Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mad about "Mad Men" (and Can't anyone just be racist anymore?")


I'm in love, ya'll! the new season of AMC's "Mad Men" (Sundays at 9 p.m. EST) is on the air and I am hooked on this show in a bad, bad way. If you've not seen it, "Mad Men" focuses on a Madison Avenue ad agency, Sterling Cooper, in the early 1960s. Wikipedia says of the show:

Mad Men depicts the society and culture of the early 1960s, highlighting cigarette smoking, drinking (alcoholic beverages), sexism, and racial bias as examples of how that era, not so long ago, was so radically different from the present.[5][13] Smoking, more common in 1960 than it is now, is featured throughout the series; almost every character can be seen smoking multiple times in the course of one episode.[5] In the pilot, representatives of Lucky Strike cigarettes come to Sterling Cooper looking for a new advertising campaign in the wake of a Reader's Digest report that smoking will lead to various health issues including lung cancer.[14] The show presents a culture where men who are engaged or married freely partake in sexual relationships with other women. The series also observes advertising as a corporate outlet for creativity for mainstream, middle-class, young, white men. The main character, Don Draper, observes at one point about Sterling-Cooper, "This place has more failed artists and intellectuals than the Third Reich."[15] Along with each of these examples, however, there are hints of the future and the radical changes of the later 1960s; Betty's anxiety, the Beats Draper discovers through Midge, even talk about how smoking is bad for health (usually dismissed or ignored). Characters also see stirrings of change in the ad industry itself, with the Volkswagen Beetle's "Think Small" ad campaign mentioned and dismissed by many at Sterling Cooper.
"Mad Men" is soapy and sexy and sooo good.

Of course, as someone who is in "the business of persuasion" (as a copywriter on the show called the biz) and a veteran of a few big city public relations agencies, I am intrigued by watching the early 60s creative process as well as the ruthless corporate intrigue and politics. Check the way, in the aftermath of a deadly plane crash, the advertising agency's executive sharks, drawn by blood (literally) in the water, coldly go after American Airlines as a potential new client. But even better than the advertising business behind-the-scenes stuff are the great drama and nuanced characters who are very much a product of their time and place.

An hour of this show and you'll marvel that people ever refer to the 60s as "the good old days." I'd love to hear from a reader who was actually around in 1962 (the time when season two of "Mad Men" picks up) to confirm that this very confining and rigid world really existed. No one on the show seems very happy. The "traditional" families seem empty: sterile suburban homes, unfulfilled women treated like children, equally unfulfilled men bearing the weight of their masculinity, and children that exist simply because they are supposed to. Gays are closeted. People of color exist as silent servants. No choices to be made, just societal expectations to live up to. People don't seem to be driven so much by their own needs and desires, as the need to "do what people do" as one character recently described it. And all of this torture is bound in stylish wrapping: Kennedy Camelot-era dresses and afternoon cocktails and men in hats and a haze of cigarette smoke.

Can't anyone just be racist anymore?

What I most appreciate about "Mad Men" is that it doesn't attempt to create a historical drama with modern sensibilities. It doesn't turn the morays of the time into something more PC for modern audiences. The show presents things as (I imagine) they were and challenges the audience to judge characters by the standards of a bygone era.

But that is easier said than done, I think. A lot of "isms" were a part of American life in the early 60s. As I've explored several forum threads about the show, I've discovered that viewers are eager to minimize the way racism is deftly presented in "Mad Men." The sexism, viewers can digest. But mainstream society has come to an interesting place: Calling someone a racist is more disturbing than actual institutional racism. Short of witnessing a lynching, there is always some way to explain away race bias.

Take the much-talked about incident on Sunday's episode of Mad Men: Paul Kinsley throws a party at his Montclair apartment and invites his Sterling Cooper office mates. Paul fancies himself a little boho, a little more broadminded and cultured than his peers. During the party, Paul wears a neck scarf and carries a pipe. 'Nuff said. Poseur Paul introduces Joan Hollowell, head of the steno pool, to his (surprise) black girlfriend, Sheila, the manager of a local supermarket. When the ladies are left to talk, Joan first patronizes Sheila, intoning that maybe one day she'll be able to "pull up in a station wagon" and shop at the supermarket, as well as work there. When Sheila points out that she has already shopped there, as she grew up in the suburb, Joan turns more nasty: (paraphrasing) It's great that you and Paul are together. When we were together I wouldn't have thought he would be so broad-minded. It's left to the viewers' imaginations what else Joan may have said, but later in the office Paul confronts her and she accuses him of dating Sheila merely to seem "interesting.".

