For all the media flutter about Joan and Roger and Pete and Sal, I'm one of those people who feels she would be perfectly happy to watch a "Mad Men" composed exclusively of scenes between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss). Hamm and Moss have, for one thing, an acting alchemy that's fairly unique on television right now, the kind of skillful play off each other than leads even underwritten scenes to be fraught with meaning. They are experts at filling in the blanks, for each other and for the script, so to speak. Which explains why it's taken me an entire week to work up the will to write about last Sunday's episode, "The Suitcase," basically a two-hander written specially for Hamm and Moss. It's just taken that long to come down from the high. I had resolved not to flood this space with Mad Men analysis, but it's just my luck that the week I start blogging here Mad Men runs what I suspect will be remembered as one of its greatest episodes.
The party line of the chattering classes on Mad Men this season seems to be that it's been slow-going, with little plot development and a lot of Don facedown: in his drink, in the boardroom, in his secretary. For my part, I find the focus on Don's failings refreshing. Last season, as his marriage disintegrated and he felt stifled by the oversight of the distant British firm that had bought Sterling Cooper, I detected in the writing a certain amount of sympathy for him that I couldn't quite countenance.
MTV's been having a good summer. In part, that's because the second season of its reality series Teen Mom has been generating huge ratings for the network—it is this summer's third-most-watched original cable series in the coveted 12-34 demographic. The show, which documents the lives of four young women after they gave birth to children as teenagers, along with its sister show and predecessor 16 and Pregnant, has already generated a fair amount of cultural chatter on the question of whether the show is a valuable educational tool or just, as most seem to have concluded, regular old exploitation of the young women in question. There's something to this argument, of course. MTV's ratings success makes for a strange contrast with the fact that Teen Mom's stars have been occupying the front pages of celebrity weeklies like US complaining that they are dead broke, doesn't it?
I'm of two minds about the argument. On the one hand I certainly don't have much faith in MTV's dedication to social messaging, at least not enough to believe it extends much further than what advertisers are comfortable with. I'm not the first, for example, to point out that abortion, as an option, is not something that's seriously discussed in the context of the show. You can spin that fact as having something to do with showrunners needing to have a more extended narrative arc than, "Now I'm pregnant, now I'm not." But Teen Mom does follow one young couple, Catelynn and Tyler, after they've given their child up for adoption, so sponsor queasiness seems a more likely explanation.
The plight of the fat celebrity illustrates our expectation that fat people should be constantly fighting the battle of the bulge, and we get a kick out of watching their weight rise and fall. From Oprah to Kirstie Alley, we are obsessed with the constant attempts to beat back the inevitable regain of weight. Kirstie Alley capitalized on our obsession by producing not one, but two shows focusing on her weight—one right before she lost all the weight, and one after she gained it all back. Oprah's travails up and down the scale are legendary. Then we have the revolving door of Jenny Craig spokeswomen, such as Jennifer Hudson and Sarah Rue. So when a celebrity dares to proclaim that she's happy at a weight considered fat, all hell breaks loose. Example: Gabby Sidibe.
From the Awesome New Project files, Aiesha Turman, who heads the blog and media company Super Hussy (read her reclamation story here), has set out to capture the lives of young black women by asking the simple question "Who are you?" to Brooklyn high school girls. Turman created The Black Girl Project documentary, in order to let young black girls tell their own story instead of the one-dimensional versions of black women that much of the news and pop culture churn out.
It's MusicFest NW week here in Portland, and though it takes a lot for a shorty like me to brave the crowds of unbelievably tall dudes who magically appear out of thin air during music festivals, tonight I am heading out for one reason and one reason only: Big Freedia. It's Bounce time, y'all!
One area of pop culture where really problematic and questionable depictions of people come up is that of mental illness. The way that mental illness is depicted, whether it is within the context of a celebrity scandal; the characterization of a person in a film, comic, or television show; a book; or music, can be extremely dubious. For those of us with mental illness(es), pop culture can be a constant reminder of the fact that we are considered both scary and public property, objects of curiosity, fascination, and revulsion.
How, exactly, does one become an artist-in-residence at a sanitation department? If you want to do it the way Mierle Ukeles did it, first you get expelled from Pratt for making "pornographic" abstract art. Then you have a baby. Then you write a rad manifesto that redefines everyday maintenance work as fine art. Then you make landfills into beautiful public parks! Easy peasy.
As I read discussions about pop culture and see responses to female characters, I see a lot of hate for female characters, but not a lot of basis for that hate. Take Tara on True Blood. People say she's 'whiny' and 'boring.' These aren't really criticisms that add in a meaningful way to discussions about Tara; what exactly does it mean to be 'whiny'? What makes Tara 'boring'? Are these not criticisms that are weaponized against real women in the real world on a pretty regular basis? Should we not, perhaps, question why we are carrying that over into pop culture discussions, and talk about what that means?
I'm not one to guilt anyone for caring for lowbrow culture, not least because for so many years my bookish university friends made fun of me for watching television at all. (I've felt no small degree of satisfaction that The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men have had them eating their words more recently.) But every time I've tuned into any version of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise this year, I've had to fend off a sinking feeling that I've hit the rock bottom of my guilty pleasures.
From PBR to Pampers, Lisa Wade and Gwen Sharp of the blog Sociological Images look at the cultural significance of the graphs, cartoons, and advertisements we usually take for granted. I spoke with Lisa and Gwen for our Mad World podcast about how the blog got started, how to "pull back the curtain" on advertisers, and why exactly the "mediocre male" is such a prevalent trope found today.