Tag Archives: Mad Men

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.

“Colorblindness,” “Illuminated Individualism,” Poor Whites, and Mad Men: The Tim Wise Interview, Part 2

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

Of course, I could talk to author/activist Tim Wise about 5,000 things all day long; he’s a fascinating conversationalist.  I even asked him a question on my mom’s behalf about the Tea Party.  (I relayed his response to her.)  We flowed from the problems of  “colorblind” rhetoric as social/political policy to what we do at the R, pop culture…including the politics of porn.

Cosby Show castAndrea Plaid: Let’s talk about addressing race and racism on TV, with the discussion about Mad Men and how it does or doesn’t do that.  What do you notice about how race and racism is addressed on TV, especially on shows that take place in contemporary times, like The Cosby Show, Friends, and Grey’s Anatomy?

Tim Wise: Mad Men, from what I understand, is a fairly realistic portrayal of that time. The question is, Why do people love [the show] so much, why do they so enjoy a period piece like this one, which portrays a slice of life, and a period where people of color aren’t present? That’s interesting to me sociologically.  But my question is not about Mad Men so much, as it is about other shows like Friends, which is in the contemporary period in New York, and yet there are no people of color around, or Grey’s Anatomy or the Cosby Show, where we can have representations of folks of color, and “race,” but rarely if ever deal with racism per se. So, they can have the occasional, or even central characters of color in the case of Grey’s or Cosby, but it’s as if these people never deal with racism in their lives. It’s not that every episode needs to be about race, but when virtually NO episodes are, that’s unrealistic. I mean, even a show my kids watch, in re-runs, That’s So Raven (with former Cosby star Raven Symone) had an episode about racism: a really good one in fact. If they could do it, why can’t these shows for adults do it?

AP: The flip of that is how working-class and poor whites are portrayed as a group of people others can feel free to turn their noses at due to their outspoken bigotry and/or their impoverished lives.  Latest case in point: Arlene and Sam Merlotte’s family, the Mickens, on True Blood.  Your thoughts?

TW: Well, there’s a long history of portraying bigots as backwoods “trash” or whatever, because it allows the hip, urbane TV viewer to assume an outsider stance, where we can say “oh, thank God I don’t know people like that!” Or, “I’m not like that.” It’s why whenever one of the talk shows, like Jerry Springer or whatever would have on a racist family, it would always be some family from rural Georgia or whatever, missing teeth, mispronouncing words, or whatever. But of course, people can be elites and incredibly racist, without slurs, without bad dentition, without any overt signs of bigotry, because they have the power to do their stuff in private: old boy’s networks for hiring and contracts, zoning laws that restrict where people can live and where they can’t, etc.

Continue reading

Open Thread: Mad Men & Race

by Latoya Peterson

Mad Men Modern

So, I’ve been hearing bits and whispers about race on Mad Men. “The Suitcase” episode which had Don going on about how he didn’t like Muhammad Ali.

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword episode, where Roger (the show’s designated racist) goes off on potential Japanese clients due to misplaced anger about World War II.

And Naturi Naughton gets a role on the show at the end of the month, keeping tight-lipped on the details of her character.

However, readers, you’ll have to tip me if something actually happens – I’ve functionally stopped watching the show. At this point, the only character I care to know more about is Joan, and she doesn’t merit enough screen time for me to sit through the rest.

So, open thread and the floor is yours.

Mad Men: 4th Season, Same M.O.

by Latoya Peterson

Modified Mad Men

Mad Men is back, and while I’ve given up all hope of a character of color with any kind of context, I still want to know what happens to Sal (I know, I know, he’s written out), Joan, and Peggy.

(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.

Mad Men’s Carla raises consciousness 140 characters at a time

by Guest Contributor Helen Klein Ross, originally published at Ad Broad

Why do Mad Men fans write feeds for the characters? I know that for many of us, it’s simply good fun. For others, it’s fun and an interesting experiment in social media. For others of us, it’s all that and…an opportunity to touch on controversial social issues the show bravely explores.

Latoya Peterson writing for Racialicious observes there’s a twitter feed for Carla, the Drapers’ African American housekeeper, which puts forth perspective that is “all but absent on the show”.

