Psychology

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A new academic book analyzes fans' reactions to Mad Men (essay)

Mad Men Unzipped: Fans on Sex, Love, and the Sixties on TV, from the University of Iowa Press, is not the first academic book devoted to the AMC series about hard-drinking, chain-smoking, decidedly nonmonogamous advertising executives in Manhattan in the 1960s. Not by a large margin: of the 14 titles on the program listed in the Library of Congress Catalog, 10 are from scholarly presses or otherwise manifestly professorial.

Unzipped is the ninth such title. Its senior author, Karen E. Dill-Shackleford, is a professor of psychology at Fielding Graduate University -- an accredited distance-learning program described on its website as offering graduate degrees in “the fields of clinical and media psychology, educational leadership, human development, and organizational development” -- and the other three authors also have some connection to Fielding. (For particulars, see the book's Facebook page.) Identifying themselves as “a team of media psychologists” who are also “members of the Mad Men audience,” they have “followed the show and the fans’ reactions to better understand both fandom generally and the Mad Men fan phenomenon particularly.”

Previous monographs treated Mad Men in its political, historical and philosophical dimensions, and there is already at least one effort to psychoanalyze the characters. With Unzipped, Dill-Shackleford et al focus on, in their own words, “the way people make sense of fictional stories and use what they learn to think about life” and “how the interactive world of social media allows us to contribute to the conversation.”

The authors announce their work as “cutting-edge psychological research on how fans make meaning from fictional drama.” The claim is too hyperbolic for its own good, considering that the study of fandom largely got underway with Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) and now has its own publication of record, the Journal of Fandom Studies, launched in 2013. On the first page of Mad Men Unzipped, the authors stress that they reject “the misguided stereotype of the geeky fan who has had a mental break with reality.” Fair enough, but that simply repeats the inaugural gesture of fandom research, which involved responding to William Shatner’s satirical dig at Trekkers with, “That’s not funny!” (to paraphrase very loosely).

Then again, distancing their attitude from “the misguided stereotype of the geeky fan” makes sense if we assume that the book is meant for an audience of psychology undergrads and Mad Men aficionados, rather than of initiates in fandom-studies research. In that respect, Unzipped is a good conversation starter about the relatively unproblematic condition of “being a fan” in the everyday, typical sense: someone who enjoys watching, thinking and talking about a program, whether or not he or she goes on to attend or host a theme party, write fiction based on the show’s characters, or the like.

Granted, the more ardent expressions of devotion do sometimes lead to strange and interesting subcultures. But it’s casual fans who are more common and, perhaps, more teachable -- that is, able to benefit from turning their enthusiasm for a particular show into an occasion to reflect on how and why it means something to them.

“In our digital era,” the authors of Unzipped write, “stories live in what are known as ‘transmedia spaces.’ Transmedia means that the story crosses from one medium to another (TV, blog, fan video, theater, app), playing itself out in different spaces.” That certainly has implications for media-psychology research itself -- creating “a new era of social science in action” now that “dragging college sophomores into a lab and forcing answers out of them” is no longer necessary. Fandom, even casual fandom, documents itself. The authors can survey the range of reactions to Mad Men’s characters (Pete Campbell: Man or boy?) or depictions of changing gender roles (Joan Holloway: Second-wave feminist avant la lettre?) with an abundance of blog posts, tweets and other digital records, often put out into public space before an episode ended.

The responses themselves are seldom very surprising, at least to anyone who has had a chance to discuss with another viewer the pleasures, frustrations and ambivalences of following the show’s arcs of character development and depictions of social change (not to mention their likely post-1970 fallout). There are occasional exceptions, such as the authors’ observation that “the fans had precious little to say about alcohol addiction that went beyond ‘that’s how it was in those days,’” although they did want to talk about sex addiction. Another quoted commenter pointed out, “While the writers show great complexity in their development of working women at a turning point, they do not seem to know what to do about motherhood.”

And interviews with viewers working in the advertising industry at various points over the past 50 years tended to evaluate Mad Men as an extremely accurate depiction of life in a major agency -- except for those who dismissed it as unrecognizable and soap opera-like. As with judgments of Don Draper’s character or Bert Cooper’s sanity, questions of historical realism here are in the eye of the viewer. The very nature of the evidence, and of the jury, is that no binding judgment can be made.

Media psychologists can show us that audiences bring diverse and complex emotions and presuppositions with them that imaginary characters and dramatic situations can then evoke. My belief that Sally Draper went on to join the Symbionese Liberation Army tells you something about her or about me -- possibly both. Our meaning-making capacities can and do respond to works of fictional narrative in ways that media psychologists can show and analyze.

The more interesting thing is that some narratives invite or even demand such an engagement from the public and get it. Others don’t; some don’t even try. What sets them apart from one another is a question with historical and aesthetic aspects, but it also has a component that it seems as if psychologists would want to take up.

And as a spin-off study, someone ought to do research into another matter. There are Mad Men Barbie dolls and tarot cards and many other such items -- including the Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook: Inside the Kitchens, Bars, and Restaurants of Mad Men. Why, for every such fan-oriented title, are there two aimed at an academic audience? With more to come, no doubt about it.

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'Mad Men' Barbies

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