A few thoughts about Latoya Peterson’s take on Mad Men from Double X last week:
She’s right that to the extent that the show is about the social dynamic of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, there’s been relatively little attention paid to racial issues on the show’s first two seasons—and the black characters have been fairly two-dimensional. She's also right that the show had a more interesting take on the dynamic between Don Draper and his Jewish paramour in season one than any black/white interaction. They definitely could have done more with the interracial dating plotline between Paul and Sheila.
Having said that, I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing. It’s more important that the show get it right on race in those few instances that it does take on racial issues, than it is to have racial tension be a major theme in the show’s overall arc.
For example, in season one, when the younger staff members at Sterling Cooper had late night party at the office and stole Peggy’s emergency cash out of her locker, she reported it and the result was that the black elevator operator—who had nothing to do with the theft—was fired. That outcome seemed pretty plausible for 1959/60 corporate America: Something’s missing? Must have been the black guy. White people don’t steal. Stop asking questions and just get rid of him.
The point of the show is that these flawed Madison Avenue guys think that they’re masters of the universe, and are almost oblivious to the social changes taking place around them—including the fact that from their point of view, the consequences of firing a wrongly accused black man are invisible (or they just don’t give a damn).
It seems realistic that apart from Peggy’s temporary remorse, resulting from seeing her theft report lead to the firing of an innocent man, the dismissal of a blue collar black employee is a complete afterthought to the Sterling Cooper crowd. That’s a fairly concise portrayal of the perniciousness of racial bias. The guy didn’t matter because he was seen more like an appliance—“the black elevator guy”—than a man with rights and responsibilities.
And if the show had taken the direction of playing out the storyline of the fired black employee, they would have run a greater risk of botching their portrayal of the black experience, which could have been a lot worse than just giving it limited play.
There’s a scene in A League of Their Own when the all-white women baseballers are practicing, and a stray ball rolls over to a group of black women. One of the black women picks the ball up and fires back a pretty impressive throw, as if to say, “We can play this game, too—maybe better than you.” That scene allows the movie to acknowledge that there’s a racial subtext underneath the gender story, but at the same time makes it clear that rather than give it short shrift, the movie is just going to acknowledge it, and move on. That’s what we’ve seen so far from Mad Men. Depending on your perspective, that’s either depressingly problematic, or as refreshingly honest.
The same applies to Mad Men. Actually, it seems likely that in season 3 or any subsequent seasons, race could become more of an issue. As Peterson noted, the JFK/MLK/RFK/Malcolm X assassinations are on the horizon chronologically. But if the show doesn’t get around to that, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve failed to do their job, or they’ve been “afraid” to take on race.
One reason I enjoy Mad Men is that it’s a well-done show that doesn’t have any black characters it can mess up, so it’s more relaxing for me to watch, purely for its water-cooler value. And the cool retro gear. And The Wire’s not on anymore.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.