Retrolicious–Mad Men 6.4: “To Have And To Hold”

Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid

The crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Price were definitely trying to hold on to something this week–a sliver of self-respect, an image of the role of other people in their lives, a job. Tami and I, along with Womanist Musings‘ and Fangs for the Fantasy‘s Renee Martin and Racialicious staffer Joseph Lamour, talk about who had to hold ’em and fold ’em in this week’s ep–along with a bunch of spoilers, like our seeing several Black people in this episode. No, seriously…

See? Toldja. Black people!
See? Toldja. Black people–and quite a few for a Mad Men episode.

Tami: I was watching Mad Men in bed Sunday night with my husband beside me near dozing, but obviously listening to the program, too. Just after 10 p.m. he sat up: “Wait. Are those black people? There are black people on this show now?”

Yep, Sunday night Matt Weiner and Co. make Mad Men history with a scene populated completely by black folks–walking, talking and being black. Since we’ve seen Dawn and her friend sitting together and talking about their lives, does this mean Mad Men passes the race-based version of the Bechdel Test?

Renee: One scene cannot undo years of racist, sexist exclusion.  They are not going get a cookie from me for doing the the bare minimum to create a change. It has after all taken Man Men six seasons to have a scene with two Black people in it.

Joe: Let me first say that I’m so glad–first, to join these discussions on Mad Men, and second, it looks like Dawn is going to get a bigger role this season. This mirrors Megan’s pretty unexpected rise to a lead in the show, when for nearly a season, she was essentially another named extra. That is… until Don decided to impulsively marry her.

Now, to answer you, Tami: I doubt it. Everything in this show revolves around sex, and I don’t think they’re going to go into racial dynamics for a full conversation with Dawn’s friend at that diner (which I hope we see a lot more of). That being said, during that scene, I shouted, “Black people in the foreground! Black people in the background!”

Tami: Joe, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to get too happy yet. You know there was that one episode with lots of Dawn last season…and then she went back to being colorful scenery in the SCDP offices. Please, Matt Weiner, let a sister have just one character to relate to!

Dawn’s exasperation with SCDP resonated with me and actually made me frustrated at how far we haven’t come. Through my 20s and early 30s, I worked for several PR agencies, and my experience–taking the train from the Southside of Chicago to Michigan Ave., to an office where I would be the only black account executive–mirrored Dawn’s, including the dearth of dateable men and the polite nodding to other black people, lest too much black congregating be taken the wrong way. (It is interesting that a bunch of Mad Men analyzers seem to misread these scenes.)

I like that this scene peeked at the code-switching people of color have to do in majority spaces. But someone in the Mad Men thread over at the fab Tom & Lorenzo’s made a great point: The scene would have been stronger if the actress playing Dawn had demonstrated the difference in SCDP Dawn and off-duty Dawn. Y’know, had she given us a change is cadence or a change in demeanor it would have underlined the mask she is forced to wear.

Andrea: I get what you and the Tom & Lorenzo commenter said about Dawn needing to code-switch. But there are some Black people who just don’t code-switch, at least verbally. But I also think that, when she was speaking with her bride-to-be pal, she code-switched when she talked about her daily commute and seeing “us” until about 72nd Street and her frustration with trying to “meet” someone. What’s also contained in the exchange is not only her struggle with being the first and only, but the struggle of finding a partner who’s her professional equal. Foreshadowing a pantheon of Tyler Perry “professional Black woman” characters…

Dawn should've listened to Retrolicious' Tami.
Dawn should’ve listened to Retrolicious’ Tami.

Tami: I found it a little hard to believe that Dawn would agree to Scarlett’s subterfuge. The minute it was proposed, I shouted at the screen, “Girl, don’t do it!” None of us were alive in spring of 1968, but I guarantee everyone in this roundtable was given the speech about having to work harder and walk a straighter line as African Americans. I can’t believe that a black woman born in the 1940s in Harlem wouldn’t hold even tighter to that admonishment. Nine times out of 10, federal investigations into agency hiring practices aside, Dawn would have been the one bounced for that infraction. Why do you think Joan, instead, gave her a promotion of sorts?

