Retrolicious–Mad Men 6.8: “The Crash”

Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and Andrea Plaid

Grandma Ida, The Mammy Thief.
“Grandma Ida,” The Mammy Thief.

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…

Maybe having Tami in the shower with him will turn his frown upside down...?
Maybe having Tami in the shower with him would turn his frown upside down…?

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.

Dawn, you look the way we feel.
Dawn, you look the way we feel.

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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  • Gillian Rosh

    “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.”

    -Indeed. These writers have never really been subtle about that, though.

  • littleeva

    At first I thought Grandma Ida was a hallucination, since the entire episode was a hallucination it seemed.

    The drug that “Dr. Feelgood” gave them, I’ve heard of it, it was some type of amphetamine and it was sort of like “No Doze” that was popular when I was in college, you could stay up for days and days.

    I think Grandma Ida was a hoot, she was a con artist pure and simple. She dressed the part, she knew the lingo and she knew that if she entered through the service entrance, no one would think she didn’t belong there. Remember, in the 60’s, people weren’t hip to con artists, heck, people aren’t hip to them now. What a con artist does is use people’s prejudices against them. I always remember hearing about “Salt and Pepper teams.” Black and white con artists who’d work together because the people they were conning, mainly white people, would NEVER dream that a black person and a white person would know each other socially. Seriously, that’s what the con is based on. Remember David Hampton? He conned the heck out of a lot of rich, privileged folk, and that happened in the1980’s!

    As for that guy telling Peggy she had a nice ass. I laughed. I’m over fifty and when someone tells me I have a nice ass, I just laugh because they’re probably tripping.

    • Rhonda Yearwood

      YES! I too thought the whole episode was some kind of mass hallucination.
      Everything was just so over the top heightened and surreal in some ways.
      Grandma Ida did annoy me, because like the roundtable mentioned she had more lines than any other character of colour on the show and she is probably NOT going to be back. And she was such a canned stereotype of black women.
      I did like how Sally said to Don that she really does not know anything at all about him.

      In some cases I find it fascinating to see why someone went off the rails or villain. Darth Vadar’s rise fall and rise to me was interesting, but Don’s I do not need to know more of why, I feel that has been told to the audience. It is just a given that Don (Dick) Draper is a major douchebag. I am just waiting to see his ‘crash landing” that is essentially foretold in the opening credits of the show, for that will be a big hurt and the collateral damage will be extensive.

  • Kristen Reynolds

    My head hurts from all of the side eye I gave Mad Men on Sunday. Are our only options to be erased or to be misrepresented? Weiner claimed, I believe, that he didn’t/doesn’t include race because he doesn’t know how to talk about it (and, at some point he said that he doesn’t want to talk about it). Yet, he knew how to write/cast the role we saw on Sunday?

    I can appreciate that, as the poster below said, Grandma Ida was using a stereotype to her advantage. What I can’t appreciate, however, is lazy writing that falls back on the criminalized, stereotyped black body. There were better, alternative ways to achieve their goals on last week’s episode.

    I think this particular scene made me so uncomfortable because it capitalizes on the expectations of white people both inside and outside of the narrative. Black people, in this case women, can only be accepted as “normal” figures when they adhere to stereotyped or controlling images. For people outside of the narrative, Grandma Ida “fit” because she was a mammy. For people inside of the narrative it was the same. That’s how Sally accepted her presence. Criminalizing her was necessary because it fit the myth and people’s expectations of her. As long as writers like Weiner and shows like Made Men participate in that sort of belief system – black actors will often never be seen as capable of performing roles alternative to those that portray them in controlling fashions. More generally, non-Black people will continue to find it ‘amazing’ or ‘exceptional’ that a Black person graduated from college, or became a CEO, or [insert typical thing that is normalized for White culture, but an exception to the norm for Black].

    • Ruthie O

      “Weiner claimed, I believe, that he didn’t/doesn’t include race because he doesn’t know how to talk about it (and, at some point he said that he doesn’t want to talk about it).”

      It’s so strange and disappointing to me that fantastically talented writers like Weiner and Whedon are capable of stepping outside of their maleness to write fully fleshed out (white) woman characters, but they cannot seem to step outside of their whiteness to write characters of color.

      • jsmith0552

        You could say that about many screenwriter’s in Hollywood who have shown the ability to write very good aliens, white women, dogs, cats and pigs, but a person of color, just throws them everytime.

