In the opening scene of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper, sitting in a swank restaurant, gets a light from a black busboy and then strikes up a conversation about his smoking and brand preferences. As this is 1960, an older, white, waiter comes over and asks if Draper is being bothered. Draper sends the intrusive waiter away, and keeps up the conversation with the busboy, remarking, "You must need to relax after working here all night."
"Yes," the man answers, and then quickly adds, "I don't know.” Draper, the creative director of a Madison Avenue ad firm and the show’s central character, rolls into his sales pitch.
Although Draper has a gift for engaging and seeing through marginalized types—the unwed mother, the Jewish heiress, the closeted gay man—in the case of the black characters, the relationship never goes beyond shallow conversation. Mad Men takes on a number of cultural controversies, yet race is treated with politeness, distance, restraint, and a heavy dose of sentimentality. For a show that takes place in the early ’60s, as race riots are breaking out, this is a glaring omission.
Mad Men, which starts its new season Sunday night, is willing to engage the toughest issues of the time—and use them to provide an insight into our current social norms. The show unflinchingly displays the whole range of misogyny during the period—from the casual office demands to "show a little more leg" to the physical and sexual violence Don and other characters use to control their wives and mistresses. Draper sexually molests Bobbi Barrett in a power play and pushes his wife full in the chest during a physical altercation. One character—Peggy—becomes the agency’s first female copy writer and fights to be seen as an equal with the men finding themselves increasingly uncomfortable with having a lady in their clubhouse.
Other minority characters on the show give us a glimpse into life as an outsider in the early ’60s. Before a meeting with Rachel Menken, the daughter of a Jewish department store baron, Draper and his colleague Roger Sterling wonder if they should have a Jewish employee in the room to make her think they’re a Semite-friendly firm. Easier said than done.
Sterling: "Have we ever hired any Jews?"
Draper: "Not on my watch."
Draper later jokes, "Want me to run down to the deli and grab somebody?"
Menken, through sheer force of will, succeeds in making them see her as a serious client. But the relationship strays from business when she and Draper have an affair. It is through that intimate connection that Menken is finally able to confide, on screen, the way that bigotry has shaped her life.
"Jews have lived in exile for a long time,” she tells Don over lunch. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we thrive at doing business with people who hate us."
When Don replies: "I don't hate you," Rachel fires back, "No, individuals are wonderful."
Don’s wife, Betty, deepens our understanding of the anti-Semitism of the period when she tells Don about her first kiss with a Jewish boy named David Rosenberg. Classmates treated her differently once they found out about this kiss, she says, and then mentions how the Jewish girls in her class dyed their hair blonde when they got older.
In Season 2, the carefully constructed façades start to crack. Betty kicks Don out of the house, and then sleeps with a stranger she meets in a bar. Her friends have affairs, get divorced. Joan, the office sexpot, gets raped by her “perfect” fiancé. Peggy gets her own office. Salvatore, the closeted gay man, has his first gay encounter. The white patriarchy is breaking apart, the rush of the ’60s are upon us. But the black characters are still trapped in a romantic haze of noble, silent suffering.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist and the editrix of Racialicious.com.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living.