My Course on Mad Men Taught My Students How to Be Smarter TV Watchers. It Can Teach You, Too.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 8 2014 12:59 PM

Don Draper 101

My college course on Mad Men taught my students to be smarter TV watchers. It can teach you, too.

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To consider those questions, visiting those ’50s and ’60s texts wasn’t enough. Thus, in addition to reading more recent texts that contextualized various cultural trends of the ’60s (Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, for example, or Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic) we also questioned the way Mad Men itself “does” history. How does the show address—and ignore—race? How does it illuminate the Jewish experience, give short shrift to the African-American one, and almost completely elide the existence of other races? And what does the makeup of the writers’ room—and that of showrunner Matthew Weiner—have to do with the answers to those questions?

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.

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Ono’s stunning argument deflated many of my students who, by the end of Season 2, had fallen hard for the Mad Men universe. Ono’s argument wasn’t entirely novel—people have been critiquing Mad Men’s racial politics all over the Internet for years—but, at least in the context of the classroom, it was unignorable. Oftentimes, deep in love with a show, we just don’t read the things that threaten to puncture our enjoyment. But this essay was assigned, and necessary for a writing project, and the focus of an 80-minute class discussion: Even if a student disagrees, she still had to hear the argument’s most compelling points hashed out, elaborated, made visible and vivid. The classroom forced the students, as viewers, to engage with counterarguments in depth, at length, and with thoughtfulness—the very inverse of much of what the Internet asks of them on a daily basis.

For 24 students, the Mad Men class modeled an engaged, historicized, self-reflexive approach to the media we love. Their final exam was to answer one of two deceptively simple questions: “Who is Don Draper?” or “Who is Peggy Olson?” Instead of articulating what they loved or hated about the show, they were forced to consider the how and the who, the cultural and narrative and aesthetic forces that produced characters whose place in television history is already secure. 

I’m certainly not the first person to teach a class this way—The Wire, The Simpsons, Law & Order, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and dozens of other television texts have been taught as standalone classes from Oberlin to MIT to SUNY Oswego. No two classes are the same—each is inflected with its home discipline (media studies, history, politics, sociology) —but in various ways, they all offer a simple recalibration in the way we think about our television: not whether or not we like something, but why

And even if you’re not in college, you can still experience this intense, deep engagement with a show. My syllabus is online, but you don’t even need a reading list—although I guarantee it will complicate and enrich your experience of a show. You just need to start thinking differently, whether that’s while watching Mad Men or Game of Thrones or Scandal. Re-embrace your inner student and remember why, ideally, we take classes in the first place: not to affirm what we already believe, but to challenge and change us.

Anne Helen Petersen teaches media studies at Whitman College. Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, is forthcoming from Plume/Penguin Press in 2014.

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