On Mad Men and Race

by Latoya Peterson

So, the Double X article is finally up. The last time I wrote something for Double X, intrepid reader jvansteppes dropped by to add a provocative note to the fannish comment thread:

Being a regular reader of yours at Racialicious, Latoya, I’m a bit surprised you haven’t mentioned the racial undertones in Twilight, although perhaps you haven’t wasted the time to read it. I did unfortunately read the first 2 books for a paper about teen fiction, and the racial undertones hit me pretty hard. While the racialization of vampires, originally linked to projections of Jewish monstrosity, has certainly evolved to the inclusion of characters like Blade, I’ve long associated vamps with a whiteness fetish, and Stephanie Meier doesn’t deviate from that trend. She takes great pains to emphasize the Cullen family’s pale demeanor, linking both Edward and Bella’s alleged beauty to their white, translucent skin over and over again. While I don’t imagine she’s conscious of this theme, it’s ever-present in her less than creative descriptions of vampire beauty or the purity of white Bella.

Contrast perfect Edward Cullen with Jacob Black however, and the race narrative gets even more obvious, even without a deconstruction of her shaky use of Indian myth as a plot device. Meier uses the phrase ‘russet skin’ so often to describe her Quileute characters that a drinking game could follow suit. Her exoticized, shallow accounts of each Indigenous character’s skin color are so over the top they left me wondering why an editor didn’t say anything. While white, refined Edward is a testament to abstinence and self control, russet Jacob is a werewolf unable to control his emotions, who ultimately forces a kiss on Bella. Edward is cold and beyond human weaknesses, while animal Jacob’s body constantly overheats, as do so many portrayals of uncivilized people of color. Edward struggles for control and ultimately we never doubt his ability to maintain his control of mind over body, while Jacob’s body, too big to be anything but dangerous, takes precedence over his mind. I could go on and on.

As could I. I actually did read the first two Twilight books and the chapters of Midnight Sun posted online. And I noticed the race issues in Twilight, starting from the first discussion of Jacob’s “exotic beauty.”

But the tough part of selling your work for publication means it is no longer about what you want to say – it’s about what your editor wants to publish. And it’s up to the writer to then shoehorn their original idea into the editors vision. When it came time to write about the treatment of race in the context of Mad Men, my original draft came in close to eight pages. My editor had something closer to two in mind. And thus, the cuts began.

I don’t blame my editor for this. Most editors are used to working with a strict word count, with the prevailing idea that shorter is better. And here…well, you all see the length of what we write. (A word of advice to aspiring writers: do NOT turn in articles longer than the word count your editor recommends, they hate that. Since we were figuring things out, I kind of just ran with my thoughts – normally, your editor will not want to read anything that’s more than a hundred words over.)

So, while I am ultimately satisfied with what appeared on Double X, that isn’t the full view of what I wrote. Take, for instance, my original thesis:

Draper, the creative director of Madison Avenue based firm Sterling Cooper, is testing out a theory he has about cigarette branding on the waiter. After all, as Paul Kinsey will note later in the series, “consumer has no color.” However, in the Mad Men world, blacks and other non whites serve as little more than window dressing for the actual events occurring in the 1960s. The scenes with Draper and the black waiter reveal how Mad Men will discuss racial prejudice throughout the course of the series: the subject will be treated with distance, restraint, and is always told through the eyes of the white characters. In all that has been said and written about Mad Men since its stunning debut in 2007, critical race analysis remains elusive. While there have been articles noting the attention paid to details about environmental awareness, child safety, and pregnancy health, incisive commentary about race relations in the 1960s has so far escaped the withering gaze of the writers.

My original article (honed though conversations with Highjive of MultiCultClassics and G.D. of PostBourgie) focused around what I saw as the erasure of the black voice. Sure, blacks are visible in the series, but silent. Some people have taken that to reflect the attitudes of Draper and Co. toward their plight. However, when you contrast the images of blacks and Asians with the images of other marginalized groups, you find that there are other methods the writers use to peek into the lives of “others” – and that time after time, this courtesy is not extended to blacks.

I grew even more sure of this idea as I watched the growing chatter about Mad Men on other forums. Whenever the idea of race was broached, the idea was that the subject had been handled – after all, blacks were in the scenes weren’t they? As servants? Totally realistic! However, it reinforces what commenters N and Cocomala were discussing in the other comment thread – there is an idea that if blacks are present, it is the same thing as their story being told.

It is not.

Reading through responses, I really started to be concerned. Are people so conditioned to ignore black narratives that any representation will do? And are people so accustomed to commentary about race coming in broad, heavy handed “racial moments” that we will ignore the lack of nuance used to portray the lives of axillary black characters?

At the end of the piece, I asked if it would be so hard to show some of the strain of racism, as we see Betty staring off into space in her suffocating suburban prison showing the issues in her existence, or Peggy’s constant air of discomfort. This does not call for re-imagining the show. As I wrote in the original:

Mad Men is a world dominated by white men, so it only bears to reason that much of the show will be from the perspective of the central characters, namely the men of Sterling Cooper and their wives.. However, the some marginalized groups get to have their say, using their limited time in the Mad Men world to share their insights as outsiders. [...]