Now, it is clear to me that Paul certainly is a showy, pompous ass and just the type to think hanging with Negroes is proof of sophistication. It is also clear that Joan is a Queen Bee sort who doesn't take kindly to female competition or being left behind by a former paramour. But it is also more than clear, given Joan's insistence on putting Sheila in "her place," that Joan is particularly offended by a former beau moving on to a black woman. She digs with the "maybe one day you'll be able to shop there" and "he wasn't that broad minded" thing and takes care to insult Sheila out of Paul's hearing.

The meaning of the interaction between Joan and Sheila seems obvious to me, especially given the early 60s time frame. The Civil Rights Act had not been signed. There had been no Freedom Summer. Blacks in about 11 states could not vote. Is it such a surprise that the average American held racially biased beliefs? To me, it is no more surprising than the sexism that runs rampant in the show. But many of the comments on "Mad Men" forums are ambivalent about the racism in the show's recent episode. Take these comments from Television Without Pity:

However, I'll agree that Joan is classicist and condescending. But...she always has been. I didn't see racism. I saw her calling Paul on being a poseur and her being her normal, condescending self. That's pretty much classic Joan. So far as I can tell, Joan only likes women whom she can condescend to; that's why she dislikes Peggy's promotion and why she likes being the Mother Hen at SC.
Because the definition of racism is subjective.

Joan works in a prestigious industry in Manhattan. To her, working in a supermarket in New Jersey is nowheresville, man. Snobbish? Sure - but I'm pretty sure that attitude is just as prevalent today. More to the point, it's an attitude we can safely assume that Paul would share. Everything about him screams "pretentious" and
faux-Boho. It's logical that an unconventional choice of girlfriend would be part of that pose.

It's hardly news that Joan can be a bitch when she wants to be. I have no doubt that if Sheila had been white, Joan would have treated her exactly the same, finding some other point to pick on instead. That's not "racist," it's just mean. (Actually, tiptoeing around Sheila's feelings because she is black would have been a kind of racism as well.) Joan does have a mean streak, but it has always seemed either playful or productive before, whereas this was pure spite. I wonder if we'll ever know the details of her breakup with Paul - she acts like a woman scorned.
Joan is not a racist, see, just a little bitchy. Part of the problem is that the character, with her pneumatic body and take-no-prisoners attitude is sort of a riot grrl favorite of the show's fans. No one wants to brand someone they like a racist. It's more comfortable to find other explanations for bad behavior toward people of color. Interestingly enough, the mostly female fans that I have heard commenting about the show have no problem swooning over the misogynist, conniving adulterers the make up the male cast. And when a male colleague sends newly-minted copywriter Peggy Olson from a conference room to do his bidding like the secretary she once was, no one seeks any other explanation than the sexism that was prevalent at the time.

You know, back during the Democratic primary, several feminists insisted that sexism was more acceptable than racism in our culture. I'm beginning to think they may have had a point. Not in the Geraldine Ferraro way, where being black is some sort of benefit that guarantees you success and cookies. But people can still find humanity in someone who is sexist and clings to traditional gender roles. But to be a racist is to be demonized. Interestingly, though, that turns out to work against the anti-racism movement. So as to avoid demonizing friends and loved ones, people avoid calling racism "racism" and instead make racist incidents about anything else. That doesn't mean racism and race bias are any less pervasive, folks simply pretend that they don't exist...even in a cable drama set at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

13 comments:

Elly said...

I think this is an excellent post, in particular your conclusions in the last paragraph. And I think you're dead on - I see it in my own life as well, we feel if someone is sexist they can still be a good person but if they're racist they must be the most evil creatures imaginable, akin to Hitler or KKK members going around killing people. In fact, when I see racist actions/words I usually feel I have to label them as "biased" or "ignornant" rather than actually "racist" unless they're being perpetrated by strangers in extremely blatant ways. I think it's all linked in to the helplessness we feel about racism, particularly institutionalized racism. I mean, when someone at work is surprised you drive well (because you're a woman) or expects you to make coffee or clean the break room (because females are more gifted in that area) you can cajole them back to the point of reason, but what can you really do when you know the best qualified person for a job might be a POC but that even if you could see to it that they got hired they would still be subjected to suspicion and negativity every day?

Somebodies Friend said...

I love this post Tami.

I recently discovered that all of my "friends" have been racist towards me for most of my life.

That's not even the best part, the best part is when my friends would plant ideas into my head about how I should act to fit im, then when I acted accordingly they would all take notes behind my back.

My girlfriend was even envolved Tami, imagine that. Here I am just trying to impress the guys, because that is what guys do, and they were all running back to her and telling her what I was doing. That is cold blooded, I mean real cold blooded. I never cheated on her, or intended on cheating on her.

I thought I was just being one of the guys. Well go figure, my "friends" were using everything I said to get some of that.

"A SETUP OF SORTS"

And they call me lame, HA, all the rest of them are lame. LAME, LAME, LAME.

What a bunch of losers, every one of them, including the EX.

