Mad at 'Mad Men'

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." 


While Coates, who is male, is right to point out that Mad Men's focus on the gender revolution is both provocative and refreshing, black women viewers do not have the same luxury of watching the show as a reprieve from thinking about the connections between race and gender within both the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. By focusing on feminism exclusively through the lens of its white female characters, and racial progress primarily through cursory references through black male icons, Mad Men conforms to a model of American history that excludes black women.  

So exactly what brand of feminism is the show applauding? It's a question that's particularly relevant now as conservative politicians like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell are declaring themselves the new rightful heirs to '60s-era feminism, while they proudly oppose reproductive rights and equal pay. In their Tea Party universe, feminism might have a shaky allegiance to women, but like the world of Mad Men, it apparently has no room for women of color.  


Mad Men channels an earlier stereotype of feminism that considered the fight for gender equality the province of white women only and the battle for racial equality the contested space of African-American male leaders. By doing so, the show misses out on wonderful and historically accurate moments to explore how feminism and racial progress — the seeming foreground and background of the show's plot — sometimes came together and at other times were conflicted. This season, even more than last, the show is a throwback to the adage: "All the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are brave."

Here's to hoping that next season, Mad Men's creators understand that race and gender are not strange bedfellows, but actually co-create the white privilege and male supremacy that the show explores. Maybe we can follow Carla home to see the contrast between her domesticity and that of Betty. Or possibly we can see her attend a church meeting where, much like Peggy's dalliance with the hipster set, she is exposed to radical politics. Or maybe we can get a new, similarly dark-hued character who also dreams of cracking the glass ceiling at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and beyond.


Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit organization A Long Walk Home, Inc. Follow her on Twitter.

Salamishah Tillet is a rape survivor and co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women. She is also an associate professor of English studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. She is working on a book about civil rights icon Nina Simone.