The very popular TV drama “Mad Men” (my wife is hooked) is willing to engage the toughest issues of its time–the 1960s–and use them to provide an insight into our current social norms: anti-Semitism, divorce, sexuality, misogyny and domestic violence. But it won’t touch race beyond very shallow and superficial treatment, argues Latoya Peterson, a hip-hop feminist and the editrix of RACIALICOUS.COM, writing in DOUBLE X.

Mad Men takes on a number of cultural controversies, yet race is treated with politeness, distance, restraint, and a heavy dose of sentimentality. For a show that takes place in the early ’60s, as race riots are breaking out, this is a glaring omission.

Black people enter the story via Don Draper’s wife, Betty:

Betty’s perceptiveness seems to fail when faced with her black domestic employees. Her own maid and her childhood housekeeper, whom she sees briefly at her parents’ house, are silent, stoic, and patient, always dealing with the white characters with respect and aplomb. Devoid of their own narratives, they exist solely to comfort and move the rest of the story forward. There is even a moment where Betty, coping with the impending loss of her father, rails at the house’s longtime servant before breaking down and crying on her shoulder. It’s a Scarlett O’Hara moment if I have ever seen one.

Like Betty’s maids, minorities are shown in glimpses around the edges of narrative. They include the two black women that are ladies’ room attendants, the black sandwich seller, the Chinese family used as a prank on Pete Campbell, Carla, the Draper’s black maid, the black delivery men dropping off the copier, the elevator operator Hollis, and the Asian American waitress. For the most part, they pop up and say one or two lines. Except for Menken, none of them gets the airtime to voice what they are experiencing. There is not even an interpreter of sorts, the role Betty Draper served for Jews. Black characters remain silent enigmas, and Asian Americans are barely noticed at all.

And then there’s Sheila White, Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend:

… Kinsey and White never have a conversation about race, only a small argument about him not going to the race riot. Kinsey prominently displays a picture of White on his desk, but the show never develops an intimacy between them that would open a space to talk about race. White mainly functions as a prop, a way to introduce a black character, but not to engage with her world. She neither suffers nor rages; she’s just a blank. Kinsey returns from the Freedom Ride simply noting that he and Shelia had broken up. Abruptly, the show backs out of an opportunity to bring up the era’s most controversial topic, and stays on safer ground.

… One way that Mad Men keeps race at a distance is by harping on the idea that racism was far worse in the South than it was in the North. The characters are shown watching the Freedom Rides in the South and expressing concern with the fate of Kinsey, but rarely is northern racism discussed. During the ’60s, race riots occurred in northern and western enclaves as well—Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and San Francisco. By portraying northern racism as a series of rude comments and aloof detachment, it negates the reality of blacks who were threatened with violence simply for being in the wrong area after dark, or the ability of whites to take out their anger on blacks who were normally in subordinate positions.

There’s more at DOUBLE X.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.