Renee: I can actually see Dawn doing what she did.  In her case it would be easy to go along because she would want to be liked by her fellow employees, realising that if she didn’t comply they could make life difficult for her.  Joan didn’t give her a promotion, she was indeed punishing Dawn for being willing to go along because now there is no place for Dawn to hide.  Dawn must confront the sneaky ways of her fellow employees and act as the enforcer. There was no one in school who liked the tattle tale.

Andrea: See, I think that Dawn could have said no, something along the lines of even looking at her watch, offering the excuse of needing to get back to work with a smile, and skedaddling away from Scarlett–still getting along but also not getting herself into the gut-wrenching situation of possibly losing her job.

Tami: “Should we fire him before he cashes that check?” Oh, Roger Sterling, you silver fox, you!

Harry Crane’s work may indeed be undervalued. He created the firm’s TV department–a forward-thinking step that will prove more prescient as years go by. But here’s the thing, Harry, you’re an ass and the senior partners don’t like you. That’s why you will never have more than that gaudily furnished office (Did ya’ll see that monstrosity?).

Andrea: ‘Twas the times, Tami. ‘Twas the times. It just looked out of place with the rest of SCDP office scheme, which is all mid-century simple lines and curves. (I’m a deep fan of that era of furniture and agree that Harry’s office furniture was…unpleasant…to look at.) The out-of-place furniture fits Harry’s out-of-place personality, which is rather nebbish. That personality trait is as much why he’d never make partner, considering the cool sleekness of a Don, Roger, or Joan.

Tami: FWIW, no one likes Pete Campbell either, but he got lucky, happening to be in the right place and the right time.

Renee: Harry is on the right track with television advertising and he  most certainly does not get the recognition that he deserves. Also, I totes loved the desk in his office.  I do however want to talk about what Harry said about Joan.  That scene was meant to paint Harry as an ass but did he actually say anything that anyone else in that room wasn’t thinking?  Joan said that they still treat her like a secretary and part of it is because she is a woman and the other part of it is how she became partner.  If they took seriously,  Joan’s decision to fire Harry’s secretary would not have been so easily overruled.

Joe: In Sunday’s episode, every plotline involved characters showing off their hypocrisy: Joan impulsively firing Scarlett for getting Dawn to punch her time card- when Joan used to leave work in the middle of the afternoon to meet up with Roger at Manhattan hotels; Don emotionally abusing Megan because of her scripted affair, then in the very next scene, bedding Sylvia in real life; and even Sylvia, committing a sin while wearing the cross. That isn’t to say that Scarlett didn’t deserve to be fired or that Catholics who wear the cross aren’t ever capable of sinning. But it does show how no one on this show ever seems to look and the mirror and really evaluate their behavior in relation to their behavior towards others.

Andrea: Art, as in real life, yes? But I also think that, as seen in previous seasons, Don–and to some extent, Peggy–can be more introspective than, say, Roger or Joan.

Tami: For several episodes, we’ve been looking at cultural evolution from the point of view of the privileged–the folks who, at least on the surface, lose a little in the move toward equality. But I think this episode was dedicated to the other side of the coin. For a black woman like Dawn to be an executive secretary in a Madison Ave. firm is a huge deal. She is breaking barriers, but there is some cost to that. Breaking barriers isn’t easy. Peggy is knows this. She may have lost a friend in Stan for doing her job. Joan has risen to partner, but is still treated like a secretary and knows that people whisper about how she got her position. And Megan is getting some traction in her career, but has a husband who begrudges her success.

There is no “civil rights and feminism happened and then we all lived happily ever after.”

Joe: It seems like there’s going to be no happily ever after for anyone but the people who started in a subservient position. When we finally close the book on Mad Men, I feel like the happiest characters by far will be Joan, Peggy and probably even Dawn, and Ginsberg. Sure, they’re all suffering the slings and arrows of not being a white Christian man in the business world, but they all came from pretty (to extremely) humble beginnings, and now, no matter what drama they experience, they’re all killing it. This is not to say it’ll all be a cakewalk because being called a hooker by an employee of yours during a partner meeting was probably Joan’s worst nightmare. But in the end, people who were considered insignificant to the powers that be will take their jobs, like Peggy attempted with Heinz.

