Monday, April 1, 2013

Reading Cultural Objects: Conversations about Mad Men, Gender, and Ideology

After a hiatus of a few weeks, I would like to change course in my posts and reflect on the ways we—our individual selves, our society, and our ideologies—dictate reading. My last series focused on the ways in which one particular organization, Jumpstart, mediates questions of policy and literacy—a fairly explicit conversation about reading, what to read, who can read, and the values of reading.

However, it’s easy to forget that official institutions and organizations are not the only mediators of our day-to-day reading practices.

Last week I attended a panel on Mad Men through the Chicago Humanities Festival; the conversation—a still mediated but less formal version of a traditional panel—featured Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert Rushing, all three professors from the University of Illinois who edited Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s, and WBEZ's Alison Cuddy discussing various readings of Mad Men. Questions were opened by the audience, and a reception afterwards guaranteed that attendees had plenty of time to discuss the panelists’ perspectives in contrast with their own. For a few hours, Chicagoans listened to interpretations, did their own readings, and raised questions in pseudo- and actually academic ways, all about an object of popular culture.
What was striking, though, was not the idea that one might have a rigorous, academic reading and discussion of popular culture, but the ways in which certain readings or interpretations were perfectly acceptable while others were unanswerable or even taboo.

Panelists were happy to tackle questions about gender, even criticizing the show’s perspective—Mad Men explicitly depicts misogynist characters, perspectives, and events—while questioning the show’s motive: the misogyny in Mad Men often makes the viewer uncomfortable, forcing the viewer to assess why a given interaction feels so very bad, rather than reiterating misogyny in a positive light. Questions from the audience regarding gender, the interactions between men and women in the 1960s as viewed from today, and women’s rights were welcomed and garnered a lot of response from the panelists, who were enthusiastic about reading the show under these lenses.

Yet when one audience member raised a question about sexual violence against women on Mad Men, the panelists were silent for what felt like minutes. The audience too, became particularly quiet. When they finally mustered up their voices, they had very little to say, and none of the panelists offered a willingness to read the show with sexual violence in mind.

What determines our readings? How is one topic—women’s rights pertaining to education, employment, and families—a perfectly good lens through which to read and critique pop culture, while another—sexual violence—creates a void of silence in panelists and audience alike?

Of course, setting plays an important role in what kind of conversations are allowed (explicitly or implicitly) to take place: in a setting like the Chicago Humanities Festival, which takes itself to explicitly be dealing with questions of what it means to be human, more controversial readings of topics like race and sexuality can take place quite easily. On the other hand, in a space which revolves around a (relatively) short hour-long conversation which is predicated entirely on the support of audience members—the Chicago Humanities Festival is non-profit—the conversation needs to leave audience members with some kind of satisfaction or affect which will both enable them to feel their time reading Mad Men has been worthwhile and create a desire for audience members to come to more events.

The perplexity of what kinds of reading are acceptable, which extends beyond questions of gender to those of sexuality, race, ethnicity, politics, economics (the list goes on and on), will be the subject of my next blog series: questioning the ways we read, how we read, and what we read in terms of what is socially accessible. While I can’t promise some concrete answer to questions of accessibility, nor even a map of all the ways our social relations dictate acceptable and unacceptable readings, I hope to explore a few of the ways in which thinking critically about reading mass culture can in some ways reveal more about our own relations to the world than about culture itself.

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