Mad Men vs Sherlock: What Makes a Fandom?

August 10, 2010
By | 4 Comments

Cartoon versions of the Mad Men cast invite you to make your ownOver 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,, 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.


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4 Responses to “ Mad Men vs Sherlock: What Makes a Fandom? ”

  1. Sean Duncan on August 10, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    Great post! I apologize in advance, but I’ve been thinking about these same issues a lot lately, and here’s a huge brain-dump on similar themes…

    Full disclosure: As someone who is trying to enjoy Mad Men (but failing), and was a fan of Sherlock before it even filmed, I’ve already got a stake in one fandom vs. another. I co-founded the oldest Sherlock fan site (; we started a year ago, several months before the series was even filmed). Based on my interactions with a variety of Sherlock fans, I can guess at the appeal of this series and some reasons why it’s been embraced by a number of fan communities so quickly.

    First off, the names and track records of Mr. Moffat and Mr. Gatiss were certainly more visible than Mr. Weiner’s to the general public (at least in the UK, where Sherlock has aired). And, I surmise, much of the initial Sherlock interest seems to have come from Doctor Who fans yearning for something to fill the gap until DW’s Christmas Special (series 5 just ending a few months ago). Though Gatiss appears to be more involved in the day-to-day showrunning and brings his own fandom from Crooked House, Doctor Who, The League of Gentlemen, and the Lucifer Box novels, much of the initial fan chatter seemed to attribute Sherlock to Moffat solely. Both Moffat and Gatiss (and Sue Vertue, producer and Moffat’s wife) joined Twitter shortly before the transmission of Sherlock’s “A Study In Pink” and have been active in promoting it in online ways.

    Next, I think you’re absolutely correct that there’s been a century of fandom and scholarship around Sherlock Holmes, and I further note that he’s the most-filmed fictional character (over 230 different actors having portrayed him). Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories essentially created the detection genre, while in contrast, Mad Men exists in a genre space that’s a bit more ambiguous. Everyone from Charlton Heston to Roger Moore to Matt Frewer have played Holmes, and the curiosity over the new guy with the funny, posh name (Benedict Cumberbatch) likely drew many to the series initially. More broadly, curiosity over how this Holmes adaptation could even work — being set in the 21st century, not amidst gaslight and hansom cabs — likely brought many to it as well. It’s not a new IP by any means, and spillover interest from the Guy Ritchie film didn’t hurt. 🙂

    Of course, Cumberbatch’s looks certainly have played a role as well; do a quick Twitter search for his name to see many women and men virtually throwing themselves at the guy, and Moffat’s writing in the first episode made a potential gay subtext an overt running gag, with Holmes and Watson often needing to explain that they’re not a couple, given reasonable, contemporary assumptions about their lodging situations at Baker St. This very quickly led to the (IMHO, a bit predictable) slash communities popping up — we saw the first slash posted within a few hours of the first ep’s transmission — as well as many other sites for fans to drool over the actors (take, for instance, the often amusing Fuck Yeah Sherlock).

    Finally, we can’t ignore that the series premiere for Sherlock (dumped unceremoniously on a Sunday night in July, with virtually no promotion) reached over 7 million viewers (over 9 million, actually, after factoring in timeshifted iPlayer viewing data), averaging to over 7.2m (around 30% of the audience) watching on BBC1 and BBCHD alone. It reached quite high appreciation indices (87 and 88 for the first two eps), and generally excellent critical reviews. As we all know, Mad Men S4’s premiere didn’t top 3 million… and were the highest ratings its received yet.

    Obviously, Mad Men is in a very different TV market, and again, these are not competing series, but the sheer numbers must speak to the quick mobilization of fans toward Sherlock. There are simply more people watching Sherlock, mainly in the UK at the moment, though our site has many active members from California, Italy, Lithuania, etc. Anecdotally, the number of female teenagers we have joining up on our site’s forums has been surprising and signficant — it’s been interesting to see how, for many, this has created a new interest in Sherlock Holmes and driven them back to the source texts. For these few, vocal fans, the series has been an impetus to investigate Holmesian fandom more broadly, and that’s a bit astounding to me.