Renee: I wasn’t upset when Harry said that to Joan.  That entire scene would have had far more impact if it had happened to Peggy because she has not engaged in prostitution. What Harry said wasn’t polite but it was certainly accurate. Though sleeping the way to the top is a charge often labelled at female executives – even today – in Joan’s case it happens to be true.  The only thing that I think is hypocritical is that this approach ignores the way in which the men of SDLP, ignore the ways they are more than willing to practically sell their firstborn for an important account.

Tami: Aw, I liked the scene with Don listening at the door to Peggy’s Heinz ketchup pitch like a proud mentor. For what it’s worth, I thought SCDP’s idea was better. But the account went to the big dogs at J. Walter Thompson, which is why I don’t get all the sturm und drang about Peggy and her new agency pitching for the business. The brand seemed to be quietly circulating an informal request for proposals and more than one agency went for it. Stan needs to learn not to discuss confidential SCDP business with members of competing firms. He indeed underestimated Peggy. He won’t do it again.

Andrea: I’m with you, Tami. Don was always gruff with Peggy even as he mentored her. I don’t think he really expected her to leave SCDP and, moreover, him. Most importantly, Don didn’t expect Peggy to become so good to the point she would become his contender. I think he was shocked by how good his protegée was as well as begrudgingly proud of her. But I also wonder if there’s an element of sexism to it in Don’s lowered expectation of Peggy.

Renee: I don’t think Don listened because he was a proud mentor but because he wanted to know what kind of competition they were up against.  I agree, SCDP’s idea was better because plain fries do cry out for ketchup.

Joe: I think it was a little of both. Sure he wanted to size up how Peggy was doing (especially against himself), but I could also feel a hint of pride that Don has for her.

Don and Megan give the  "Oh HELL naw we ain't swinging with you!" toast.
Don and Megan give the “Oh HELL naw we ain’t swinging with you!” toast.

Tami: Don, the serial cheater, is no sexual libertine. He seemed repulsed by Megan’s swinging colleagues and by Pete’s suggestion that he borrow the Campbell bachelor pad for lunchtime assignations. He can’t stomach his wife even pretending to kiss another man for her job as an actress. He is puritanical, except when it comes to his own behavior.

Renee: I think it’s more of a case of Don being judgmental about the woman he chooses as his wife. It’s the old story of Caesar’s wife so to speak.  He didn’t judge Peggy for getting pregnant and giving her child up for adoption and, though he tried to stop Joan from prostituting herself, he didn’t judge her for her actions. When Don marries, he thinks of his spouse as a possession, rather than a person and it is hardly a surprise given the era in which Mad Men is occurring. What Don doesn’t like is anything he perceives as a challenge to his manhood.  Accepting Pete’s offer of his apartment would have meant that Don need help to sneak around and could not handle his business.  The same thing applies with the swinging because he would have made his wife available to another man and would not have been in control of the situation.  Don has always been about power.

Andrea: I think that even extends to Peggy. As long as a woman is still–or, at least, knows that she’s under him, both literally and figuratively, he’s OK. Remember that Betty was a model, which is a career that’s about the “frozen feminine.” Don’s lovers are women who are frozen in the role of side chicks in comparison, as are the women he takes on as wives, whom he believes to be the “mother/housekeeper/arm candy/clueless (or at least tolerant) of his affairs” variety. And Peggy, to Don’s way of thinking, was to stay frozen as his eternal mentee at SCDP, or at least stick around. Again, I think he was genuinely shocked by how good Peggy was in that presentation.

Tami: Is the Draper marriage going to survive the season? I fear it isn’t long for this world. I’m beginning to picture Don lounging in Florida in 1979 with his fifth wife.

Andrea: Sort of like the husband in Queen of Versailles?

Renee: Unless Meagan ends the marriage, I don’t think that Don will.  As much as Don may feel trapped by the marriage he is afraid to be alone.





