'Mad Men' and Race? Let's Talk Gender

Characters Dawn Chambers, Megan Draper and Joan Harris (AMC)

(The Root) — Mad Men is an excellent television show for a variety of reasons, among them great writing, acting, direction, costume design and set design. The dialogue on the show is so on point that you can imagine yourself in the writers' room and the painstaking process they go through to ensure that the language of each character pulls viewers into the story. The Emmy Award-winning show has raised the bar for original programming on cable television.

No, it's not on HBO. The series airs on AMC, a cable channel previously known for screening movie classics that has reconfigured itself into a boutique network respected for its top-notch scripted shows that resonate with contemporary audiences.

Mad Men has come under scrutiny for representing a particularly white New York in the 1950s, largely devoid of people of color. In 2010 The Root introduced a Mad Men Black-People Counter to keep track of the limited representations of black folks on the show.

Some argued that its lack of black characters was unrealistic and disturbing, while others, like me, believe that shows like Mad Men and, most recently, HBO's Girls serve as a true reflection of how life often operates: When you're privileged, you create and live in a world where disenfranchised people don't exist, even when they are physically present.

Now in its fifth season, Mad Men has finally responded to these concerns by introducing a black character named Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris), whom Don Draper (Jon Hamm) hired as a secretary after an inside-office joke about black civil rights protesters backfired. As is becoming customary this season, Don did the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons. He hired Dawn, recognizing that she deserved a chance in life the same way his character did. He might not have gotten his ad-exec job had he not assumed another man's identity.

While many argued that blackness was missing from Mad Men, W.E.B. Du Bois' theory of double consciousness is at the very nexus of the show. The illustration of Du Bois' theory culminated with the awkward sleepover between Dawn and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a working-class Brooklyn girl who managed to move up from secretary to copywriter in the male-dominated and well-to-do world of advertising. Dawn couldn't go home late at night because it was too dangerous for her, and she couldn't really befriend Peggy because it, too, was dangerous for her, given race relations.


Double consciousness was at play with both characters. While some found the episode to be a dud, it demonstrated that the intersection of race, class and gender is inextricably linked and affects all facets of life, consciously and unconsciously. Scholar Patricia Hill Collins would refer to it as the "intersectionality" of oppressions.

While many have focused on the role of race in Mad Men, the critique of gender has fallen by the wayside. As the season finale approaches, Mad Men's female characters who lived largely on the margins of the office and society during earlier seasons are now front and center.


Peggy has given her notice, securing a good-paying job at a rival agency. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is divorcing her selfish and abusive husband (she married him despite being raped by him during the courtship) and decided to sleep with an account executive in order to secure her financial future, much to Don's chagrin.

In her decision, Joan is clear on how men of this time period view women — as sexual objects — so, she figures, she may as well capitalize on her assets, as opposed to being constantly hurt and disrespected while trying to rise above the chauvinism. In a nutshell, complicity pays well. If she has to work among swine like Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), then why not get paid for the trouble?


Should we even mention Don's young, hot wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), who is trying to keep her husband happy while pursuing her dream of becoming an actress? Eventually Megan is going to have to decide between being a wife and being true to her professional desires — a struggle that many women share.

Like the characters of Don and Dawn, who have more in common than just similar-sounding names, Peggy and Joan have more in common than just red hair, a child sired by the brass and overbearing, judgmental mothers. Their struggles are rooted in gender constructs, which drive all aspects of their characters' lives, including relationships with other women.


While people are so caught up in the lack of diversity on Mad Men, what the writers and producers of Mad Men are doing with gender is compelling, in a way that introducing Dawn and then not further developing her character this season is not. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it — particularly regarding people of color on the small screen. While the representation of the female characters in season 5 is highly problematic, their plotlines are still interesting, provocative and well worth watching.

Nsenga Burton is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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