Monday, October 12, 2009

Mad Men: The good, the bad and the prejudiced

It is good that in 2009, most Americans recognize sexism, racism and homophobia as bad things. It is not good that we only associate these things with bad people, or that we have a hard time identifying prejudice that is not blatant and in your face. We want bias to be black and white when, especially today, it is usually gray--yet no less damaging to marginalized peoples.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of the AMC series, "Mad Men" (Sundays, 10 pm ET) I enjoy the show, which details the lives of Madison Avenue ad men in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and perhaps more interestingly, characters on the flip side of the straight, white male power dynamic. Nearly every episode of the series, written mostly by women, includes subtle explorations of power, privilege and marginalization as it existed in pre-Civil Rights America. I look forward to Monday-morning analysis of the show, online and at the water cooler. "Mad Men's" expertly-crafted, subtle writing offers much to dig into and turn over and interpret. That said, what I am finding increasingly more interesting is analyzing the analyses of "Mad Men"--the way the mainstream's still-limited understanding of sexism, racism, homophobia and associated privilege and power colors the way people consume the show.

As "Mad Men" hurtles through the 1960s (the most recent episode took place in September of 1963), women, African Americans and gay people, and the ways that they are constricted and dehumanized, are becoming more visible to viewers. Last night's episode, "Wee Small Hours," showed closeted and married, creative director Salvatore Romano being propositioned by a drunken, loutish client. Sal rejected the man's aggressive advances, which resulted in the client demanding that Sal be fired. And he was fired (at least it seems so) in an absolutely heartbreaking scene with his boss, the show's titular "hero" Don Draper, who became aware of Sal's homosexuality in the show's season opener and whose silence about the information convinced Sal and many viewers that he would be an ally. "I just don't understand you people," Don growls, hinting that Sal should have done what the client wanted. When asked if he would say the same if a female account person were propositioned by a male client, Don says yes, "depending on what I knew about the woman." Message: people who step outside of patriarchal and heteronormative roles no longer have agency over their sexuality. A woman who has sex outside of marriage and a man who has sex with other men have lost their right to ever say no. Sal says sadly, "I didn't do anything wrong. He's a bully."

More subtle, but equally impactful, are the rumblings about the Civil Rights movement and how the Northerners on the show react to news of Medgar Evers' assassination, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. While Betty Draper and her Junior League friends in Ossining, NY, are suitably appalled at the violence occurring in the South, they are clueless to how racial prejudice exists in their own minds and spaces. The hypocrisy should be evident. Note how the women stand around bemoaning the plight of the "Negroes down South" while a silent Carla, the Draper's black housekeeper who Betty refers to as "my girl," silently serves them unnoticed. Note how on edge Carla often seems in the house of her white employer. Note how Betty's friend tells her she should have made Carla stay (and abandon her own family) to help Betty around-the-clock after she gave birth to baby Gene. Note how young Bobby has already learned to speak to black women disrespectfully; last night snapping: "I said I didn't want any salad." An outburst that led Betty to remind him, "Carla works for me, not you." Note how Betty faux sympathizes when Carla mentions the now-infamous murder of the four girls in Birmingham, adding "Maybe civil rights shouldn't happen yet."

For someone like me, "Mad Men" is becoming ever more brilliant and ever more uncomfortable in its reality. So, I find it interesting, as I scan "Mad Men" forums and recaps every Monday, that so many people fail to identity the subtle sexism, racism and homophobia on the show, and find the overt prejudice a disconnect with their favorite characters.

I have written before about how viewers often twist and turn to avoid ascribing racist actions to popular characters. Remember Joan's interaction with Paul's black girlfriend last season? I wrote then:

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.


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.

Don's meeting with Sal has similarly provoked disbelieving responses from viewers, who cannot understand how the same Don Draper that kept a gay man's secret a few months ago could now use that secret against him, speak to him in a denigrating manner and suggest that he should prostitute himself for the good of the firm's bottom line.

From Television Without Pity, the mother of all TV/entertainment forums:

I was personally surprised and deeply disappointed in Don's reaction to Sal. The way he said, "you people," just shocked the hell out of me. It seemed extremely out-of-character for him. Don has a lot of flaws, but he's always been pretty accepting of other people, regardless of their lifestyles or situations. My heart broke for Sal, especially because I think he really thought Don would be an ally in this situation. I don't blame Don for upholding the firing (though I agree with others that it's really Harry that deserved the firing), because it was too late. They can't afford to lose that client. But I still thought (and I think Sal thought) that Don would be more sympathetic to the situation.

