Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men Unzipped reports on—but doesn’t control—the conversation

Illustration for article titled Mad Men Unzipped reports on—but doesn’t control—the conversation

When you put “Unzipped” in a title, you promise something sexy, something not often seen, something that could be titillating or intimate or dirty or profound—or all of that and more. But what is revealed by this zipper might not be quite all you hoped for. Mad Men Unzipped: Fans On Sex, Love, And The Sixties On TV tells the story of Mad Men’s phenomenon by reporting the reactions of its fans—through social media commentary, interviews, and other ways that fans interact with the characters and ideas of the show. Different chapters focus on different aspects of the series: men and masculinity, women and their particular challenges in the workplace, nostalgia for and the history of the 1960s, the advertising industry—and sex. It summarizes situations portrayed in the series and describes how fans reacted to them.

Mad Men Unzipped begins well, stating straightforwardly that this “book represents cutting-edge psychological research on how fans make meaning from fictional drama.” This seems to promise some serious analysis—especially since the book is co-authored by four media psychologists—but instead the book is largely descriptive: It shows fans engaging with the show—and quotes them too good effect—but something feels missing.


For example: Fans interact with the show by writing fan fiction, which is “more like a theatrical performance than literature,” according to fan studies scholar Francesca Coppa. “Much like a theatrical company performs a famous play as a way to provide a different take on the material, these stories evoke the characters and settings that fans are familiar with but alter them to fit the writer’s vision.” One writer of fan fiction says, “I refuse to passively have content put in my head without engaging and ‘talking back’ with it.” Another says they write it “to resolve all the [sexual] tension on the show and in my pants.” Other fans write “slash” stories “in which two same-sex characters who are heterosexual in the source material are romantically paired”—most often Don and Roger or Don and Pete, but also Peggy and Joan.

Fans interact with the situations and the stories of Mad Men through fan fiction, but is there something deeper going on here? Sure, writers of fan fic want to “stay in that world with those characters longer,” “express their love of the show,” and “grapple with this nuanced series and its complicated characters,” but if there are other factors at work the book skims over them. The book names things—like “parasocial interactions,” which occur when “you’ve spent enough time with a character to start thinking about him outside of the times you’re watching him”—but then it moves on, without really exploring or explaining the significance of these relationships.

The book also describes how Mad Men fans use Twitter to expand their fandom. Media scholar Henry Jenkins claims that “while story-length fan fiction may be a performance, Twitter fan fiction could be considered ‘a kind of performance art’ due to its shortened form.” There have been fan-run Twitter accounts under the names of the main characters, but also—and perhaps more interestingly—from entities such as Ida Blakenship’s ghost and the ad agency’s copy machine.

Then there’s versions of cosplay, when fans act out Mad Men in real life through clothing (like Banana Republic’s Mad Men line) or tours (such as New York City’s Mad Men cocktail tour) or themed parties (like as Martha Stewart’s “How to Plan A Mad Men Premiere Party,” complete with bar setup, party décor, the recipes for the perfect Manhattan and martini, instructions on essential party appetizers—pigs in a blanket and shrimp cocktail).


All of this is interesting and makes for fun reading, but the book stays largely at the level of observation, often slipping away from the thought-provoking questions it asks (how do—or should—we judge the way the show’s characters handle sex?) with general statements or quippy quotes from the show (“When God closes a door, he opens a dress.”). The book says seemingly profound things that are actually fairly obvious: “[There] are marked differences between the vividness, intensity, and clarity of television and real life. Real life is often more boring, less dramatic, less vivid, less intense, and less clear than fiction.” Well, yes. Or this: “Through stories we gain the ability to experience life as other people in other places and other times.” Yes to that too.

Readers expecting something like Don Draper’s powerful eloquence to come popping out of this unzipped zipper (“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”) are likely to be disappointed that the book’s real-life words are indeed “less dramatic, less vivid [and] less intense” than the fiction they describe. While fans of the show will enjoy this book as a conversation-of-sorts with other fans, Mad Men Unzipped puts the work of analysis into the reader’s hands, leaving many of its more profound questions unanswered, much like the series itself. You won’t want to buy the world a Coke when you’re done reading—but you might want one for yourself, to fuel your thinking about what this show really means, at least to you.


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