She was in on the GAG the whole time, and I thought she loved me.

If she really loved me she would have ask me what was going on and I would have been honest with her. Instead of playing all of these GAMES and pointing her finger at me.

And to think she was being cute last year on Holloween, Mascarading as the DEVIL, I think there is a little more truth to that then I thought.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I enjoy Mad Men (whenever I get a chance to see it). I like it because of it historical/social/aesthetic portrayal of that era that to my mind is rarely ever present to the American public. Somehow the years between circa 1959 and 1964 are always given revisionist portrayals. I believe that Mad Men is the more accurate portrayal of that era in popular culture.

I would like shows like this to include more Mainstream America views on race. But that would be difficult. Not only for the obvious PC reason. But it will show that America and Americans normalize racism. It will also show that racism is not being eradicate in American but is adapting to contemporary economic and societal needs. It show that American society need institutional racism to keep the machine running and more important Mainstream American are complicit in its perpetuation.

BTW I love American mainstream culture of that era (the popular music probably the most diverse, the fashion, the cinema, furniture, architecture, entertainment, etc -) Lack of better term I believe it was the classical era of 20th Century American culture. Everything from that era are classics.

Anonymous said...

I just think Mad Men is an excuse to be overtly sexist on T.V. Did men write the show? Check the writers on each episode.

I can't stomach that show!

Adrienne said...

Your blog was linked at Television Without Pity during this very discussion and that's how I found it.

I completely agree with your conclusions regarding Joan's racism in that episode. I'm shocked that people are down-playing it as they are, and some not even acknowledging racism in the slightest degree.

I believe you're right in that fans adore the character Joan and don't want to face the fact that she's a racist.

The attitude toward the male characters is puzzling as well - but I see that as a reflection of society as a whole. It is still acceptable for men to lie to their wives and cheat. Therefore, it's no big deal when the male lead does it on a TV show set in the 60's. Just look at how many women still swoon over Bill Clinton and he's a known serial cheater. In our society, men "get away" with a lot more unacceptable behavior than women.

Adrienne said...

Your blog was linked at Television Without Pity during this very discussion and that's how I found it.

I completely agree with your conclusions regarding Joan's racism in that episode. I'm shocked that people are down-playing it as they are, and some not even acknowledging racism in the slightest degree.

I believe you're right in that fans adore the character Joan and don't want to face the fact that she's a racist.

The attitude toward the male characters is puzzling as well - but I see that as a reflection of society as a whole. It is still acceptable for men to lie to their wives and cheat. Therefore, it's no big deal when the male lead does it on a TV show set in the 60's. Just look at how many women still swoon over Bill Clinton and he's a known serial cheater. In our society, men "get away" with a lot more unacceptable behavior than women.

heartsandflowers said...

People are in such denial about their racism they prevent themselves the opportunity to delve into it and resolve it.

tallulahbankhead said...

That's hysterical that people can't claim what Joan did on the last episode of Mad Men which was flat out racist, sexist and classist.

I would think they would use her pissiness as a chance for them to explore and examine their own feelings of superiority when it comes to race, gender and class.

And then I woke up and found out I was still living in modern day America.

Mochalight said...

Great post!!!

If people would just be honest about racism, it would go over better.

Kjen said...

I love Mad Men too! I started watching at first just for the costumes but then the drama got me hooked!
But I don't see the drama as some sort of radical 'true to life' story of that period of time. It seems to me that whenever I see a modern remake of those times the people are always shown as being repressed and hypocritical.
I use to think that we had it so much better, so many more choices and opportunities to be ourselves, but I'm starting to rethink that. I do think, with all the tawdry falsehoods of the era, there was something that was beautiful and noble about 'doing for others','acting for others sake,' etc.
the use of the individual to serve the community.
I'm hoping there is some way to balance individual happiness with the needs of the community at large.

Anonymous said...

I agree that what Joan said was racist. I also agree that people don't want to admit it. But I think the fault (for not wanting to admit it) can be laid squarely at the feet of television itself. Any time a "racist" has been portrayed on TV,it's always a Southern redneck,a neo-Nazi skinhead or an ignoramus from the outer-boros ala Archie Bunker. It's never a Manhattan sophisticate like Joan. Their racism exists,just not on TV.

Teendoc said...

I'm amazed that people would actually believe that Joan's remarks had nothing to do with race. They must be delusional.

But you know what really floors me about this show? Realizing that my mom and my two godmothers, black women all, were in med school at this time. The strength they had to deal with the sexism and racism both.

Brother OMi said...

great analysis. i really want to watch the show just haven't had the time for it. thank the maker for DVDs...

but i agree, as a historian i have found that people get antsy when one brings up the past. How regular everyday folks used the n word because that was the norm . hate to say it but it's true.

if i was to write a story or script about the 60s it would be in that manner.

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