The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning television show "Mad Men," a series focusing on a Madison Avenue advertising agency and its employees set in the early 1960s, has become a pop culture phenomenon, attracting legions of fans and piquing the interest of scholars in various fields. Earlier this year, The Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory organized a symposium, "Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s," at the University of Illinois that explored some of the cultural issues of the 1960s and their portrayal on the TV series, which just began its fourth season on AMC. Expanded versions of papers from the symposium are being assembled into a book that is being edited by Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory faculty members Lauren Goodlad, director; Robert Rushing, associate director; and Lilya Kaganovsky, who also holds appointments in Slavic languages and comparative literature. They and other authors will be examining themes from each "Mad Men" episode this season in essays on the Unit's blog, "Kritik." Goodlad recently spoke with News Bureau arts editor Sharita Forrest about scholars' perspectives on "Mad Men."
Why are scholars interested in the show?
There are probably lots of different reasons. For example, many scholars who work on 19th-century fiction, a period that saw popular authors such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot publishing their novels serially, like "Mad Men" because it is part of what we call the "new seriality" - dramas in the genre that started with "The Sopranos" and includes "The Wire" and "Deadwood." These are series with quality writing; complex, ambiguous characters; and narratives that aren't resolved in a single episode or even a single season.
Many viewers find "Mad Men's" view of the past compelling, and some see it as providing a fascinating, accurate window into postwar America. The New York Times, for example, published a timeline for "Mad Men" including the historical events the show incorporates. The editors and contributors to our book tend to prefer a more provisional approach. We ask, 'Why does this view of America's postwar past seem to be so convincing at this time? Why is the show creating interest and excitement among such a wide range of people, many of whom are too young to remember the era?'
If you look at some of "Mad Men's" explicit cultural references, such as to the 1956 film "The Man in Gray Flannel Suit," you'll find that the picture of the past "Mad Men" provides is quite different from the depiction of contemporary reality in the movie.
The show is rightly celebrated for its meticulous capture of period details: the clothes, the furniture, the books and movies people were discussing at a particular time. But in spite of all that emphasis on authentic surface details, we don't assume that historical accuracy is the most important facet of its stories. "Mad Men" may persuade us that we are looking at the '60s, but we are watching it in the 2000s.
Popular shows such as "Mad Men," "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad" revolve around characters who are anti-heroes - successful and attractive yet dishonest, promiscuous, and even criminals who are portrayed as amalgams of evil and the guy next door. What does it say about today's culture that we embrace these types of characters?
I think there has always been room in the modern psyche to take a strong interest in anti-heroes. In Victorian fiction, which is the area that I specialize in, William Thackeray's character Becky Sharp in "Vanity Fair" was nothing if not an anti-hero, and people at the time loved to hate her. Thackeray and Anthony Trollope each wrote very popular novels that were predicated on there being no heroes in sight; yet people could still find reasons to identify with or at least follow the characters in these narratives that they read over a period of years, and discussed with their friends just like we do today.
"Mad Men's" Don Draper is an interesting example because a lot of people find him very sympathetic despite his deep moral flaws. You can find very passionate arguments, even among people who love the show, about whether he is or isn't a character with any capacity to change morally. You can also find people who don't like the show because they feel like they're being manipulated by the glamorization of characters such as Don. They find it a turn-off to see reprehensible characters given so much visual attention and charisma.
None of the characters in "Mad Men" have any kind of nobility. And yet we do see isolated moments in which characters do something admirable. This might be something as simple as expressing pleasure in a human relationship. But very often what we're expected to admire is something quite different: We're called on to identify with a character's ability to overcome circumstances that would destroy or diminish other people. We're identifying with characters' ability to get on with their lives successfully in spite of the emptiness and duplicity that surrounds them.
Still, you can understand why some people don't like to watch, or watch but find the experience disturbing. The relationships between characters are very hollowed out and instrumentalizing; we are often watching characters as they seize on immediate gratification without thinking about the consequences of their acts. Or they are using others to pursue some long-term strategy or ambition. Many viewers find this kind of narrative a useful allegory for modern life. It is interesting and cathartic.
