Tough Love: One Fan's Subversive Mad Men Remixes
For us fans, the anticipation of tomorrow night's Mad Men season premiere has us squirming in our seats. We love it for the drama, for the nostalgia, for the clothes—and for the way it smashes the very glamor with which it lures us in. Video artist Elisa Kreisinger has found a perfect way to ring in the new season that's part celebration, part takedown: subversive remixes. Kreisinger, who "consumes pop culture, critiques it, and then creates from it," is a huge fan of Mad Men. But she also wanted to tease out unexplored themes, call out the show's blind spots, and further claw at its carefully constructed facade. With her new Mad Men remixes, she wanted to "bridge that gap between being a fan and being a critic of something," she says. "Everybody is a critical viewer, and thank god for that."
We are, of course, hardest on the ones we love. Here are three ways to revel in the season premiere while still giving Mad Men the scrutiny it deserves:
Inject a little gayness into an ultra-straight world. In her remix, "QueerMen: Don Loves Roger," Kreisinger critiques the two men's misogyny and the show's dearth of queer characters not with an angry screed, but with a new narrative. Kreisinger wanted the remix to "be engaging, something that someone actually wants to watch. The Mad Men material itself is the spoonful of sugar that makes the critique go down." In the video, we follow the developing romance of Don Draper and Roger Sterling, for which they eventually risk everything by coming out and destroying their previous life. "I figured, 'they're both competing and yearning so much to be the bigger man, they should literally become a man's man and fall for each other,'" Kreisinger says. She also wanted to "give them a way out of the hell they were living."
When a handful of blogs first posted the video, they took it as a joke, which kind of disappointed Kreisinger. "I want people to feel for these characters and want them to be together, not laugh at the fact that they’re gay," she says. For the season premiere, she suggests imagining characters choosing paths not taken—paths the 1960s world of Mad Men would never allow.
Pay attention to the characters of color—or lack thereof. Kreisinger is working on a supercut of all of the characters of color who show up in Mad Men—which, as you can imagine, isn't very long. She's still figuring out how to present it, but in the meantime, "I would encourage people to make their own mental supercut on Sunday. Look for characters of color—do they exist? Do they have lines? Who do they talk to?" Kreisinger says the process itself has been revealing. She'd search in vain for a character listed on IMDB, only to find them after watching the episode several times. They were "in the background so far that they weren’t well-lit, they were out of focus. They were just window dressing—literally."
Kreisinger says this not only reveals how people of color were relegated to the sidelines in this historical time and place, but how race plays out today. She remembers learning about La Monde Byrd, the actor who plays Hollis the elevator operator—how he had attended the American Film Institute, has an advanced degree in filmmaking, how he was an extremely accomplished, highly intelligent actor. "Think about these actors," she says. "What does this say about the roles people of color have access to?" The nonwhite characters (and the actors who play them) in the show are privy to the white characters' whims (SPOILER ALERT!). Hollis is off the show when the agency moves. The Drapers' nanny, Carla, is gone when Betty fires her.
"I know this is a very white show, with a very white audience," Kreisinger says. "But fans, white or not, should be talking about race."
Listen to the women. Closely. Matthew Weiner has said that Mad Men is more about the struggle of women than anything else, but less critical viewers are often blinded by Don's tortured soul and the ad men's patriarchal bravado. So Kreisinger and mashup DJ Marc Faletti decided to draw attention to the show's strong, complicated, frustrated, bad-ass female characters—in their own words.
"We wanted to find the best lines that would tell a narrative out of context," Kreisinger says. "All these women are in a series of boxes, to illustrate how isolated they are both in their storylines and in the rest of the show." Even the chorus—"set me free, why don't you babe"—perfectly spotlighted the women's inner struggles.
For Faletti, the remix is "less about critiquing the show than a celebration of the women it portrays and a validation of their struggles." He thinks this is a way to give Mad Men its due props by driving home "how sincerely the show reflects the struggles of its female characters, not just from the bits of dialogue but all those shots of suffering and frustration we put around them... any doubts about the show's awareness of the sexism it portrays are hard to defend after seeing this."