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Uncommon Courses: Mad Men

Abby Thornton ’17 had never seen a single episode of Mad Men when she signed up for Professor Robin LeBlanc’s spring term class, The Politics of Race and Gender in Mad Men.

“It’s a lot of binge watching for homework. My friends get so mad at me,” said Thornton.

Mad Men, which airs on the cable network AMC, ends its seven-season run this month. The drama has enjoyed a large and ardent following and earned critical acclaim. Set in the 1960s and 70s, it tells the story of advertising executive Don Draper and his ongoing quest for identity. The show deals with complex themes, including the role of women and minorities in American society.

For LeBlanc, who teaches gender and politics in addition to courses on political philosophy, global politics and East Asian politics, the themes in the show resonated with her, both in terms of what she teaches and her own experiences growing up in the 1960s and 70s.

“I loved the show, and I kept finding that what I was watching on Mad Men was really relevant to what I was teaching in my gender and politics course,” said LeBlanc. “I’d use the examples in class and finally a student said, ‘You should offer a course on this’.”

LeBlanc had other curricular obligations during the fall and winter terms, but Washington and Lee University’s spring term provided the perfect four-week format to try something new. When the Mad Men course opened for registration, it filled instantly. At one point, there were 54 students on the waitlist.

“People were writing long, long letters about how much they loved Mad Men,” said LeBlanc. “There were English students, film students, advertising students, gender studies students — it seemed like people from every area of campus had some connection to the show.”

Washington and Lee isn’t the first university to offer a course based on the television series. A history professor at Northwestern University used the show as a touch point to talk about America’s post-World War II economy. A media studies professor at Whitman College wrote about her experience teaching Mad Men: Media, Gender Historiography in an essay for Slate.

Several texts have been written in the past few years to help academics and the general public better understand the themes at play in the hit show. LeBlanc assigned her students the book, Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s, along with readings on masculinity and whiteness. The challenge, says LeBlanc, is that — with the show only ending this spring — no one’s yet written a comprehensive criticism that covers the show’s entire canon.

Students might have thought a course based on a television show would be easy, but LeBlanc’s syllabus quickly dispelled that notion. The workload is intense. Each night, students are required to do about two hours of reading and watch at least three episodes of the show. Each Sunday night, when a new episode airs, they have to watch that too.

“I’m on the phone with my mom, telling her that I have to go because I’ve got to watch Mad Men,” said Katie Monks ’18. “Because I’ve never seen the show, I’m playing catch up. There was one day I watched 13 episodes.”

LeBlanc says that the challenge for her has been trying to decide which episodes to assign for homework. She’s relied on critical essays as well as online wikis to help identify the most evocative scenes in what now totals 92 one-hour episodes of television. When her students watch an episode, LeBlanc wants them to consider the cinematic choices the show’s director and writers are making and what those choices say about gender and power — both in the 1960s and today.

For the final project, LeBlanc has divided the class into groups and assigned each one to write a screenplay for a pilot episode of a television series that, like Mad Men, would serve as part entertainment and part social criticism. Recently, she hosted a “mocktail party” at W&L’s Belfield guest house, where the students pitched their ideas to their classmates.

“In Hollywood, you’d need to be able to pitch your idea to a producer in just a minute or two at a cocktail party, so that’s the idea,” LeBlanc said.

Students came dressed in 1960s-inspired outfits and sipped on virgin mojitos, Tom Collins and brandy Alexanders. As they pitched their ideas, LeBlanc encouraged them to think about dramatic tension and conflict and to consider what happens to characters when they come up against societal barriers like money, status, race or gender.

“These issues matter when they impede a worthy person’s quest for something beautiful,” said LeBlanc.