"Mad Men" has been criticized for its marginalization of female and minority characters and the racism and sexism that it portrays. What's your perspective?
I'm not a historian of the Sixties but I have read the work of people who are and who are contributing essays to the volume that we are planning to publish. The consensus seems to be that "Mad Men" is very good at delivering a white, middle-class perspective on the '60s, and some people feel quite strongly that by portraying racism from this mainly privileged white perspective, the show is also perpetuating it. Clarence Lang (history/African American studies, Illinois) and Kent Ono (Asian American studies/media and cinema studies, Illinois) have both written great chapters about "Mad Men" and race for the book.
There are important characters of color (for example, Carla, the Draper family housekeeper and nanny, and Hollis, the elevator operator at Sterling Cooper). These characters appear in scenes that are dramatically important - providing us with short but powerful glimpses of what the white characters take for granted or just don't notice. But they are not main characters so there is a visible hierarchy between a cast of wholly white principal characters and the minor non-white characters with whom they interact. These minority characters aren't fully developed through, for example, storylines that follow their private lives away from work. We have no prolonged access to what they're thinking and feeling.
But with women it's a very different story, I think. There are three principal female characters on "Mad Men," and the viewer learns a lot about their private lives and their perspectives. Betty gives us the vantage of a suburban housewife and mother, Peggy of a young woman trying to move up a largely male career ladder, and Joan of a woman whose extraordinary professional abilities are constantly under-recognized. The secondary female characters are also quite interesting and fairly well-developed. For example, Don Draper's many affairs tend to be with unconventional women; they are often businesswomen who, in certain ways, resemble Don himself.
What themes were explored at the symposium and will be part of the volume you're now editing?
The civil rights movement, the Cold War, gender issues, sexual reproduction and birth control, among other topics.
Some speakers explored historical events that were depicted in "Mad Men's" storylines. For example, Leslie Reagan (gender and women's studies/history, Illinois) discusses how a 1960s TV show, "The Defenders," had trouble getting advertising sponsors for an episode about a physician who was performing illegal abortions, a real-life incident that is worked into a story line about Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency in "Mad Men."
One of the keynote speakers from the symposium, Michael Szalay (English, University of California at Irvine) will be writing on how the Democratic Party sought the help of Madison Avenue advertising agencies in influencing white people who didn't want to be associated with blacks to vote for a party platform that was being supported by increasing numbers of black voters.
But we also have chapters focusing on topics such as fashion, style, art, the influence of other '60s media (Italian and Soviet film, for example), and seriality. Dianne Harris (landscape architecture/history/Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, Illinois) has a great chapter on "Mad Men's" interiors; and Irene Small (art history, Illinois) another strong essay about how the series uses contemporary art.
Several contributors to the book were not at the symposium: for example, Dana Polan, a television scholar at New York University who recently published a book on "The Sopranos," and Jeremy Varon, a historian at the New School who is a co-editor of a journal called "The Sixties."
The Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory is featuring a scholarly essay about each "Mad Men" episode this season on its blog "Kritik." Who will be writing and what topics will they be exploring?
We've given them free rein; their approach to each episode is entirely up to them. Lilya Kaganovsky wrote the first post. We wanted the series to include a range of voices from Illinois and elsewhere, including pieces from people who will not be contributing to the book as well as those who will.
The other Illinois contributors to the blog series are Sandy Camargo (a lecturer in film studies), Jim Hansen (English), Rob Rushing (associate director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory), Faith Stein (a graduate student in the comparative literature program), and me.
The writers from off campus are Michael Berubé (English and cultural studies, Penn State), Caroline Grant (the editor-in-chief of the website "Literary Mama"), Konstantine Klioutchkine (Slavic literature, Pomona College), Caroline Levine (English, University of Wisconsin), Dana Polan (cinema studies, New York University), and Jeremy Varon (history, The New School).