    I don’t mean to imply Sherlock is unproblematic (the racial representations in “The Blind Banker” are really a mess, and the series ended on a campy, awkward note, IMHO). But there is, ultimately, a form of fun wish fulfillment embodied by these characters that you don’t see in a series like Mad Men, perhaps leading to its appeal with a wide swath of fans. A “wish fulfillment” isn’t really what’s going on with these forms of alternate Mad Men fandom you point out — at least, I think I hope not? As Mad Men ostensibly seems to be about the breaking down of false veneers, Mad Men fans who embrace the ’60s aesthetic would seem to be either adopting some kind of ironic stance toward the highballs and cigarettes culture embodied in them, or are completely divorcing an appreciation of the aesthetic of the era from the overt message of the series, or are just oblivious to there being a disconnect between the series’ narrative and the fan practices.

    Sherlock fandom seems much less complex and much more easily identifiable as, uh, “standard issue fannish,” for lack of a better term. Moffat describes the deductive capacities of Sherlock Holmes as the “only achievable superpower,” a simple, understandable takeaway for Holmes’ continued appeal across a number of interpretations — Mad Men, in contrast, is about something much more nuanced and, ideally, more complex than this (even if I remain unconvinced that it’s really as significant of a series as it thinks it is). Mad Men is overtly “quality TV,” which may excite academics and some viewers, but it won’t ever be as easy to translate into common internetty fan practices (slash, “squeeing,” fan vids, etc.) as a detective series with snappy writing, clever direction, a century’s worth of fans, rich source materials to revisit, and two attractive male leads about whom fans can easily speculate about a hidden homoerotic relationship.

    Thanks again for the very thought-provoking post!

  2. Louisa Stein on August 10, 2010 at 1:21 PM

    Hi Sean–Thanks for the extensive comment! I couldn’t really dig into Sherlock fully here, given space limitations and the column’s focus on Mad Men, so I’m very glad that you could unpack all the nuances that have contributed to the rapid fire development of the fandom. You’re so right–between the familiarity of the IP of Sherlock Holmes, the already-existing showrunner buzz/dedication, the heavily signposted homoerotic subtext (not sure we can even call that subtext anymore) and also the fact that it’s just a good concept, managing to refresh the characters and storyworld while still sticking to the tone of canon–it’s like the perfect fandom-creating storm. That said, the infrastructure may be predictable but I’m sure the fannish creativity will lead in new directions, just as the series itself is doing, both in terms of canon and aesthetics.

    I’m very interested in your comment about Sherlock vs. Mad Men as wish fulfillment. I think you’re right that Sherlock is more obviously the type of romanticized wish-fulfillment that resonates with fan traditions. Sherlock allows for romanticized notions of character, which only grow the more we learn about the characters with their romanticized, epic flaws.

    Of course the Mad Men characters have fairly epic flaws too, but they’re not romanticized in the same way. And for Mad Men, there’s no hope that the characters will ever really work out their issues by finding solace and growth in each other, whereas that’s exactly the hope prompted by Sherlock and so many other fan-ready texts.

    So is this an issue of genre? Perhaps an issue of two different manifestations of melodrama? And is the difference bred primarily by the cultural assumptions and associations of “quality” TV?

    To connect this back to the question of Mad Men’s aesthetics-focused fandom, for Mad Men, there’s a sense that the characters are flawed and we know they’re flawed, but we also know that the furniture they’re using is beautiful, and so the one thing that can be celebrated seemingly-unproblematically (or at least with a more easily submergable caveat) is the aesthetics of the show?

  3. Mel on August 24, 2010 at 5:36 PM

    It makes sense to me that the creative work done around Mad Men is mostly about the show’s aesthetic. Fandoms with a lot of writing–and shipping–are much more character-based. The characters on Mad man aren’t the sort of people one wants to spend time with. The look of Mad Men is. I suspect that the main factor that determines whether a show produces lots of fic is whether the characters actually seem to like each other.

  4. Excited fan on September 4, 2010 at 2:21 PM

    Personally I was drawn instantly to Sherlock due to Cumberbatch’s mesmerising performance. He’s a world class actor and I’m enjoying seeing his career take off. Its about time.

    I’ve admired him for a long while and its finally great to be able to chat to so many people about him and his previous roles and the juicy ones he has lined up.

    The actors in Mad Men just dont have that something special. The clothes arent enough to hook me in. I find the show cold and sterile. When Cumberbatch is on screen you cant take your eyes off him. He could have on screen chemistry with a chair – he’s that good! I’m excited .. you can tell… and there’s lots like me out there on the web.