Born in the late 1960s, I am—for better or worse—one of Rosemary’s Generation. Historian Steven Mintz describes a “sea change” in behavior and attitudes in the youth of the 60s and 70s: “their parents’ concern for their well-being became translated into their own search for personal fulfillment.” Often characterized as “idealistic and rebellious,” 60s youth were also “uniquely self-absorbed, materialistic, and narcissistic.”[i]
No single cultural product can define a generation, but Roman Polanski’s film, Rosemary Baby, released on June 12, 1968, certainly embodies something of 60s youth—as did, I would add, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (also 1968) and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976).
Headlines of the 60s worried about spoiled, defiant children and, as Mintz puts it about “parents who let their offspring bully them.” A 1960 issue of Newsweek asked “Are We Trapped in a Child-Centered World?” Other articles posed the questions “Is the Younger Generation Soft and Spoiled?” and “Child Monarchy in America?”[ii]
All those fears about angry, rebellious, self-centered, tyrannical youth were incarnate in Rosemary’s Baby—in Satan himself.
Given how important Rosemary’s Baby was, it’s no accident, then, that it makes a central appearance in AMC’s Mad Men—one of the best explorations of 60s culture ever to appear on television.
In season six, episode twelve, “The Quality of Mercy,” Don (Jon Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) go to see Rosemary’s Baby—and they are both, especially Megan, terrified. “That was really, really scary,” Megan says. “It was disturbing,” Don replies in characteristically understated fashion.
Megan later repeats that it was “terrifying”—and it’s pretty clear that, as a woman without children, her struggle with what she angrily calls Don’s “screwed up” kids play some role in her horrified response to the film.
The episode also features one of those “screwed up kids,” Don’s daughter, Sally, as she drinks, smokes pot, and illicitly invites boys to her sleep-over / interview at a fancy boarding school. “You like trouble,” one of her peer “interviewers” says approvingly.[iii]
At the center of the episode, though, is a storyline that really highlights the sea-change Rosemary’s Baby so perfectly embodied. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) comes up with an ad campaign for children’s aspirin that is inspired by the film. The point of view is to be that of the baby in the crib—a crowd of adults around it tending on its every need (so many adults, in fact, that Peggy goes way over budget with the casting needs): the final shot is to be the mother offering everything the baby needs (aspirin!).
Peggy’s ad mimics the famous final scene of Polanski’s film, in which the coven devotedly surrounds the devil in his crib, starting up to proclaim obeisance to the child: “Hail Satan!” Mad Men, of course, puts the child in the place of Satan—and the child will have its every need met by a burgeoning consumer society as well as by its parents.[iv] Just as Peggy’s commercial is shot from the perspective of the demanding devil / baby, ads will be produced relentlessly from, for, and to the youth generation. A youth generation that will also become, and remain, the consumer generation.
[i] Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 313
[ii] Mintz, Huck’s Raft, p. 314
[iii] Sally is seen reading Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby earlier in the season.
[iv] As an aside for Mad Men fans, it is very intriguing how this episode consistently puts Don himself in the place of the baby / Satan. In the frame I include above, his head is positioned over the crib on the art design for the ad, and earlier in the episode, when Peggy, Ted, and Joan act out the commercial for Don, they have him play the baby. Margaret Lyons makes a great case in an article in Vulture that Don is Rosemary. But he’s also positioned as the Devil.