Swingtown and other acts of critical promiscuity

Swingtown, the new show from CBS is coming this summer.  (It starts tonight at 10.)  We here at This Blog are keen to see it, but braced for disappointment. 

The question for us is whether it’s going to be good anthropology or bad anthropology. 

Mad Men, a show that excavates roughly the same time period, is bad anthropology.  Yes, I understand that it’s good TV.  I get that.  But it would have been better TV if it were better anthropology. 

Mad Men is cable TV acting like network TV at the very moment network TV is struggling to act like cable TV.  That is to say, Mad Men trades shamelessly in stereotypes and generalities.  These are sins David Simon (The Wire) demonstrates now to be unbecoming and, with his precedent, unnecessary. Or, put it this way: if Mad Men had been directed with the feeling, detail and subtlety that Simon brought to The Wire, it would been a very different, much better, show.

Nancy Franklin just reviewed Swingtown in The New Yorker and the signs are good and bad.  She tells us that the creator of the show, Mike Kelley, calls himself a "bannister-slat" kid, someone who looked down from a seat on the staircase to the parties below.  This means he’s did his ethnographic homework.  Even if he was only 9. 

But Franklin has her doubts.  She finds Kelley guilty of a "check list" approach to the markers of 70s, including Tab and Dr. Scholl’s.  She finds some of the dialog risible.  She finds the music badly chosen and poorly used.   

But I am nervous at taking Franklin’s at her word.  After all, this is a woman who calls Man Men authentic.  (No bannister-slat ethnography for her?).  And in the following passage, I think she puts her critical bona fides at risk.

By 1976, some of the currents of the sixties–women’s liberation and youth culture–had become mainstream; family men sported long sideburns; schoolteachers looked a little more unbuttoned; mothers started wearing pants and shorter skirts, and going to work, and divorce had lost most of its shock value.  At the same time, the popular culture being generated largely stank–and people just went along with it!  It was all so mystifying. (emphasis added)

Those last two sentences are a problem.  There is a charge in anthropology called "presentism."  This is the criticism that awaits people who use the standards of one historical moment to judge another historical moment.  (This is the temporal version of ethnocentrism: the charge brought against people who use the standards of one culture to judge another.)  The point of anthropology or good TV or good criticism is not to sit in judgment, but to look, in this case, for connections between the polyester and the liberation turbulence of the 1970s.  When Franklin presumes to pass judgment on the 1970s in this way, we must wonder whether she’s in a position to judge Swingtown well. 

But, hey, I like Nancy Franklin.  She is smart.  She is a great gift to popular culture, a critic who does for TV what Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) does for Hollywood.  And this is, I think, the nub.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t be the brilliant product of contemporary culture and turn around and scorn that culture.  More exactly: if it was capable of producing you, popular culture must have been a whole lot smarter than you think.  The anthropological fact of the matter is that bannerslat-kids can’t be that much better than the culture that produces them.  To repudiate what produced you (to say popular culture "stank"), this is one contradiction, one intellectual promiscuity, Nancy is not allowed. 


Franklin, Nancy.  2008.  That Seventies Show.  The New Yorker.  June 9 and 16, 2008, pp. 132-133, p.  132. 

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Mad Men and the last stereotype left standing.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  July 20th, 2007. here.

6 thoughts on “Swingtown and other acts of critical promiscuity

  1. Darren

    I’ll just watch because Molly Parker is in it–she’s my favourite Canadian actor (with apologies, I suppose, to Sarah Polley).

  2. srp

    Presentism is one thing; relativism is another.

    I grew up in the era and have negative nostalgia for most pop culture from 1973-79, at least the parts I knew about (I didn’t discover things like Blondie until much later). James Lileks has very specific (and humorous)examples on his various websites of the outlandishly hideous and meretricious graphic design and artwork rife even in children’s books during this period.

    It is not my impression that people who grew up in the 60s, ’80s, or ’90s have the same anti-nostalgia for the music, style, and pop culture of their youth. So perhaps we have an objective marker of sorts–no one is going to ever wear a rust-colored leisure suit again (unless as a form of campy drag) but skinny ties and ’80s music are genuinely enjoyed by those who grew up with them and those who grew up after them.

    Just as we can judge literature by whether it stands the test of time, we can judge popular culture as well. Obviously, there is a normative value judgment at the bottom that can’t be derived from a more fundamental objective premise, but I’m pretty comfortable with a widely shared and deeply felt feeling of “yuck.” That judgment is a social fact at least as much as the demand curve for beer.

  3. Rick Liebling

    Nostalgia is a funny thing. Steven, I believe you are right, the 60s, 80s & 90s, for the most part, are remembered fondly from a pop culture standpoint, yet the 70s are looked down upon. I suppose one could argue the 80s/90s wouldn’t be possible without the 70s.

    What I find curious is that while people seem to forget the junk of the 60s/80s/90s and remember the good stuff, the opposite is true of the 70s. It wasn’t that 70s pop culture was all bad, it’s just that the bad seems to be remembered more vividly than the good.

    I was born in 1970 and grew up a kid of the 80s so I’m not in the best position to curate the pop cultural museum of the 70s, but I find plenty that I like from that decade (Philip K. Dick, Steely Dan, The French Connection, etc.) and many of my current heroes (Belle & Sebastian, Wes Anderson) clearly mine that decade for inspiration.

    Also, here’s the Slate (positive) review of Swingtown:

  4. Daniel Rosenblatt

    I’m not terribly familiar with Nancy Franklin, so it is hard for me to be sure, but in the passage you quote “At the same time, the popular culture being generated largely stank–and people just went along with it! It was all so mystifying” might not be presentist but instead a historicist attempt to capture the way people at the time felt: I was a teenager at the time, and one of the things I think characterized the seventies was a pretty widespread sense that most of the popular culture being produced was inferior and/or inauthentic: “Disco Sucks” was the way we put it at the time.

  5. Virginia Postrel

    To riff on my husband-contemporary’s post, the presentism is judging ’70s pop culture by the good stuff that was obscure at the time but is prominent today. Philip K. Dick? Nobody’d heard of him. Think The Thorn Birds. (To be fair, there was so much music that some of it was good.) And the TV was awful. I remember being home sick one day watching old black-and-white reruns of 1960s Bewitched and thinking “TV shows used to be good!” Speaking of Bewitched, isn’t Mad Men, which I’ve never seen, set in that 1960s ad culture, not the 1970s?

  6. Grant McCracken


    You’re right. Mad Men is 1960. As to the 1970s, I think this was a style struggling to come to terms with the changes that Franklin details. Here’s what she says in the EW review:

    By 1976, some of the currents of the sixties–women’s liberation and youth culture–had become mainstream; family men sported long sideburns; schoolteachers looked a little more unbuttoned; mothers started wearing pants and shorter skirts, and going to work, and divorce had lost most of its shock value.

    If we want, we can say this is a diffusion moment, when some of experimentation that took place in the 1960s enters the mainstream. The kids who made the 1960s were young, they were creatures of relative privilege, they had goodish educations. The people occupying the mainstream were hard working, nose to the grind stone, sexually conservative, religiously conservative, socially conservative and domestically conservative, and, bam, the world suddenly and fundamentally changed for them. (Yes, they had the opportunity of early notice. They got to see the 60s happening at a distance. But they were I think still tested.)

    I think if popular culture “stank” it’s because it was bending before (or struggling to evade) the tectonic pressures of this culture shift. In the language of your distinquished book, it’s style giving voice to culture.

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