentation with music, drugs and sex. This underground culture, which was meant to serve as a critique of the stereotypical American Dream, quickly became a counterbalance to suburban life.

The character of Midge is exemplary of the beatnik ideal. Independent-spirited and unattached, she exists in stark opposition to Betty, whose perfect housewife veneer is indicative of the idyllic 50’s “white picket fence” image encouraged by society. The smoke-filled scenes in underground coffee shops and in Midge’s bohemian studio apartment serve to contrast Don’s seemingly structured and picture-perfect life as well as to highlight his isolation even within this alienated and self-segregated subset of society. In addition to this, the Beat Movement’s appearance, although brief, shows the building pressure and beginning stages of counter-culture movements in 1960’s society. As Bob Dylan so famously sung to epitomize the zeitgeist of the decade – “The times they are a changin’.”

Links referenced: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/57467/Beat-movement and

1 comment:

  1. I agree that Midge and Betty are designed to be foils of each other. Betty represents the 1950s suburban ideal housewife (that probably never existed) and Midge is the 1960s intellectual revolutionary that campaigns for socialism, peace, and free love. Although Betty would judge Midge as a disgusting hipster that should be locked up, Midge would be equally displeased with the "square" Betty. It is also interesting to note that although Betty is an ideal of sorts, Midge is a much happier and fulfilled person. Betty who, as a caregiver and mother is seen as a productive and important (though not especially valued) member of society, suffers from depression. While, Midge whose underground lifestyle as a tree smoking, Miles Davis listening, adulterous painter would seen as unacceptable by the standards of the time, lives a content and happy life. It will be interesting to see if Midge (now burnt out on heroin) reappears later in the series as the beat movement eventually evolves into the hippie movement.