Some critics have taken Mad Men to task for not dealing with social injustice in a more frontal manner. But Weiner’s characters exist in a universe where concepts of feminism and racism are just beginning to take hold. Where sexual harassment not only doesn’t have consequences, it won’t have a name for a good twenty years.

HighJive, a popular blogger who writes on race and “cultural cluelessness” concedes that “finding fault with Mad Men’s rendering of ethnic minorities in the advertising industry is somewhat impossible because, well, they barely exist. They’re invisible.”

Indeed, when the twitter feed for Carla first appeared in December, there was no profile pic. There wasn’t a profile pic for Carla for weeks. The writer explained why in an email:

I have no picture because I’m invisible.

Carla remained without a profile pic until Jan 19, the day before Obama was sworn in:

Finally found one of my own pictures. Makes me feel like today is a holiday.

From time to time, the writer behind Carla touches on racial inequity taken for granted in the world of Ossining, circa 1963. Here’s her exchange with Betty during a twitter-based Tea Party:

Carla: This uniform makes me feel uncomfortable. But I can’t show it; must maintain my “quiet dignity” for the party.

Betty: And be sure and put out Cointreau for White Ladies.

Carla: Oh, won’t all of your guests be white ladies at the party?

Betty: You are such a character! Gin + Cointreau + Lemon + Powdered Sugar = White Lady. Don’t forget to iron your apron!

Carla: We could offer Black Ladies as well. Brandy + Grand Marnier + Kahlua. Paul Kinsey told me he likes Black Ladies.

Carla: And at least, I get to keep my own clothes clean if Betty and her friends spit up the White Ladies on the black lady.

Betty: And change the record on the hifi to Bing Crosby, would you?

Clara: Putting on Bing Crosby record, wishing I’d brought my Louie Armstrong “Christmas Night in Harlem” record to play.

Some tweeters have taken issue with @Carla_Madmen’s sangfroid, wishing her to be more politically conscious:

re: Fixation on the Drapers’ lives…don’t you need to be marching for your civil rights or something?

But Carla on twitter remains in character. She is no Rosa Parks. She is like thousands of women were then as now: ordinary women trying to make the best of the cards they’d been dealt:

March? I get plenty of exercise walking to and from the train.

I do not know who writes @Carla_Madmen. But we have developed an email relationship in which we exchange views on racism and other issues that Carla and Betty can’t discuss. I sent her the Racialicious piece and asked for her views on how blacks are depicted in Mad Men. She wrote:

African-Americans are the only grown-ups on Mad Men. To the limited extent you see them, they lack any discernible faults. Whether that’s due to their minor roles, I’m not sure. I think it will be interesting to watch Mad Men develop larger roles for minority characters as the 60’s progress — single dimensional with quiet dignity or a more full range of human emotions and foibles. It’s obviously a potential land mine for the writers.

And a gold mine of material for the writer of Carla’s twitter feed.

Mad Men’s Treatment of Race Gets Curioser and Curioser

by Latoya Peterson

Tami, post-podcast, pointed out an interesting little piece of the Mad Men universe that I had over looked. She sent around the (official? fan made?) Twitter Feeds for the characters on the show, and noted how the Draper’s maid Carla has her own feed.

Featuring a huge picture of JFK (wondering when they were going to mention that), Carla’s page holds some interesting comments:

Every time @bettydraper plays this record, @dondraper gets vertigo. ♫ http://blip.fm/~1uxcl11:31 PM Jan 28th from Blip.fm

Mr. Draper seems more tense than usual. Hope everything is OK with @bettydraper’s pregnancy. But don’t think I should ask, just watch.

Relaxing, feet up, listening to Lady Day, got to babysit tomorrow for @bettydraper #mmrc

But more interesting is the wittier perspective voiced here, all but absent on the show:

@SabrinaFord Girl, grits and fish, make me miss my Grandma and aunties down South!

@Bobbie_Barrett Not sure how that idea would grab @_DonDraper. I think you know he can be crotch(ety), especially around you. #mmrc

@bettydraper Yes, @bettydraper, just so long as your party doesn’t involve folks wearing sheets.

She also refers to a cousin, Aibileen, which routes to this NY Times article:

Expectations notwithstanding, it’s not the black maids who are done a disservice by this white writer; it’s the white folk. The two principal maid characters, the lovingly maternal Aibileen and the angry, scrappy Minny, leap off the page in all their warm, three-dimensional glory. Book groups armed with hankies will talk and talk about their quiet bravery and the outrageous insults dished out by their vain, racist employers.

