What Can You Do With a Degree in Watching TV?

An interview with Anne Helen Petersen, a media-studies professor who is leaving academia to write for the Internet
National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

As a 10-year-old in northern Idaho, Anne Helen Petersen was fascinated by celebrity culture. She’d tear through gossip magazines, giving ratings to different issues. Fast-forward 20 years, and she’s turned her obsession into a career reporting on media, writing about everything from the role of the paparazzi to Jennifer Lawrence’s “cool girl” image to the women in True Detective.  Her forthcoming book, Scandals of a Classic Hollywood, was borne out of a series of essays for The Hairpin.

Petersen also teaches film and media studies at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington—her courses cover subjects from celebrity gossip to Mad Men to Hollywood stardom. She spoke with me about her approach to teaching media studies and why she’s leaving academia to write features for Buzzfeed. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How has media studies, as a field, evolved? Did it start with film studies?

Film studies was borne out of English, and we’re kind of the bastard-child of English. There’s a lot of work done in film studies to articulate our difference from them, even though we’re clearly a descendant. Our national organization of media studies scholars is now called “The Society for Cinema and Media Studies,” but until 2002 it used to be called “The Society for Cinema Studies.” To think of our field as not just exclusively film studiesit took the institution until the early 2000s to enact that change. Over the last 15 years, there have been a ton of different departments that have changed their name from things that were more film-centric to more media-centric. My department at the University of Texas has been called “Radio-Television-Film” for a long time, but that’s even outdated because a lot of the work that’s going on is media studies—looking at the internet and other forms of media. Now, it’s passé just to study film exclusively and to only look at what’s going on in the narrative. What I do is “media industries,” which is a subgenre of media studies, and it’s grown so fast. It’s people who look at how films are produced, and the connections between the different industries that produce media.

How is media studies different from other disciplines?

One thing media studies is self-conscious about is that we’re cool kids. We’re the classes that everybody wants to take. But at the same time, we’re the class that someone has to defend to their mom, who asks, “Why are you taking a Mad Men class?” It’s sexy, but still trying to legitimate itself. The other thing about media studies is that the text is constantly changing. If I’m trying to write about a website or a hit television show, I could wake up and everything could be different. It’s hard to make your object of study discrete. The other exciting thing is that it makes sense for media studies to be online more than any other discipline. There are a lot of venues, both peer-reviewed and proto-scholarship that are so accessible in terms of not having to go behind a paywall, but always being able to write in a cool tone that people who don’t have a Ph.D. can understand.

Last fall you taught a course on the show Mad Men—why did you choose this series in particular?

My friend who teaches at Middlebury has done a class on The Wire. That’s another class I’d love to teach, but I wanted to do something with gender. The Mad Men class is cross-listed with gender studies. I also love thinking about historiography, the way there’s something complex about how does this story tell history. The other reason I did it was because the screening schedule worked with Netflix. I could say, “Go home and watch the show.” If you did The Wire, I’d have to make them watch five seasons. Or they’d have to watch it in the theaters here three times a week.

You use Mad Men to teach about the time period. But what about the things the show may have gotten wrong?

We read a lot of texts from that period, like Sex and the Single Girl, and talked a lot about “Why is Betty acting the way she is?” Is it fair for us to say “Betty’s a bitch”? She was such a product of her time and expectations of her time. Same for Don. So instead of saying “I like this character,” it’s more about how is this character an extrapolation of things that are going on culturally. But we also critique the show. It’s easy when you really love a show to make excuses for it. The things we read that were more recent, like this incredible Kent Ono piece, really set the tone for us to think, “Okay, maybe this show doesn’t do race very well.” Every couple of weeks now we still get lunch together to talk about what’s happening. I can’t wait to talk to them about what’s just happened with race in [a recent] episode. Is this offering us more than what it’s offered in the past?

Are there a lot of college programs devoted to television studies?

Presented by

Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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