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From Mad Men to Black Maids: Desire, Position and Cultural Critique - Terri Senft

Terri Senft
Date: 2010-07-29 17:29
Subject: From Mad Men to Black Maids: Desire, Position and Cultural Critique
Security: Public
Television theorist Jason Mittell has just written a very thoughtful essay about Why he's not a fan of the show Mad Men. I have little patience for writers who spend their time hating, but he's doing negative critique the right way, I think, by inserting himself and his identity position front and center. Jason also posted the essay on his blog for comments, which I think is one of the best ways to do cultural studies today: write up your thoughts in whatever shape they are in, get them in front of others online, and be sure that you state up front your ambivalence about the process before it's 'show time' and the demands of scholarly print freeze thoughts forever...

Jason makes a good point of noting that fandom and anti-fandom are both sort of juvenille positions for a cultural critic to take up. Let's face it, if "why does this suck?", is judgment masquerading as a question, so too is "why does x rule so hard?" Entire anthologies consisting of "Ten Ways in Which Buffy Constitutes the Overthrow of All that is Problematic with the World" is well, a problem, so it's good that Jason's essay is going to appear in an otherwise celebratory text on Mad Maen. Ian Bogost (who has some issues with Jason's essay) agrees.

As I re-read Jasons's piece, though, I was struck by how he remained almost entirely 'in his own head' (fascinating though that head is), especially in light of this line:

“Hopefully we can… try to understand how someone might see the same cultural object so differently from ourselves, rather than looking down on those who disagree.”

How does one learn to actively understand (rather than passively 'appreciate' or even worse 'tolerate') views that differ from our own? In my own work, I've tended toward online ethnography, or in its lasiest form, reading stuff online written by folks who just aren't me. With this in mind, I remembered something I came across recently that applies to Mad Men viewership beyond the space of white maledom:

A few months ago (I think) there was a contest in which people could compete for the prize of a walk-on role in Mad Men. Online, I read lots of “I’m totally doing this” posts, some of which came from women of color who were wrestling with three realities that I will call 'identity positions'. The first identity position was of fans of the show. The second was a position based on historical inheritance: many of these were the daughters and granddaughters of women who once worked as maids/wash room attendants/house cleaners/ nannies for the sort the folks who dominate the landscape of Mad Men. The third identity position was fantasy-based, and involved them imagining themselves getting the opportunity to have a walk-on role on Mad Men. There are probably other positions I haven't thought of that we could easily add (women who identified as not just fans but teachers of this material, women who want a career in Hollywood and would happily take anything film-related as a job, etc.)

One woman, my friend Cathy, wrote a little FaceBook status update in which she confessed that though she would love to be on the show, she couldn’t face her “grandmother in Heaven” if she entered the contest. Cathy noted that her grandmother had worked her whole life to help Cathy's family get past a history of manual labor, and let's be honest, if you are Black and female and cast on Mad Men for thirty seconds (as long as a walk-on lasts), what role would you get *besides* being a washroom attendant or maid? We know how people of color function on Mad Men: they are tokens placed there to ‘remind us’ (and it bears asking who is 'us' here) what it used to be like back in the day.

Cathy is a smart woman; she's also pretty deep in fan cultures of different sorts. As she wrote her post, I was stuck by all the desires at play in this one status update. There was the desire to be on tv, surely. There might have also been desire to somehow re-write the historical imagination in some way, just by having the opportunity to show up as a 2010 self in a 1960's period show. There was probably also a desire to shield oneself from the knowledge that this attempt at re-write by walk-on is wishful thinking at best. Ultimately, Cathy felt that tall these desires were trumped by the desire to 'do right' by her grandmother's history.

Here is what is important: This decision not to try for a walk-on doesn't mean Cathy doesn't watch the show anymore, or that she doesn't identify as a fan (she has done the Mad Men icon thing on Facebook.) It means that although she remains a fannish viewer, she doesn't feel okay inserting her actual 2010 body within Mad Men's production of 1960's whiteness. It's one thing for a Black woman to enjoy a cultural object that waxes sexy about white capitalism. It's another to do so with the knowledge that historically, Black women have served as a ghost in the machine of that enterprise. It's still another thing to volunteer to offer one's current body up to that ghosting-- to play (even if for thirty seconds) at a past that didn't just fade away, but was fought against by people like Cathy's grandmother. That's the stuff that probably won't make it to later seasons of the show. But maybe I'm wrong, here.

Cathy's posting is the sort of material that 'aca-fandom' (Henry Jenkins's term) should be focusing on, and would go a long way in explaining why fan studies ought to matter in today's political climate. Let's face it: at its base, Mad Men is ironic Nostalgia TV: cool, but not a particularly new development in American television programming. Neither is it particularly new to note that people of color have ambivalence about reenacting parts of their troubled past as historical drama, even 'ironically.' *

What is new is that today, people of color who are also fans of nostalgia tv are increasingly articulating their ambivalence about their viewership online, and exploring their feelings within their social networks. If we (and by we I certainly include me) are really are serious about exploring the views of others, we need to search out fans and anti-fans who are unlike ourselves, and we need to listen to them as they attempt to grapple with their own reasons for why they do what they do. And for me, one of the easiest places to locate those voices in online.

*Of course, it’s not only nostalgia television where these kinds of dilemmas occur for people of color: every year there are debates in the Black communities in New Orleans over the ‘status’ of being chosen to be a flambeau during Mardi Gras (a practice that dates back to when slaves used to hold torches for owners to light the streets.)
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User: ayun
Date: 2010-08-01 13:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I was hoping Mittell's critique would be a bit more like yours. The "We're Just Telling It Like It [Was]!" position of the show is...fraught for a lot of subjects, but none more than race. I've seen a lot of good writing on the nostalgic reveries prompted by the show ("Oh, I wish I lived in a time when men still wore hats!") versus the baggage that comes with that surface cool ("But it's sure nice not to accept sexual harassment as the norm in corporate culture!")

The most insightful critiques I've seen of shows like Mad Men come from people who enjoy them enough to think hard about them and why they're problematic. It's difficult to write with as much substance about something you didn't enjoy enough to watch more than a couple of episodes of (though it was right of Mittell to go back and watch a full season when writing the essay).

Thanks for passing along these posts - they made a long airport layover pass a little faster for me yesterday.
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