The Mad Men are not interested in hearing about the world of women, of understanding Jews or hearing their issues. But, through intimate conversations and intra-group conversations, we are allowed a glimpse into what those groups were going through.

In contrast, other racial minorities have no voice and no representation. The black characters are literally voiceless. How is it possible, in a series that illuminates so much about that era, to remain in the shadows? To be an after thought? [...]

There is not a single character of color, outside of Menken, who has the space or ability to voice what they are experiencing.

Some while some viewers believe that Mad Men adequately deals with race. But this is a lie. Inadvertently, Mad Men features a stunningly clear view of how we deal with race in 2009. While there is the acknowledgment that bad things happen – the race riots are clucked over at the office, with some sharing concern for Kinsey – ultimately, the black characters have no voice of their own. And the loss of this voice continues to dehumanize them.

This is a form of erasure, and shows how much as not changed from 1960 until today.

Is it possible to tell a story or to convey a moment without centering that character? I would argue yes. Take, for example, the other gay characters in the series. Most of the analysis of LGBTQ themes focuses on Salvatore, but there are other gay characters around the margins, who again, still have the ability to illuminate their condition. Remember Joan’s roommate, the one who drunkenly confessed that she had done all she could to be near her? Joan politely downplays her request, and continues as if nothing was ever confessed.

However, the devil, again, is in the details. The scene after shows Joan and her roommate entertaining two gentleman guests. Joan brings her guest back to her room, leaving her roommate awkwardly sitting with the other man. He makes a flirty remark. She looks chagrined, before saying something to the extent of “it doesn’t matter” and submitting to his advances. Joan’s rooommate is not seen again, but has already managed to place an important message in the mind of a viewer: is this how homosexuals had to deal with their sexuality then? How many lesbian women submitted to men just because it was easier?

Another areas I found telling was the treatment of Asian Americans in the series. Often not even mentioned, in the original I wrote:

In addition, the show plays into a lot of existing racial stereotypes – and not in the self aware way that the writers tackle gender stereotypes. For example, the portrayals of Asian American characters dovetails with two existing tropes. In the first season, the boys of Sterling Cooper hire a Chinese family to inhabit Pete Campbell’s office as a prank. Referred to as “the Chinamen” and presented in traditional attire, it reinforces the idea of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners. In the second season, Don Draper is at a bar where he is approached by an attractive Asian American waitress in a cheongasm (though she does not speak with an accent.) She propositions Don, alluding to a possible sexual encounter. He turns her down, and she silently vanishes, her role as exotic eye candy fulfilled. Asian American voices are not heard, their stories are not told, but a recurring theme throughout the series is Bert Cooper’s fascination with Asian culture. He asks visitors to remove shoes in his office, prunes a Bonsai, and peppers his speech with phrases like “Let them open the kimono” but still, there is no space for an Asian American voice.

I had quite a bit of back and forth about this portion of piece, as the Asian characters were not seen as significant in the narrative, and it was argued the mindset of the sixties did not focus on Asian American rights. I explained that by the 1960s, Asian Americans had already been politically engaged in America since (at least) the 1920s. I pointed out the iconic image of a young Asian woman holding up a sign saying “Black Power for Black People, Yellow Power for Yellow People” and referred tothe relationship between Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X. That’s part of the perniciousness of the model minority myth, that Asian Americans sat passively during civil rights and did not contribute to struggles against inequality. So, with that being the case, it was interesting to see Asian Americans entered into the show’s consciousness, but only in those two very limited ways, once again as the vehicles for white characters to prove a point.

The end result was an inclusion, but again a compromise.

This idea that race was being glossed over was confirmed watching the DVD special features. While I did not have time to watch the audio commentaries by Weiner, I did check out everything else. And while there were segments explaining what was happening during the period, most of the race related things (like the Freedom Rides) only received a simple explanation.

Watching Birth of an Independent Woman, I was amazed they devoted almost forty minutes to the role of women and the environment that gave rise to the second wave of feminism. However, they had one black expert (Michelle Wallace) and one male expert (Michael Kimmel) – the other four were white women. While they referred to race, it never went into depth, and that was fine – after all, the special was about the beginning of feminism, not civil rights.

But there was one very interesting omission.

During a portion of the special, they discussed black women in feminism, and discussed how they often supported both sides. They discussed how black women had marched with the suffragettes for the women’s vote, and with black men for the black vote. They discussed how many black leaders, like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois supported the women’s movement. Then they mentioned how black women in the Civil Rights Movement still faced resistance there, still fought the same glass ceilings, and noted they gravitated to feminism as a separate movement to guarantee women’s rights.

I waited, but that was all. They had rightfully called out the sexism that plagued the civil rights movement.

But there was no mention of how many black women struggled with the racism within feminism.

There were similar omissions when discussing women. The talk of educated women being confined to the home dominated the conversation. There was only one mention of domestics, and no discussion of what was happening to women whose lives did not fit that paradigm.

All this said, I still enjoy Mad Men. I think it’s a wonderful show, with compellingly dark characters that illustrates the more grotesque side of an often glamorized period. But with Mad Men, the devil is in the details, and it appears that all the visible minorities have been mostly overlooked.