I'm sorry, but this show seems to me to be warming up to jump the shark. I really feel the writing has slipped.

Don's treatment of Sal is not just cowardly and cruel, it's also inconsistent with his behavior from ep 1 and through the season. I can sort of respect the writer's not caring if we like the characters, but Don's jerkitude lately just seems to be a default setting. All the characters getting the airtime are growing more and more loathsome, while anyone either appealing or just funny is either made less so, forced out, or just ignored.

As someone who's heard the disparaging "you people" more times than I care to count, I didn't see/hear it as Don being disgusted with gay people, but rather as him being fed up with all the people he's had to butt heads with in this ep and the season overall: Connie, Bert, Roger, Peggy and Betty just to name a few. I think Sal just got caught in the crossfire.

That was an entirely distressing episode. Sal is fired because of a repulsive thug from Lucky Strike. That man was just vile and poor Sal standing in the park, pretending to be at work did make me tear up. I understand that Don had little choice, Lucky Strike is a huge account, but I hated that he blamed Sal. Actually, I kind of wanted to dump a bucket of ice water over Don's head to help him clear it. Don didn't always fold to clients like that, but I guess this is evidence of Don-the-contract-player. Ugh.

I caught the rerun just in time for the "you people" scene. I guess it didn't leap out at me as homophobic on first watch because Don just seemed disgusted with everyone -- Sal, Harry, Lee Garner Jr (Lucky Strike guy) -- basically his attitude is that they're all just a bunch of unprofessional bumblers. But sure, I can see the homophobia. Still, considering the way Don handled Sal and the Bellhop, and considering it's 1963, he's still miles ahead of the average guy on this count.

Don didn't behave very well this week, but his firing of Sal didn't seem sociopathic to me. It seemed necessary. Unless Sterling Cooper is supposed to close its doors.

Several viewers see Don as acting out-of-character in his treatment of Sal, even though we have seen Don's amorality at work in the past. Some are eager to explain away Don's use of icky language that is generally accepted as a flag for prejudice and putting a lesser person "in their place"--"you people" and also "Who do you think you're talking to?". More than a few people also surprised me by stating that Sterling Cooper had no choice but to fire Sal to retain a major client. That's a chilling attitude and a window to why so many groups have failed to achieve equality in the workplace.

I am flummoxed that so many people cannot believe that Sal's homosexuality would lead to his firing--on the weekend of the National Equality March and in a time when the military still has a "don't ask don't tell" policy, which is, in essence, the bargain Sal had struck with Don. Gays, lesbians and transgendered people are still vulnerable in the workplace in 2009. And firings aren't always administered by mustache-twirling villains.

So, when this commenter writes...

I didn't see any hypocrisy in Carla opening the door-- it's her job. Ossining was all-white but that doesn't mean it was segregated per se. Interesting observation but MW has made that point much better in workplace situations where the segregation was real and overt (the television account). Maybe because I lived four years in the south, I thought the way the women were trying to understand it was more a comment about north vs. south and their experiences of the issue. It just isn't an issue for Betty, which is not something anybody could say in Birmingham.
...he or she is missing the mark, possibly unable to see racism in characters more relatable than Bull Connor. Betty's neighbors were not trying to "understand" racism; they were reveling in Northern superiority over supposed Southern depravity. Meanwhile, many of the same racist beliefs and restrictions associated with the South existed in the North, even if they weren't codified into "Jim Crow" laws. Let's not forget that the Drapers recently attended a party where the host performed in blackface for a chuckling crowd. As a black woman living in New York, Carla still has few options to her besides domestic; she is still not treated as Betty's equal; she is still expected to be "mammy" to the Draper children; she is still invisible and powerless; she is still spoken to in a demeaning way, even by the white children she "mothers," though one commenter hedges:

I wasn't so bothered by the "Carla works for me" line. I thought first she was commenting on the tone, and then reminding Bobby that it wasn't up to him to say what he had for dinner-Betty made the decisions about whether he got salad or not.

If bigotry was always about lynchings and assassinations and sitting at the back of the bus...if it was always administered by flagrant hatemongers, then fighting it would be much easier. Part of what allows modern prejudice to fester is its "grayness" and the ease with which the mainstream can relate to people who are biased--after all we are all biased. And you cannot live in a racist, sexist, heteronormative society without absorbing those biases, even when you are vigilant.

When modern-day viewers cannot even spot bias in a TV show set in 1960s when "isms" were much more obvious, what hope do we have for recognizing and ending these problems today?


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