by Latoya Peterson
(Yes, I know Mad Men is about a bunch of white people in the era of segregation. No that does not let the writers off the hook for this bootleg ass characterization. I’ve written pages and pages on this, but I’ll sum it up in two words: Rachel Menken. She provided context without becoming a main character. That’s all we’re asking for people.)
Don argues with his new (and ethnic?) maid Cecelia. My friends and I couldn’t come to a conclusion if she was coded Italian or Puerto Rican, with more votes for Italian.
Characters of Color may be out of luck in this episode, but there was an errant civil rights reference: Andrew Goodman, one of the civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964, was referenced by Don’s Betty-clone on the date. She mentioned they were killed, but doesn’t go into the details. The three workers (Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner) were lynched by the members of the Ku Klux Klan, but the murders were facilitated by local law enforcement. It was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, one in which the nation had to face the facts that the racial climate in America led to the deaths of three idealistic twenty-one year olds, who were murdered and stuffed into a dam.
However, the reference struck me as a bit strange. Many American Jews were fixtures in the civil rights movement, and the “Freedom Summer” event was reported to have one of the highest levels of participation by American Jews. However, in Mad Men, most discussion of Jews is framed as anti-Semitic jokes, open curiosity, or thinly veiled contempt. Don’s companion mentions Goodman’s identity lightly, as if she were noting an interesting non-sequitur about someone who died in a freak accident, not race related violence. While she was uncomfortable, it was more random table conversation than any actual reflection or fear. But the scene did remind me of something – It is important to note that while I often point to Rachel Menken as an onscreen representation of being able to give voice to minority characters in the style of Mad Men‘s created world, her appearance began and ended in season one. And since then, the lens has continued to close, leaving less and less room for the voice of the “other” to be heard. Sal is gone; the alleged “greek chorus” (Hollis), who people seemed to hope would have a larger role, is back in the old building; Don is selling the house and employed a new housekeeper, leaving Carla’s fate uncertain; and even the extras appear to be on a fade.
But no worries – through small references and slight of hand, the writers will allude hey, we know there were black people then. Unfortunately, that’s as far as it goes. And where there is so much potential to develop plots that deal with race, the attitudes of the writers are eerily current. It’s okay to remember the past, but it is verboten to apply historical events to our current realities.
Remembering the past is easy – it’s learning from our history (not erasing it, not sanitizing it) that’s hard.