Do nostalgic TV shows whitewash history?

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Last night saw the second season premiere of the critically-acclaimed, Golden Globe winning, Emmy nominated HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The Prohibition era drama follows bootlegging kingpin ‘Nucky’ Thompson (played by Golden Globe winner Steve Buscemi) and a cast of gangsters, FBI agents, politicians, activists, and other traversing the world of 1920s America and the business of illegal alcohol. It fits right into the tradition of HBO’s best shows that humanize otherwise villainous characters and introduce us to some of our favorite anti-heroes, as they did so well with The Sopranos and The Wire.

But Boardwalk’s success probably owes just as much to its Emmy rival and critical darling Mad Men as it does the vision of its creators. The AMC series focused on the lives of New York City advertising executives, which recently won its fourth straight Emmy for best drama, made America fall in love with its past…again.

This Mad Men inspired nostalgia has pushed the networks to produce knockoffs in order to capitalize off the retro craze. Last week NBC debuted The Playboy Club, which is about exactly what the title implies, while ABC offered up Pan Am, a drama centered around the lives of four stewardesses (the retro/sexist term for flight attendants) and the often glamorous lifestyle associated with working for an airline during the early days of commercial flight.

These shows lack much of the punch that makes Mad Men so incisive and compelling, as noted by Nona Willis Aronowitz for GOOD, who calls The Playboy Club and Pan Am “women’s movement version of feel-good white-savior movies like The Help or The Blind Side.”

There is much to criticize about the treatment of women and minorities, even in the more critically-acclaimed shows. Mad Men pushes all of its characters of colors to the margin, as most black people appear as either soft-spoken domestics and elevator operators or the fulfillment of sexual fantasies. In the middle of the fourth season, two of the main characters are robbed at gunpoint by none other than a black man.

But even here there’s something to be said for Mad Men’s portrayal of life for white people in the 1960s. The writers can ignore race because their characters could afford to ignore race. Their racist attitudes don’t have to be challenged and even the more liberal among them hold contemptible views of black people because they never have to associate with them. It’s a function of privilege and an idea worthy of exploring.

Boardwalk Empire, by contrast, deals with race head on, as one of Nucky Thompson’s close business partners, Chalky White (played by Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as Omar from The Wire) is faced with threats from the Klu Klux Klan, witnesses his brother being hung, and is referred to as a “ni**er” as casually as his actual name.

Boardwalk also finds us witnessing the dawn of women’s suffrage, even as most of the women character’s identities are tied to being housewives or concubines. The Playboy Club doesn’t find us moving forward very much from the 20s, though it attempts to sell work as a Playboy bunny as liberation. These women are still judged mainly on their looks and assumed to be prostitutes by the club’s patrons. Though not the focus, there’s an acknowledgment of the sexism faced before the first rumblings of the women’s movement.
Homosexuality and homophobia are also dealt with in varying ways, but it is clear that the prevailing attitude was that it was an aberration, a perversion, and something that was not to be expressed in the open. On Mad Men one character is fired rather than dealing with the sexual harassment visited upon him by a client, in order to not address the sexual orientation of either party.

Boardwalk has a woman who carries on a relationship with another woman while married to a man she barely knows simply because they have a child together. Gay men and lesbian women exist in the shadows and deny their true selves in these shows, out of fear of ostracism and in some instances violence.

The motif of the current retro craze is to peel back the layers of the Leave it to Beaver stylized version of our past to uncover the ugliness we left behind. As Alessandra Stanley for the New York Times writes, “these shows traffic in nostalgia for a past that was flawed but fixable, and above all familiar.”

While laudable for their realism and lifting the veneer of innocence and purity of the time periods they depict (some better than others), there is a possible drawback. These shows have the ability to seduce us into believing that racism, sexism, and homophobia are problems that belong to the past. We can look back at the atrocities visited upon black people, women, gay men and lesbian women and condemn our historical errors. We can then pat ourselves on the back when we acknowledge just how far we’ve come since then, all the while ignoring just how far it is we have to go.

At their best, these shows should serve to draw parallels between the our modern society and the one we left behind. We should make the connection between the attempted rape that opens up The Playboy Club and the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn from this summer, reflecting upon the vulnerability of women in service roles to men who see them as property. The grabby hands and off-color jokes at the expense of women that pervade the work spaces of Mad Men and Pan Am shouldn’t be brushed aside as “boys being boys” or relics of the past, but as clues as to why women still deal with issues like street harassment.

We can’t view the lesbian character on The Playboy Club giving her money to a burgeoning gay rights group in secret and not think about the fact that up until last week the armed forces operated under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that excluded homosexuals from serving openly.

It’s easy to be appalled by the image of the KKK gunning down a group of African-Americans on Boardwalk Empire, but if we don’t then think about the police brutality that is still all too common in our communities, we’ve done ourselves a disservice. The past offers clues to our present and these shows key us in directly. Or, as Clarence Page in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune “they offer a past that was much worse than today, but also one that offers directions to a better future.” The onus is on us to actually learn the lessons.