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KU prof contributes essay to 'Mad Men' book


When I am not breathlessly reporting KU news to you, I occasionally like to watch a bit of television. And one of my favorite shows is "Mad Men," the drama on AMC about 1960s New York advertising executives and the people who are unfortunate enough to interact with them. The first episode of its latest season aired Sunday.

I find the show well-written and well-acted, but the biggest reason I like it is that it is thick and meaty with stuff for you to think about, leaving you to sit and wonder what it all means or doesn't mean. And apparently some academics out there agree that it's worth a bit of chin-scratching, as indicated by a new book full of scholarly essays about the show. It's called "Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style and the 1960s."

I learned of the book when I stumbled upon this review from Inside Higher Ed. And when I saw there that one of the contributors was a KU faculty member, I had to give him a call. And so one of my more self-indulgent blog posts was born.

The KU representative is Clarence Lang, an associate professor of African-American studies. His research concentrates on African-American social movements and black urban history, so his essay ponders how "Mad Men" has handled its 1960s portrayals of the civil rights movement and New York's black population.

Lang said the idea for the book sprang from a symposium on "Mad Men" held in 2010 at the University of Illinois. Researchers from a bunch of different fields — history, English, architecture and more — came and presented their takes on various aspects of the show. He was on the Illinois faculty then, and he was invited to take part. He'd never watched the show, he told me, so he went back and started watching the first season. And he was hooked.

He's still a big fan of the show — "nuanced and sophisticated," he says — but his essay in the book takes kind of a critical angle.

His piece argues a couple of things. For one, he says that if the show is interested in historical accuracy, the civil rights movement probably should have been a bigger issue. Yes, the show is about rich, white ad executives in New York, Lang says, but the movement would likely be a big part of their everyday lives. The show certainly doesn't ignore civil rights issues, but Lang argues that it portrays the movement as being a bit more confined to the South than it was in real life. A lot of civil-rights activism happened in New York, too.

His second point, as I understand it, is a bit more abstract. There are a few black characters on the show, but as Lang notes, they're mostly on the edges of the show and aren't examined with much depth. This is kind of a missed opportunity, he says, because if a black character could be given some meaty storylines, he or she could fit in nicely with one of the show's big themes: how people often tend to cover up the deeper troubles that they're hiding.

"The show is in many ways about the masks that people wear in public," Lang said to me. And the wearing of such "masks" was probably a big part of the black experience in the 1960s.

The full paper is very academic — more complex and sophisticated than the typical TV essay or review you might read online — but those were a couple of takeaways. And Lang agreed with me that the show has tackled gender relations with much more depth than it has looked at race relations, in general.

I said to Lang that perhaps there's still time for the series to incorporate more of the 1960s black experience into the show. He said he wouldn't hold his breath, but he remains a big fan.

"I'll be watching either way," he said.

So will I. But I'll stop talking about it for now. Keep me from falling further down this nerdy rabbit hole by sending your KU news tips to merickson@ljworld.com.

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