  • Nasheen Kalkat

    While I agree with the overall sentiment that a bad past does not a bad person make, I take objection to some of Andrea’s comments. ” 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.” This reads a little too closely to the logic that privileged folks often use to ignore histories of oppression. It is the same persepctive that bars many from understanding issues of race and structural oppression more deeply – “that brown man is on death row! I don’t care about his imprisoned father, the abuse he faced at the hands of police or the crime in his childhood neighborhood. He is evil and that’s that.” Which is not to suggest that privileged, white Don’s past in a whore-house is of as much significance as generations of systematic oppression and abuse, as it of course isn’t. Still, we should be careful with simply labelling someone with the e-word and writing them off with no consideration of their past or history, as it has been done so often to members of our communities.

    • Kristen Reynolds

      My sense was that Andrea meant those words in the context of fiction, or at least television, but I agree that we have to be careful in making such statements.

    • racialicious

      Hi Nasheen–

      This is Andrea. Thank you for your objection, and here’s my response:

      My theory on villianery came from a post (maybe a roundtable) a long time ago about Darth Vader and some other baddies in popular culture. If speaking about Darth Vader specifically, I didn’t need three rather horrible Star Wars movies to explain why Darth Vader became evil, just like I don’t need several episodes’ worth of lashbacks of Don’s background as to why the man is an asshole. Darth Vader is evil, and Don Draper is an asshole. These are facts about these fictional characters.

      The thing about my theory, Nasheen, is it only applies to *fictional* characters like Don and Darth Vader, not to real-life people. So, whereas I might seek an insight about a real-life person’s motive–and even at that, I tend to be a action-result-impact kind of woman when it comes to people’s behavior, especially when it comes to things like racism/sexism/homophobia/classism/and so on–I tend to not need all of that when it comes to fictional folks. I’m much more comfortable with the “is-ness” of eveil or assholery, without having to necessarily know the inner working of the “why.” Like I said, when it comes to fiction, it bores me.

      • Nasheen Kalkat

        I really apreciate your response Andrea! Thank you for the clarification. I guess I’m a little too used to seeing such logic being applied to very real people so I felt the need to respond. Personally I like to see a fleshed-out villian. When a story can leave me feeling conflicted about the “bad guy,” seeing the good inside them and rooting for them on one hand while being confused and upset over some of their actions on the other, I think it provides a much more realistic depiction of evil. But that’s just my opinion (and I in NO way think those three Star Wars movies achieved that…). Cheers!

      • Jane Laplain

        Andrea, I’m generally with you on not needing a whole lot of explanation about why a fictional asshat is an asshat. The orgy of explication that has been Don Draper’s character development this season is wasted energy, IMO. In the first couple of seasons getting into his head was riveting.. but in later seasons the “Why is Don/Dick so very complicated???” angle seems to be more and more about making excuses for his character rather than providing any genuine insight into his character.

        However, I think the back story for a character’s villainy *can* be done well. The Evil Queen/Regina character on Once Upon a Time, comes to mind. In fact, the entire premise of the show, fleshing out the human stories behind well known fairytale characters in a relatable, realistic way, is what makes it such appealing television. (To some. So many viewers seem to either love or hate the show for that very reason).

        Personally, I think Matt Weiner has written himself into a corner with Don.. always promising us a depth that simply isn’t there, and never could be there… if for no other reason than “Don Draper, Ad Man” never really existed in the first place. (Isn’t that right, Dick?)

  • Kim Akins

    I couldn’t wait for you to roundtable this. I was horrified by the portrayal and Weiner’s decision that in this many seasons of the show that the only black character with more than five minutes screen time, had to be a thief. I’m at that point, that I would just as soon that writer’s who are incompetent writing about race, just leave it alone. Girls, Mad Men, and anything Joss Whedon, just need to act like the whole universe is white and never acknowledge race ever again.

  • Ruthie O

    Agreed that Weiner seems to be showing his inability to write people of color; however, independent of Weiner, I think Grandma Ida can be redeemed. Grandma Ida was a fascinating character to me because she wasn’t a Mammy as so much that she consciously donned the Mammy mask to placate Sally and Bobby. She assumed, correctly, that white children would be welcoming to a black woman, only if the black woman played into stereotypes. She was a Mammy only when it suited her; when she grabbed the phone back from Sally, we saw a different manner with a different cadence. Grandma Ida used racist stereotypes against whites to meet her own needs.