Mad at ‘Mad Men’

The creators of Mad Men get so many things right in this period television series. Too bad they get black women so wrong.

Deborah Lacey (Getty Images)
Deborah Lacey (Getty Images)

In Mad Men, AMC’s seminal series on the 1960s advertising scene, all the women are white, all the blacks are men and, well, the rest of us non-male colored folks are housekeepers and Playboy bunnies. At least, that’s what one would think watching the show lauded by The Washington Post as “TV’s most feminist show.”

Mad Men is all about progressive gender politics — as long as it comes wrapped in white skin. For female viewers who both enjoy Mad Men and come wrapped in brown skin, watching the show can be a frustrating experience.

For the fourth season, Mad Men, which comes to a close on Sunday, the civil rights movement serves as little more than a decorative backdrop. Now set between 1964 and 1965, the show continues to wonderfully detail the fall and the failures of its patriarch, Don Draper, while also exploring the limited gender roles that stifle white suburban housewives, like Betty Draper-turned-Francis, and the sexual harassment and gender discrimination that plague working women, like Peggy Olson and Joan Harris. 

In fact, the show’s creative representations of white male chauvinism and a budding white feminist movement is best captured in the ninth episode of this season, “Beautiful Girls,” which oddly pits the fomenting civil rights movement against the budding feminist movement. When Abe, a white male hipster, sits down with Peggy and waxes philosophic about revolution — particularly the upheaval in Greece and the civil rights movement in America — Peggy quickly interrupts, “Most of the things that Negroes can’t do, I can’t do, and no one seems to care.” Abe chides: “All right, Peggy, we’ll have a civil rights march for women.”

The civil rights movement, it seems, was for black men only.   

Part of the reason the show gets away with such a reductionist version of the civil rights era is that for the past two seasons, there have been few references to the major battles and gains of this significant social movement. Significant moments of the ’60s, from the March on Washington to the Birmingham Bombing to President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act, are either mentioned in passing or show up as grainy news footage on TV.  

Black male historical figures like Malcolm X, Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte are mentioned only briefly by the show’s white characters. Or they’re strangely used as the shadowy metaphor for the societal oppression of white women, like Betty Draper dreaming about Medgar Evers when she is heavily sedated for her third child’s birth, or when the Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight serves as a backdrop for Peggy Olsen’s duel with her family.

As The Root‘s Mad Men Black-People Counter demonstrates, the only recurring black character on the show is the Draper housekeeper, Carla, played by Deborah Lacey. Lacey is given little to work with beyond a blank stare or a quizzical look; her character’s inner workings are completely ignored. The viewer doesn’t get any hints about how changing gender roles affect Carla’s life.   

By relegating the civil rights movement to the background, Mad Men seems comfortable sidelining both its fictional African-American characters, like Carla, and real African-American historical actors, like Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansberry and Lena Horne. Just like the white characters in Mad Men, their lives intersected with this very same feminist movement. They, too, grappled with similar anxieties, desires and fears of the white female characters who live in Mad Men‘s world.

For Racialicious editor Latoya Peterson, the black women housekeepers “are silent, stoic, and patient, always dealing with the white characters with respect and aplomb. Devoid of their own narratives, they exist solely to comfort and move the rest of the story forward.”