Thursday, April 10, 2014


Pretty exciting--new Mad Men soon.  Speaking of which, here's an essay in Slate by Ann Helen Petersen, who teaches media studies at Whitman College: "Don Draper 101."  It's about a class she taught on Mad Men.  Some people might think it silly to devote a class to a TV show, but hey, even if you don't think its art there's always the anthropological angle.  The students, along with watching episodes, read books and essays relating to the culture of the time the show represents. So far, so good.  But then we get to this:

We didn’t necessarily arrive at answers so much as develop strategies—and identify traps to avoid. Because when you love a period piece, it’s easy to excuse its faults in the name of historical or narrative accuracy. The blatant racism, misogyny, classism—that’s the point. There’s some merit to this argument (I loved Willa Paskin’s recent application of it to True Detective) so long as we’re constantly talking about the absences—of characters of color, of fleshed-out female characters—instead of simply forgetting them.

Which is why we read “Mad Men's Postracial Figuration of a Racial Past,” a superb essay by historian Kent Ono that not only expands the critique of Mad Men’s racial politics to include its treatment of Asian-Americans but effectively undercuts the claim that Mad Men’s depiction of racism is, in truth, an anti-racist act. Characters of color—even relatively well-developed ones like Carla or Hollis—become foils to elucidate the actions of white (main) characters. It’s not just the setting that segregates and devalues them but the narrative itself.

I read the essay she refers to and it's exactly the sort of blather that gives the academic world a bad name.  Filled with the sediment of second-hand thinking (that was questionable enough when it was first-hand), it actually prevents serious appraisal of art or entertainment.  Any professor who calls it "superb" is probably best avoided.

No matter what your view of racism, or sexism, or the Cold War, or price controls, or Norwegian fishing quotas, or whatever it is that interests you, art is not required to represent anything in any way, no matter how much you wish it would.  The aesthetic operates in its own realm.  To Petersen, and Ono, it's not enough that Mad Men shows the casual sexism and racism of the era (not that it has to, by the way--that's a choice)--the show must make sure certain characters on the sidelines are given more depth, and not just be unnecessary adjuncts to the main character, who are generally white and privileged.

This is hogwash, and hateful hogwash at that.  The artist chooses what story to tell, and on whom to concentrate. The job of the artist--or even the harried TV writer--is to make that story compelling, not to have any particular message, or, even more limiting, tell the story in any particular way.  If anything, demanding a show conform to rigid (and all too shallow) ideological constraints will likely weaken the art and make any message less meaningful.

I've read serious, intelligent criticism of Mad Men, but this sort of prattle isn't it.  Though let me give some advice to the students.  We've all had this kind of class.  Just regurgitate what the professor wants on the final and you'll be okay.  The last thing you'd want to do is challenge her thinking or disturb her worldview in any way.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, this woman's class sounds way off. I feel bad for the kids whose introduction to this marvelous show has to be through her.

Regarding the more serious, intelligent criticism of Mad Men you allude to, are there any pieces or essays online you particularly recommend for further reading when exploring Mad Men?

11:30 AM, April 12, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Mad Men is probably the most written-about show on the air, and there's a ton of stuff about it all over the internet. Many websites (like Slate, and, of course, places that concentrate on TV, like The AV Club) have regularly published pieces, some worth reading.

Most of the stuff is positive, but if you want to see an intelligent yet negative (and at times unduly harsh) look at the show, I'm reminded of Daniel Mendelsohn's takedown in The New York Review Of Books.

2:00 PM, April 12, 2014  

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