Mad Men, Race, and the American Lens

Mad Men Chocolate Bunny

Tami, over at Change.org, pens a different view on the role of race in Mad Men:

Fellow Change.org columnist Carl Chancellor reminded me of Ralph Ellison’s take on being a black man in the 50s: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Weiner deftly illustrates this invisibility — the way race is there, but not there in the lives of his white protagonists. The issue of race throbs beneath the narrative like a tell-tale heart. It may often be unseen, but you can always hear the thump…thump…thump. It seems an honest handling by a show that distinguishes itself by knowledgeable, delicate and nuanced analysis of humanity and 50s/60s society within a fictional context. But generally, these days, discussion of race is anything but knowledgeable, delicate and nuanced. And that is the rub. Mad Men does not have a race problem. We do.

It is the knowledge of the nation’s racial immaturity that plagues me when I watch Mad Men. And I suspect it is this that bothers those who have criticized the show’s handling of race. It is not that I cannot hear the thump, thump of race in the show’s narrative. It is that I know many other people aren’t as attuned to the sound.

A few weeks ago on Mad Men, a leather-clad socialist tried to educate hip young copywriter Peggy Olson to the Civil Rights Movement. Peggy is dismissive, noting that as a woman she cannot do many of the things “Negroes” cannot do. “There are clubs I can’t go to because I am a woman.” Her date snorts, “Yeah, let’s hold a civil rights march for women.” Peggy later insists that a black man could be successful at SCDP if he worked hard “like I did.” In this scene we see a man so wrapped in his gender privilege that he cannot even recognize sexism as a real and pressing problem. We also see a white woman refusing to own her own racial privilege and ignoring the existence of black women. It makes sense that a relatively sheltered young woman, in 1965, who suffers unrelenting sexism in the office, but little exposure to black people, would think this way. But many black women spent the whole of the 2008 presidential primary season arguing with white feminists who similarly marginalized us and minimized racism. Hearing fan favorite Peggy Olson take this position felt like an endorsement of a point of view that is sadly not dead yet. I found myself cringing at the scene, irritated at the writers, but perhaps more irritated at Mad Men’s viewers, who I guessed would miss a key element of the dialogue. Sure enough, Monday morning on show forums, many people were hailing Peggy for telling it like it is. Too many viewers noticed the sexism in the scene, but missed the racism. Mad Men got it right. Some viewers sadly missed the point.

Read the rest.