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 studies—it 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 My department at the University of Texas has been called “Radio-Television-Film” for a long time, but that’s even outdated because a lot of the work that’s going on is media studies—looking at the internet and other forms of media.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?

You’d think there would be more positions in academia for television studies, but if you look the job listings, there are like two television ads. People still really want film professors. It’s a gradual process. Big places like Texas and Wisconsin and UCLA and USC have media studies, and then it very slowly trickles down to places like liberal arts colleges. But if you look at the program for [the Society for Cinema and Media Studies] program, television is all over the place, and people are complaining that there’s not enough film. There’s a lot of research on television, but that doesn’t mean that there are jobs there. A lot of people, including myself, think of themselves as media scholars. I don’t think exclusively in terms of television or film. I study gossip blogs and also gossip magazines and all sorts of things.

Brett Martin’s latest book, Difficult Men, looks at the latest “golden age” in TV by studying the male antiheros and their creators. What do you think about the role of these “difficult men”?

How do I say this delicately? I think Difficult Men masculinizes the history of quality television. And a lot of the work that’s starting to legitimate quality television is all about making it not being television, like, “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Television has been a feminized medium filled with crap that women watch. And so all of this legitimation work, and even the vaunting of the showrunner [executive producer], which is a really recent phenomenon, just 10-12 years old, it’s all using this language of sophistication and high art to make it seem like television isn’t a feminized thing anymore. So I think there are a lot of dangerous and often overlooked effects of using that sort of rhetoric. Clearly I love all those shows, but I also think that books like that forward a narrative of high art made by men. When people say it’s great that television is becoming more film-like, I think, “So, it’s really exciting that it’s going to reproduce the horrendous gender dynamics in the way of who gets to make movies and who gets to direct movies?” It’s hard for me to celebrate that. And also, the rise of the single auteur, who is almost always a male, makes it so much easier to discount the collaborative work of people in the writer’s room, and people like Janie Bryant on Mad Men, who is just as responsible for the look of that show as Matt Weiner.

What about Girls—created, directed, and starred in by Lena Dunham—that’s received a lot of critical acclaim? Or even The Mindy Project, with Mindy Lahiri? Is it taking the conversation in a new direction? 

Both Mindy and Lena Dunham get a whole bunch of shit that other male show runners wouldn’t get. Especially Lena Dunham is really interrogated and criticized and held under a microscope because she is seen as a woman, and especially as a woman who doesn’t look like a supermodel. She’s done a remarkably good job standing up to that and articulate in her responses to it and calling people out. But people always want to talk about the fact that Judd Apatow is involved in the show. Which, of course, he is. But there’s a tendency to always group him with her in a way that other shows which also have two show runners don’t.

What do you think of Girls?

I think the first season is this really great manifestation of dissatisfaction of life under post-feminism. I think the last two seasons have flailed a little bit, but I would always rather have the conversations I have after watching Girls than the ones I have after watching Game of Thrones. It’s an imperfect text, but it starts conversations, and that’s really important. It’s also great to talk to students about. It’s an access point to talk about issues that they experience.

There’s a piece I wrote on Broad City, which I think is doing some much more interesting work, and is way funnier, but I love having these examples of unruly women. I think they’re super progressive. Seeing those representations, seeing women be assholes, is important.

The way we view shows now, especially with the popularity of streaming, is so different from how we used to. And even with its accolades, Mad Men is watched by a relatively small audience. How can we recognize what’s really important, what’s making an impact?

In media studies we always make this joke, “Why is no one talking about Two and a Half Men?” Essentially, why isn’t anyone talking about the shows that so many people are watching? Yes, it’s absolutely important for someone to talk about something like NCIS, but in a lot of ways, those shows are so popular because they’re reproducing the status-quo. The way people deal with government and race and gender and all sorts of things. It’s not doing anything new. A show that is challenging those things or dealing with them in a new way, those are the ones that start the conversation. That’s why Girls, with relatively abysmal ratings, has a disproportionate amount of discourse about it on the internet. There isn’t necessarily a correspondence between what the most people are watching and what’s inciting the most talk.

You’re about to leave academia for a job at Buzzfeed. Was that a tough decision?

I went on the market and there were no jobs. There are not enough jobs for the amount of qualified people who are emerging out of Ph.D. programs, which is why I say that the system is broken. The system of graduate school was supposed to mean you go to graduate school, you teach, and you can be a professor. But there are no positions after you go through that process. They need to keep graduate students because they provide really cheap labor and keep the cost of the school down. So the labor production is all off. I don’t know how that situation is going to be righted. The only thing I can do when a student asks me if they should go to graduate school is: I have to ethically say “no.” Unless they have a significant amount of family money.

Aren’t graduates from some other disciplines facing similar circumstances? Like philosophy?

Advisors may be getting better at this, at advising other things you can do with a Ph.D. But part of the problem is that if you are a tenured professor at a school, you’re insulated in a lot of ways from the problem. As more people, or their students, experience the vagaries of the market, I think it’s becoming more acceptable to change programs to [do something non-academic]. But I wasn’t aware of any of those options when I was going through the Ph.D.

This is a super vibrant and exciting field, and I’m sad that I have to leave it. But I know my media studies history is part of why Buzzfeed wanted to hire me—they value that. So it’s clearly valuable—it’s just a question of what you can do with it.