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  • Erin Jackson

    I was so happy when Dawn appeared at SDCP on Mad Men. The fact that her character seems to keep growing makes me happy. For some reason I identified with her character during this episode. During that time I am sure many black people were stuck between a rock and a hardplace when it came to their coworkers. Joan did not want to fire her at all. I feel like Harry’s days are numbered escpecially after last episode. He has always been a butt for lack of a better word. I wanted his secretary to be fired just as much as Joan did.
    Dawn is a career woman like Peggy. The last thing she is thinking about is a husband. Plus, during this time it is not like she can find her beau at work. When Dawn spoke about seeing a fellow black person and saying hello I was laughing to myself. Her friend was making it a big deal that she did not stop and talk to the dude.

  • Brownbelle

    Personally, I think the portrayal of race relations is very realistic. While folks “up North” tended to be more liberal, it was more a legacy of the fact that the northern colonies did not have the land available for a plantation economic model, which influenced them to cultivate industry. True to that motive, many of the folks on Mad Men seemed upset by MLK’s assassination not mainly because he was a man with a wife and four children, but because they feared reprisals in the form of riots, looting, protests, etc.

    I don’t think the Dawn’s character is as bland or surface as many people think. To me, it is a real, nuanced portrayal of what someone in her position would have to be like to succeed. Someone who nabbed a spot as the token black secretary at SCDP would need to be focused and goal oriented. While these traits are great for career success, they don’t work so well for social success (i.e., marriage), especially for a black woman in 1968. And it’s likely that she is naturally quiet & reserved; tokens are generally chosen for their ability to blend in with the majority, not their sparkling uniqueness.

    • nicthommi

      I agree with you Lisa. The way this has handled has been very realistic in my opinion.

  • Toia Howard

    This is not the first episode with a black person in it. This is a show about white men and their world in the early sixties. That is the reason I watch it. out of curiosity. I watch Downton Abbey and I don’t expect to see any black characters! If you only want to see shows with black character, then watch those shows. My scope is a litttle wider than that.

    • whattamisaid

      Toia, perhaps you misunderstand this post. We are all clearly great fans of Mad Men (and Downton Abbey for that matter). No one said that this is the first episode of Mad Men to include black people. What I said, is that this is the first episode of of Mad Men to pass a sort of black Bechdel Test. We have spoken at length about why African Americans and other people of color may not have been expected as part of the early Mad Men narrative and why we might expect to see more of them now that the show’s timeline has reached the last 60s.

  • Leah Burns

    It would be nice if there was more of a difference between “work Dawn” and “personal Dawn”, but it seems possible that she’s just a rather quiet and shy person. Considering she was talking about the harlots as church and how frumpily she dresses, there are signs of the show of that. The nice thing about that it makes her pretty different in personality from Peggy’s secretary who seemed very outgoing and stylish.

  • Kristen Reynolds

    I’m seeing some definite mommy issues in Don’s behavior. I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around his history – and I’d have to go back and rewatch old episodes to be sure – but it seems like he keeps trying to marry the woman he would have wanted as a mother. He expects a certain amount of all-doting perfection from the women closest to him. He’s free to engage in whatever behavior he likes because women (mothers, wives and daughters) live to serve, right? It seems like these women are always perfect, right up until he says I Do. And I wonder if that element of being married, of pledging to be monogamous keeps taking him back to the mother who wasn’t (he watched her having sex with a pimp or something, right?). It’s like he marries what he sees as the perfect woman, but that very act diminishes their perfection.

    Really interested to see what happens with Dawn and Peggy in the future. I’m worried that Dawn’s “promotion” is going to make her feel even more alienated. That doesn’t bode well for her tenure at SCDP.

  • littleeva

    You all made me laugh, “none of us were alive in the spring of 1968.” Gosh, I was 8 years old then. Great article though, I too was stunned when I saw an entire scene of black people in Mad Men. I always make fun of my mom saying, “You used to dress like Betty Draper, I remember that!”

    • whattamisaid

      LOL! Little Eva, I meant none of us in the roundtable were around.It will be a year and a half in Mad Men time before I make my debut. I’m sure Matt Weiner will work my birth into the plot. :)