If you were an incoming freshman at my college this fall, you had dozens of courses available to usher you into the life of the mind. You could take Intro to Psych and figure out why your roommate is so weird. You could take Intro to Microeconomics, just to show everyone who ever told you’d never learn anything useful at a liberal arts school. You could enroll in Feminist Jewish Mysticism to provide cocktail party conversation starters for the rest of your adult life. Or you could take Mad Men: Media, Gender, Historiography, with me, and make your friends wonder exactly how you got your parents to pay for you to binge a show on Netflix.
I don’t doubt that some of my students viewed the class as an easy A before arriving on the first day. But by the end of the semester, they knew you can pack a lot of academic rigor into a class about one cable drama series. Because a Mad Men class, like so many other single-show-centric classes popping up across higher ed, offers a potential model for a mode of television criticism that is at once engaged, historicized, and appreciative … while also thoroughly invested not only in analysis, but critique. Proof, in other words, that fandom can be smart and self-interrogating—and that media consumption can be as academic and intelligent, albeit in different ways, as an econ class.
People are always amazed that you can teach an entire course on a television show. “Don’t you get bored?” they ask me, or “Don’t you run out of things to talk about?” But professors teach entire courses on Paradise Lost and The Canterbury Tales, on the work of a single director (“The Films of Clint Eastwood” and “The Films of Hitchcock”), author (Roth, Joyce, Nabokov), or philosopher. Whether or not Mad Men equals these texts in artistic merit is a bloody battle for elsewhere, but the hand-wringing over classes devoted to contemporary pop culture is misplaced: Not only is there enough Mad Men proper to fill an entire course (more than 78 hours of it and counting), but a wealth of cultural history spirals forth from every episode, ripe for discussion.
So here’s how we did it.
Each student signed up for a Netflix account; before each class, they’d watch between two to five episodes assigned by me. They’d also read an article or book excerpt—the vast majority of which were written at or around the time in which the series is set. For an understanding of the divide between Don’s suburban and urban life—one of the many roots of his unhappiness—we read Revolutionary Road, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Meditations in an Emergency. For a notion of Peggy and Joan’s life in the city, The Best of Everything and, later, Sex and the Single Girl. To make sense of Kinsey and Midge, Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro”; for Betty’s ennui, The Feminine Mystique; for Sterling Cooper’s milieu, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man.
Those assignments shouldn’t be all that surprising; some, such as Meditations in an Emergency, even served as focal points within the various episodes. Yet reading these works gave students a larger sense of what was percolating outside the narrative bounds of the show: Even if Peggy never read Sex and the Single Girl, she was firmly positioned within a culture that increasingly reproduced the attitudes toward sex and consumption articulated by Helen Gurley Brown. Put differently, these texts made culture, and culture made our characters.
All but two of my students entered as nonfans: In my experience, college students like to watch things that help them wind down after a night of studying (The Mindy Project, Archer, and Scandal are current favorites) not ponderous 42-minute quasi-existential contemplations on American identity. In the beginning, many of them admitted to difficulty in embracing the show. It didn’t binge as easily as something like House of Cards; it felt, in one student’s words, “very long.” And so it is—at least at first. Being in a class, however, forced students to power through the natural inclination to go for something snappier and sexier. After all, so many of the best things in life—coffee, beer, mushrooms—taste weird until, one day, they taste amazing.
Which is pretty much what happened about a month in. Suddenly I had students emailing, tweeting, and knocking down my office door to talk about plot points as they happened. They devoured the ’50s and ’60s “primary texts” not necessarily because a professor told them they were “good,” but because they unlocked the characters, their milieu, and their motivations, which only further affixed them to Mad Men proper.
There’s a danger in any class devoted to a single author or text turning into an endless fan club—a danger that, a month in, I felt acutely. If a show were worthy of such sustained attention, it would follow that it would also merit our unadulterated love, which was precisely what I was beginning to sense from the majority of the class. But Mad Men’s not interesting because of its quality; rather, it’s quality because of the ways it invites us to think of narrative, identity, race, gender, class, memory—and how all those things contributed to what became 1960s America.
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.
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.