As we approach the last season of AMC’s Mad Men, Entertainment Weekly ran a story about Time Magazine’s cover story about the show called “Time’s Mad Men Cover Story: What We Learned.” 

Why are we mad about Mad Men and do we “learn” something when we watch? As a media psychologist, for years people would tell me over and over that adults know the difference between fantasy and reality and therefore we watch shows just for fun and we don’t learn anything from them. This actually made me so agitated, that it spawned an entire book called How Fantasy Becomes Reality (Oxford, 2009; soon to appear in second edition).

Really this idea that we are coldly untouched by the stories we love couldn’t be further from the truth. We are social creatures. We are deeply moved and changed by story and by our connection to characters—yes, fictional characters. And there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s the way we’re built. It doesn’t matter if we are intrigued by stories from the Bible or Aesop or about Don Draper’s slow fall down Madison Avenue…these are stories about people that touch us, move us, and change us.

We crave a peek into the troubles and triumphs of other people. We like to watch to see how we can make sense of it…whether we want to try something like they tried or whether we want to avoid it so that we can avoid their fate. As children, when we read the Fox and the Grapes, we did not declare the fox is not real and that we therefore can’t learn from the story. What is real, anyway? Reality in a story is a place where we can find a connection to ideas, situations, and people that we might really encounter and find insights that we can really use in our lives.

Take, for example, a study that my research team recently conducted about how fans grapple with parenting issues by watching and discussing Mad Men. We realized that with the advent of social media, we now have unprecedented access to fans who volunteer their feelings and opinions about the show. We isolated a set of blogs and fan comments that discussed parenting in Mad Men and read them and classified the most often discussed ideas.

Now, parenting is a central theme of the show Mad Men. In fact, Entertainment Weekly referred to Mad Men as “six seasons of secrets, philandering, and questionable parenting.” In our analysis, we found that fans and bloggers devoted themselves passionately to the debate about whether Don and Betty Draper are good parents or bad parents…and also about whether they are just broken people aside from being broken parents. Fans made enthusiastic arguments on both sides, making comments like these:

“If all women are destined to become their mothers (and I really hope they're not), Betty makes a lot of sense. She has made comments numerous times about how she resented her mother for nitpicking her eating habits. She also clearly had a terrible time after her mother's death in the first season, and you get the impression that she was always seeking her mother's pride and approval. Betty does the same thing to Sally regarding her eating habits, and seems to carry the same cold attitude that says 'you will never be good enough.'"

“I'm tired of her treating her mother like she's a villain while worshiping her useless father. It's about time she realized what Don put Betty through.”

“I know that she’s not the best parent, but I think everyone is hard on Betty. One example of her bad parenting was locking Sally in the closet when she caught her smoking. Please… it was for 10 seconds, and she was trying to make an impression on the girl.”

“…Draper, a serial philanderer, gets you fussing over his childhood backstory. Why not condemn him? The best you can do is say that his 'foundational ideas' about women are 'skewed.'”

“I think Betty Draper’s coldness toward her kids is a personality flaw, not a cultural issue…”

“I have always said I don't get why Don gets a free pass just because he occassionaly [sic] smiles at his daughter. Of course he is the fun parent, he is never there!”

Betty protects the family dog, Betty style

Betty protects the family dog, Betty style

Through fan commentary and analysis like this, one thing that shines through clearly to me is how ardently fans connect to these stories, how they care about the characters and their actions toward each other and how they want to reach out to others and learn together through discussion of these ideas. Again, it’s no different than if we were to discuss a fable, a Bible story, or a novel. We feel hurt when Betty or Don fail. We want them to do better. We care about their children. We see our own triumphs and failures through them. We want to emulate their best characteristics and avoid their worst flaws.

We know that Don Draper is not “real.” We know he’s played by the actor Jon Hamm. Again, we are searching for meaning at a different level of reality. Pablo Picasso said, “Art is a lie that shows us the truth.” There is truth in the tragedy and triumphs of a great story. That’s why fans of Mad Men will be grappling with the saga of Don Draper and his world for a long time to come. Cheers to Mad Men on a successful run and let’s see what the seventh and final season has in store for us.


Entertainment Weekly Story:

Time Magazine Cover Story on Mad Men:

Dill-Shackleford, K. E., Hopper-Losenicky, K., Vinney, C., Swain, L., & Hogg, J. L. (2014).  How Fictional Characters and Stories Help Fans Understand Parenting: Mad Men Fans Grapple with What Makes a Good Parent. Manuscript in preparation.

Hopper-Losenicky, K., Swain, L., Vinney, C., & Dill-Shackleford (2014, April). Mothers of Mad Men: A Content Analysis of Online Fan Commentary, Presentation given at the Popular Culture Association Meeting, Chicago, IL.

Note: For references for Blog excerpts and comments, see Hopper-Losenicky et al. (2014) and Dill-Shackleford et al. (2014) above or contact the authors.

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