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.

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