Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid
This week, Matt Weiner thought he’d counter the continued criticisms that he and his creative team aren’t dealing with race and racism by…fleshing out one of the worst racial fears about Black women. Tami, Renee Martin from Womanist Musings and Fangs For The Fantasy, and I give this foolishness some serious side-eye while shouting out Benedict Cumberbatch.
Read on, with spoilers in mind.
Tami: No. No! No! No!
You cannot have a show nearly devoid of black characters for multiple seasons and then, apropos of nothing, drop in a walking amalgam of Mammy and thief stereotypes and give her, seemingly, more screen time, character development, and dialogue than any black character to date. It’s just…damn, Matt Weiner! This show is supposed to be better than that.
The most egregious thing about Grandma Ida is that she was both unnecessary and unbelievable. There were countless other ways to show how often unsupervised the Draper children are when visiting their father. And something about menacing middle-aged black women rolling up in tony Upper East Side doorman buildings, single-handedly breaking into likely occupied homes, seems ridiculous. If nothing else, Ida’s methods seem destined to land her in jail.
More ink and conversation have been spent on Grandma Ida and Pete Campbell’s “200 lb. Negro prostitute” that on Dawn at this point. She and Peggy’s secretary remain ciphers. If the other option is marginalization and stereotype, then Weiner is making me want to choose invisibility in Mad Men for black characters.
I just…I need a Cumberbatch break…
Aaaahhhh….that’s better. Poor race casting in Star Trek: Into Darkness aside, The ‘batch makes everything better.
I will credit the Grandma Ida storyline with giving us the episode’s best bit of dialogue, though.
Bobby Draper: “Are we Negroes?’
As someone who enjoys genealogical research, I can tell you, Bobby, you well may be. Still…hee.
Andrea: Tami, you come to New York City for a couple of days, and you just act allll the way up, huhn?
Back to this latest Black character to cross the Mad Men universe: compared to, say, Carla, Dawn, and Peggy’s secretary, the Mammy Thief (the name I give Grandma Ida) damn near had a soliloquy on the show. I mean, you had to suss Carla’s backstory, though her firing over nothing was a common story from Black domestic workers during that time. Dawn gets something of a backstory, with her wanting to find a partner of her professional standing, which speaks to her having some desires, specifically aspirations.
But the way Weiner physically presented the Mammy Thief–the slovenly coat and clothes, the hair sticking out under her worn-out hat, the puzzled way she talked. like she sort of didn’t know where she was–one could construe her as possibly having an untreated mental illness or, worse, pulled an ableist move and affected that in order to appear less of a direct threat. (Though that didn’t stop some commenters from saying that she’s “menacing.”) She is definitely presented as the worst fears about Mammy, that of a Black woman who violates the trust of white people–specifically of white children, who are supposed to be the object of Mammy’s unconditional motherly love–for her own gain. Grandma Ida’s the precursor to that other bit of GOP-generated social fiction, The Welfare Queen.
Renee: I felt that this character affirmed everything I have ever said about Mad Men and race. Weiner does not include people of colour because he does not know how nor is he willing to try.
Tami: Renee, I told Andrea that I’m beginning to think that the only reason Weiner and Co. have been subtle about race thus far is that no actual PoCs have been included in the narrative. Now that we are, they’re going ham with stereotype and bias.
Andrea: But I think that that’s sort of how some white folks function. They’re all cool and “liberal” until the people of color show up–and, sometimes, it only takes one person of color–then the racist foolishness start flying. Weiner seems to have enacted that scenario in his award-winning creation.
Tami: So, Cutler Gleason & Chaough comes with its very own Dr. Feelgood. I tell you, this episode made me suspect someone had slipped me some of the good doctor’s proprietary “vitamin mix.” I was certain Ken Cosgrove’s soft shoe was, at the very least, my evening Benadryl allergy meds kicking in.
Andrea: The hell was that? Was it Weiner’s acknowledging the 60s drug culture through the prism of SCDPCGC, or whatever they’re call the agency nowadays? Considering the “sped up” reaction to the “vitamin mix,” will the Mad Men crew usher in the cocaine-fueled late 70s and 80s early, since next season is the last one?
Renee: Let’s be honest, these people have never done anything sober. So far, we have only seen the occasional usage of pot, but alcohol has been a mainstay since the first episode. I really see it as pointing out that, even though people tend to think of this as a time of change.
Tami: Enough with the bordello flashbacks! I’m beginning to think we are being shown Don’s wretched childhood as a way to mitigate, or at least explain, his unbridled assholishness. I really don’t like that. There were (and are) plenty of real-life Don Drapers whose mother figures weren’t prostitutes, whose fathers weren’t kicked to death by horses and who weren’t molested as children. And there are plenty of people with difficult pasts who aren’t horrible people.
And Don is a horrible person.
Andrea: This goes back to my hating the psychological reasons for villianery: I could give zero fucks about why the person is evil–they are, and that’s enough for me. Telling me why actually bores me. And I feel the same way about Don. I don’t need his psychological profile to understand why he is the way he is. And I really feel like they’re really using his impoverished background to explain his assholishness, much in the same way that they use Roger Sterling’s wealthy background to explain his assholishness, without the flashbacks.
Tami: I wonder–given the new merger and the fact that Ted Chaough seems like an infinitely more together person, creative and with a better management style–how long is Don going to be able to flounce around, working on campaigns to win back mistresses and deciding he can’t be arsed with newly won auto clients.
Andrea: But I think that Chaough is going to worm his way into a partnership position and move Don into a partner emeritus position, which gives the agency a reason to retire Don with some modicum of dignity.
Tami: Our Pegs could have her pick of men: The New Agey, turtleneck wearing ad exec; the pot smoking, fun guy or the lefty, liberal journalist. Sadly, she has more chemistry with both Stan and Ted, but both of those relationships would be all sorts of problematic.
Andrea: But are they really picks? Mr. Turtleneck is married, though closest to Peggy’s temperament and desires; the fun pothead is someone she think of as too much of her equal, so would hold no interest for her; the lefty journalist apparently isn’t keeping her interest in general, the way she’s acting all restless around him.
My contemporary sensibilities just about flipped when pothead dude told Peggy she had a “nice ass”…and all she could do is smile. I had to remember that the idea of even reporting sexual harassment in the workplace is a very recent thing, thanks to Professor Anita Hill.
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