The worst of these bosses, a woman known as Miss Hilly, treats Minny like a thief. And she campaigns to have Jackson households install extra toilets so that colored help will not have to use white families’ restricted bathrooms. With the kind of lead-footed linkage that runs throughout this novel — even though it may accurately reflect what Ms. Stockett witnessed in her Southern girlhood — Miss Hilly’s Junior League does its fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.

However, this may just be a (disgruntled) fan site – Carla’s twitter feed only has 331 followers, and links back to a blip.fm site; contrast this to Betty Draper’s twitter feed, which boasts 20,045 followers and links back to the blog “Welcome to the Drapers” which refers to “Uncle AMC” as the source for the images on the blog.


(Image Credit: AMC)

On Mad Men and Race

by Latoya Peterson

So, the Double X article is finally up. The last time I wrote something for Double X, intrepid reader jvansteppes dropped by to add a provocative note to the fannish comment thread:

Being a regular reader of yours at Racialicious, Latoya, I’m a bit surprised you haven’t mentioned the racial undertones in Twilight, although perhaps you haven’t wasted the time to read it. I did unfortunately read the first 2 books for a paper about teen fiction, and the racial undertones hit me pretty hard. While the racialization of vampires, originally linked to projections of Jewish monstrosity, has certainly evolved to the inclusion of characters like Blade, I’ve long associated vamps with a whiteness fetish, and Stephanie Meier doesn’t deviate from that trend. She takes great pains to emphasize the Cullen family’s pale demeanor, linking both Edward and Bella’s alleged beauty to their white, translucent skin over and over again. While I don’t imagine she’s conscious of this theme, it’s ever-present in her less than creative descriptions of vampire beauty or the purity of white Bella.

Contrast perfect Edward Cullen with Jacob Black however, and the race narrative gets even more obvious, even without a deconstruction of her shaky use of Indian myth as a plot device. Meier uses the phrase ‘russet skin’ so often to describe her Quileute characters that a drinking game could follow suit. Her exoticized, shallow accounts of each Indigenous character’s skin color are so over the top they left me wondering why an editor didn’t say anything. While white, refined Edward is a testament to abstinence and self control, russet Jacob is a werewolf unable to control his emotions, who ultimately forces a kiss on Bella. Edward is cold and beyond human weaknesses, while animal Jacob’s body constantly overheats, as do so many portrayals of uncivilized people of color. Edward struggles for control and ultimately we never doubt his ability to maintain his control of mind over body, while Jacob’s body, too big to be anything but dangerous, takes precedence over his mind. I could go on and on.

As could I. I actually did read the first two Twilight books and the chapters of Midnight Sun posted online. And I noticed the race issues in Twilight, starting from the first discussion of Jacob’s “exotic beauty.”

But the tough part of selling your work for publication means it is no longer about what you want to say – it’s about what your editor wants to publish. And it’s up to the writer to then shoehorn their original idea into the editors vision. When it came time to write about the treatment of race in the context of Mad Men, my original draft came in close to eight pages. My editor had something closer to two in mind. And thus, the cuts began. Continue reading

“Fuck Pete Campbell!”: Mediations on Mad Men and Whiteness

by Latoya Peterson

*Spoilers ahead*

I knew for a while I wanted to write a piece on Mad Men and race. After Double X accepted the piece, I re-immersed myself in the two previous seasons, wanting to make sure that I did not miss a single reference to race or a character of color. However, digesting that much Mad Men at over a three week stretch was a horrific challenge – the world painted by Matthew Weiner is grim, and as each episode marched on, I found myself wanting to step through the screen and grab a scotch and a smoke myself.

Instead, being a nonsmoker and a light drinker, I chatted with G.D. of PostBourgie while watching:

me: I am going to die if I keep watching so much mad men
G. D.: lol
we’re doing our weekly recaps
which season are you on?
me: about to cross into 2
me: My lord
Pete Campbell is a little shit bag
Can’t they kill him off?
G. D.: pete’s…complicated.
me: Pete is a shit bag. A total pile of privileged fecal matter. All the characters on mad men are fucked up, but he has no redeeming qualities.
G. D.: keep watching
me: I’m up to the Nixon election
You know
they never mention race there either Continue reading