Imagine a plot twist in which Don Draper and Roger Sterling's hyper masculine friendship becomes a secret gay love affair. Even as they come to terms with their relationship, their wives find out and the ad execs lose their jobs at Sterling Cooper. It's not a story you would typically find on TV, but it exists in the parallel universe of Elisa Kreisinger's political remix videos.
Kreisinger, aka Pop Culture Pirate, "writes with TV, about TV," slicing up familiar shows to create alternative narratives that expose and transform mainstream cultural messages. Recontextualizing heavily gendered moments in shows like Sex and the City and Mad Men, her viral videos are both playful and profoundly subversive.
Don Draper's brooding silences and Roger Sterling's macho banter, when juxtaposed with razor-sharp editing, follow the plotline above in QueerMen: Don Loves Roger. Carrie and the girls talk the feminist talk, but in the Queer Carrie remix project, they walk the walk -- embracing lesbianism. Meanwhile the women of Mad Men, marginalized and frustrated in the original narrative, come together in Set Me Free, a collaboration with fellow remix artist Marc Faletti, to "sing" a defiant cover of the Supremes' "Keep Me Hangin' On," word for word.
Kreisinger, a fellow at the Center for Social Media at American University and program coordinator at the Women's Media Center, spent a year combing through Mad Men transcripts and footage to shape a series of four remixes. QueerMen and Set Me Free are available online (watch below), and two more videos will be shown in a gallery setting. She weighs in on the subversive power of remix, the process of making these intricate videos, and why Mad Men had it coming in an interview below.
Mad Men: Set Me Free
The Atlantic: How did you get into remixing video?
Elisa Kreisinger: I wanted to write better stories about women that didn’t revolve around men or babies. The fastest and cheapest way to do this was to make remixed narratives. With remix, I didn’t have to create cultural significance around unfamiliar characters to convince an audience to care about them. Instead I could use existing narratives from our collective cultural consciousness and tell my variation of that story. I called it writing for TV with TV.
What is it about Mad Men that begs for a good remix?
First, Mad Men is a complicated show where there’s no one ‘correct’ interpretation of it. In a remix, everything is taken out of its original context so when that context is in flux, there’s a million different stories to be told. That meant I could pick any thread (like Don and Roger’s competitive relationship) and run with it to make my own version of the story.
Second, Mad Men is a show that has gotten away with murder: in its narrative, Mad Men can attempt to critique social norms and gender constructs. But AMC clearly exploits these themes through their retro-sexual ads. For example, AMC’s “Secrets, Envy, and Adultery Are Back” ads. That’s not really what the show is about. But it’s easily marketable. Matthew Weiner’s been able to play that line between social critic and commercial success. Being able to create a story that firmly critiqued gender roles and masculinity without any question was my story to tell, not AMC’s or Weiner’s. They can’t. It’s not their business model.
From a production standpoint, the pregnant pauses throughout the show allow for creative dialog manipulation, which is the key to building a cohesive narrative. For example, when we see Don thinking a deep thought, we can hear any line of dialog, like Roger confessing his love for him. It’s those cutaways that make a remix narrative possible and Mad Men had a lot of those. You’re writing with existing lines of dialog and placing key images over it to tell the story.
QueerMen: Don Loves Roger
With QueerMen, you create an entire alternative narrative with clips taken out of context, while in Set Me Free, you reconstruct the lyrics to a whole song. What is the editing process for these videos? How did you gather and shape the clips you used?
I created a database of time-coded transcripts of every episode and then I selected clips, lines of dialog and scenes accordingly. With Don Loves Roger, I literally wrote with these pieces of TV: the disparate clips, cutaways and lines of dialog, chipping away and rearranging it until I had a definitive story arc that made sense.
Just like with any writing process, there are a ton of great scenes that don’t make it in to the final draft because, although perfect, they don’t fit the story. For example, I have a tragic phone conversation between Don and Roger where Don wants to come out of the closet and Roger tells him it’s not worth it. Don’s heartbroken and defeated. (In its original context, it’s a scene from “The Suitcase” where Don finds out Anna has died). That scene remixed with Roger on the other end of the phone fit together so well but it didn’t fit my story. So I cut it and it hurt to see it go. But it’s just like any other writing and editing process, you’re just writing with existing TV.
With Set Me Free, Marc Faletti was my right-hand man. We went to the transcript database again and pulled every line for every female character, grouped them according to themes and then narrowed them down to the ones that emphasized our concept of wanting to be set free but being physically trapped (hence the boxes). Marc made the boxes, laid the track and it all came together amidst the craziness of South by Southwest.
AMC's “Secrets, Envy, and Adultery Are Back”
Have copyright laws posed a challenge to your work?
The remixes are all protected under Fair Use, a portion of copyright law that allows for use of copyright materials, without the permission of the copyright holder, for purposes of comment, critique, homage, satire, etc. Unfortunately, video sharing sites like YouTube continue to remove fair use content based on their profit sharing agreements with media conglomerates. For example, QueerMen: Don Loves Roger is still unable to be shared on YouTube because Lionsgate thinks it might be a copyright infringement and chose to disable embedding.
As a result, it’s vital that we understand our rights as creators under copyright law so that we can advocate for our work. The continued removal of fair use content means another voice in our community is lost with no documentation that it ever existed.
What do you want people to take away from the videos?
I hope audiences appreciate the way in which the remixes touch on issues of copyright, authorship and feminism; they aren’t just about characters from a TV show, although I think that’s the entry point. Mad Men is just the spoon full of sugar that makes the socio-political critique go down.
Has viral video as a medium contributed to or changed feminist conversation about pop culture in interesting ways?
Definitely. I think the popularity of feminist-made video illustrates how our feelings change when we see media and narratives that speak to us and our communities directly. As feminists and critical thinkers, we’re so used to negotiating between being a fan and critic of popular culture that when we see media and narratives made for us, it validates our sense of self in that community and unites us.
Queering Sex and the City (Season 1)
What's next for you? Is there another pop culture target in your sights that's due for a remix?
I would love to remix The Good Wife because I think it’s the best show on TV with the worst time slot (Sundays during award and Super Bowl season) and I wouldn’t mind spending a year poring over it, taking it apart frame by frame, and piecing it back together again. I also appreciate the Kings and like that they are a husband and wife team. I like that they shoot the show in New York and work technology into their storylines, and I love who they bring in as guest stars. It really comes down to what show could I work with for a year and not drive myself crazy.