“Where Do You Want Me to Start?” Producing History through Mad Men (March 1, 2011)

full name / name of organization: 
Invisible Culture
contact email: 
Amanda Graham (agraham9[at]mail[dot]rochester[dot]edu) and Erin Leary (eleary2[at]mail[dot]rochester[dot]edu)

The television network AMC’s historical drama Mad Men, set in 1960-64, premiered in 2007. While the program was slowly accepted by audiences, at least as slowly as its methodical narrative structures, it clearly struck a chord among a cross-generational body of viewers, tripling in size from the first season. In order to engage with the show more fully, fans paraded in Mad Men-inspired costumes during Banana Republic-sponsored
events in 2009 and 2010 in Times Square, “Mad Men-ed” themselves online, participated in the series’ Facebook page or the network’s online portals, downloaded period music, or simply watched each episode. The show is a pervasive cultural force
within the media landscape, but why does this program—which is situated several decades in the past—have such saliency today? How and why do viewers relate to these characters? How does Mad Men impact our understanding of current socio-cultural
environment? How does our contemporary cultural landscape inform how we read Mad Men?

When Mad Men entered into American living rooms, viewers’ lives were characterized by prosperity. One year later, in 2008, America’s nightmares were realized: widespread bankruptcy and home foreclosures occurred, unidentifiable villains and incomprehensible wars became the norm, rhetorics of socialism and communism were brandished by various political factions, racial tensions resurfaced, and technological angst became a
part of citizens’ everyday realities and prompted them to question the American dream. These anxieties mirror those of the postwar era in which Mad Men is set and traverse the spacio-temporal boundaries demarcating one period from the other.

Simultaneously, Mad Men asks the viewer to question social progress. When Don Draper and his family leave trash from a family picnic on park grounds, viewers may feel momentarily superior. When Peggy Olson is embarrassed to declare her pregnancy in the workplace, viewers could experience a sense of self-congratulatory modernity. Yet, self- reflective viewers are as likely to wonder if much has actually changed. Highlighting these
disjunctures and the functions of history encourages viewers to realize the wisdom of Don’s assertion that, “Change isn’t good or bad. It just happens.”

Why are fans so obsessed with Mad Men? Why this particular show? What does it mean to want to live in Mad Men or be in Mad Men? Do the parallels between the nineteen-sixties
(as interpreted by Mad Men) and the events of our contemporary moment serve to enhance our understandings of either era? Does the show’s depiction of the postwar period function as a site of nostalgia by virtue of its status as a present-day consumer
product? Or does it perform the productive functions of the outmoded? Are these categories fruitful modes of analysis? How do they position this particular object for a
multi-generational audience?

Possible avenues for evaluation include, but are not limited to:

Narration
Considering the literary content of Mad Men—books, poems, etc. featured in conjunction
with character development;
The symbolism in the music of Mad Men;
Influences of Hitchcock and the imagery of the falling man;
Relationships to other television programs, films, art works, and political events in our
contemporary media/culturalscape

Consumption
Parallels in the relationships between the modern subject and consumption; baby boom,
postwar affluence – industry related to death of industry economy – outsourced labor?
Design, broadly encompassed to include architecture, fashion, interiors, graphic design;
Product placement, historical and contemporary;
Advertising analysis;
Environmentalism;
Viewer reception;
Technology (as reflected in the show, and as a mechanism for the show’s distribution)

Identity
Political consciousness and sexual awakening/promiscuity (male/female, gay/straight,
pre/extra-marital);
Playing Yourself: Alter egos and virtuality;
class passing narratives;
The representation of homosexuality on screen and historically;
Motherhood; fatherhood
Infertility and class;
Questions of nationalism;
Character/actor “metatext” crossover to other shows/news
We solicit articles from a wide array of disciplines, including communication studies and
anthropology, film and media studies, women’s studies, literary criticism, music theory
and history, as well as critical race studies and cultural studies generally defined.

Please send inquiries and completed papers (MLA style) of between 2,500 and 5,000
words to Amanda Graham (agraham9[at]mail[dot]rochester[dot]edu) and Erin Leary
(eleary2[at]mail[dot]rochester[dot]edu) by March 1, 2011.

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cultural_studies_and_historical_approaches
ethnicity_and_national_identity
film_and_television
gender_studies_and_sexuality
general_announcements
interdisciplinary
journals_and_collections_of_essays
popular_culture
theory