'Mad Men': Race Comes to Madison Avenue

Think Progress
Think Progress

In the show's new season, the civil rights movement is in full swing. At Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenberg writes that it would be nice for race to be at the center of the show's narrative, but it probably wouldn't be realistic.


First, it sets off Joan, who marches into the office with her son to make sure her job is safe—once again, it’s women and people of color who feel pitted against each other by men who are certain their positions are secure. And then, it welcomes in a flood of black job applicants who have decided to take the advertisement at its stated word, and ignoring what Roger believed to be its archness and sophistication, have decided to come after the jobs SCDP thought it didn’t actually have to offer to gain points. This isn’t Don’s letter swearing off cigarette company business. It’s not a game, and it’s not another act of branding. And you can’t joke, as Roger and Don earlier joked about not hiring Jews, when the people you aren’t hiring show up at your door and put the question to you directly so your answer won’t stay private, and confined to the realms of people small enough to find it funny. The rapid-fire conversation when the partners see the neatly-dressed, patient applicants is revealing. “I don’t know why we can’t just hire one.” “Because we’re not hiring.” “Fire that receptionist.” “We can’t have one out there.”

And an inability to refer to black people directly isn’t the only way the partners don’t know how to talk to or about people who were previously so far distant that they have no language or conversational experience to draw on, no sense of what’s appropriate or respectful. When Lane tries to at least halve their problem by announcing that they’re only hiring secretaries (oh, the conflicts that are past, and passing, and are yet to come), he struggles to find the words to address the men, saying: “You are free to leave. I mean, you are welcome to leave. You may go.” It’s a funny, uncomfortable moment, and one where the show sees Lane in a way he can’t possibly clearly see himself.

Would it have been nice for Mad Men to move race to the center of its narrative sooner? Absolutely. But I’m not entirely convinced it would have been realistic for these people, who even as they sell the world of tomorrow to their clients cling resolutely to the privileges awarded by the past, to have been quick to understand and explore the way racism shapes their lives, decisions, and reactions. That’s a flaw of Don Draper and his peers, and yet another signal of how far they may be left behind and the things their backwardness will deny them. “We’re going to the Statue of Liberty,” Don tells Sally, Bobby and Eugene during their weekend with him and Megan. “You always say that,” Bobby reminds him, “but we never do.”

Read Alyssa Rosenberg's entire piece at Think Progress.