Mad Men vs Sherlock: What Makes a Fandom?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to watch a fandom take root at double speed. And despite the purpose of this Antenna series, I’m not talking about Mad Men. I’m talking about the new BBC series, Sherlock, which, with two episodes aired at the time of writing, already has a full host of communities, fan fiction, vids, and fan art. I’d dare say that if we’re talking the most generally recognized representation of fandom (or at least that most frequently discussed in fan studies) then Sherlock already has a larger fan community than does Mad Men, even with Mad Men‘s four seasons and extensive critical accolades.
So where are the relationship-invested “shipping” fandoms in Mad Men? Where are the communities devoted to recuperating Don as a guiltless, misunderstood character? Hell, where are the alternative universes that place Peggy and Don (or Don and Pete, or, apparently, based on last night’s episode, Don and Lane) in a Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail type scenario? Why this lack of what we’d usually identify as fandom for Mad Men? And what do these absences tell us about Mad Men, about fandom, or perhaps about fan studies?
Is it that programs posited as “quality TV” instigate different modes of engagement than TV positioned as cult or teen? Or is it that Mad Men doesn’t tap into the same fannish infrastructures—the ready to go networks of community that we’ve seen launch and deploy for Sherlock at record speed these past weeks? Or is it that Mad Men doesn’t offer the same genre structures–most especially, it doesn’t depend on romance or buddy narratives (last night’s unusually heartfelt New Year’s episode notwithstanding)–but rather sets up relationships as destructive forces that threatens already deeply compromised characters? Or is it that Mad Men doesn’t include fantasy elements or familiar character archetype that tap into long-standing fandom traditions?
Some shows (perhaps for the above reasons, among others) just don’t inspire massive, dynamic fandoms, or at least, not fandoms that are visible in the way we often think of and expect to see, recognize, and label as fandom. The Wire comes to mind as an example: yes, many people expressed their deep appreciation and critical devotion to The Wire, and you can find a few vids here and there (apparently, two actually debuted at Vividcon this past weekend). But there’s no Wire fandom-as-entity visible like there is for Supernatural, Merlin, Gossip Girl, and Dr. Who, to name a few.
But Mad Men has a highly visible fandom, if we look past standard expectations of fannishness and fan community. And not only that, but the fannishness on display is both socially-networked and transformative. We could start with the Mad Men twitterverse, We Are Sterling Cooper, which has received attention both for its breadth and dynamism and for its role in demonstrating how television networks can either reject or embrace collective, transformative fan creativity. But we certainly don’t need to stop with the Mad Men twitterverse. For another prime example, there’s the fan turned official artist Dyna Moe, whose episode wallpapers evolved into the Mad Men Yourself transmedia tool, where you can create images of yourself in Dyna Moe’s Mad Men animated aesthetic. And if we dig deeper, and to some less expected places, the network of Mad Men fan expression and community grows. Search for “Mad Men” on flickr. In addition to the many personal and wardrobe remix photos bearing the tag or description “Mad Men,” there’s the “Mad Men” group dedicated to “creating new vintage ads, and Costumes and pictures reminiscent of the show Mad Men.” And there’s the Mad Men Yourself community, where people share their results from AMC’s/Dyna Moe’s interface.
Now, search for Mad Men on the crafts marketplace, Etsy.com, in either the handmade or vintage categories. 1960s dresses, pencil necklaces, ephemera, deadstock bags, mid century modern office furniture, item after item includes reference to Mad Men in its description or tags, and come together via the search function. Yes, these are evidence of artists and sellers (and online marketplaces) capitalizing on Mad Men’s popularity to sell products, but they’re also evidence of the way in which Mad Men has both helped propel and become shorthand for fandom as cultural/aesthetic movement, one that we see play out not only in the spaces of Flickr and Etsy but in the craft, fashion, and cooking blogosphere.
So Mad Men fandom may not look like the expected framework that we see so impressively put into place with the airing of Sherlock, but it’s extensive, its reach is spreading, and it is arguably having a larger influence on cultural/aesthetic movements beyond the series itself. Is this embrace of these characters’ style and aesthetic a simple nostalgia or a more complex negotiation and remediation of a 60s aesthetic? And what are the politics of this embrace of hourglass figures and skinny ties? These are questions that exceed the capacity of this small post, but that bear much thought, and that I hope we can explore in the comments.