Monday, October 4, 2010

My latest post on Change.org: Mad Men and Society's Race Problem

Mad Men does not have a race problem.

It is true that Matt Weiner's award-winning AMC show is short on significant characters of color, but that doesn't mean that the issue of race is absent. It is there when a cocky ad man corners a black elevator operator and pumps him for information on what TV sets "Negroes" like. It is there in an appalling black face performance at a garden party. It is there when a pampered housewife tsk tsks to her black maid, "Maybe it's just not time for equal rights," or some such. It is there in the ad agency's easy acceptance of a client that "refuses to hire Negroes" in the South. It is there when white men use black women as pawns to bolster their bohemian cred or work out their daddy issues. It is there in the unyielding whiteness and casual racism of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office.

The very absence of people of color in the main narrative of this show speaks volumes. To be clear, Mad Men is not about the mid-20th century. If it was, the show would deserve criticism for not making race a driving issue. But Mad Men is about Don Draper and the people in his orbit -- middle- to upper-class white Americans living and working around Manhattan in the late 50s to mid-60s. For these people, race and racism are largely invisible, until and unless the struggle for equality impinges upon their privilege.

Fellow Change.org columnist Carl Chancellor reminded me of Ralph Ellison's take on being a black man in the 50s: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." Weiner deftly illustrates this invisibility -- the way race is there, but not there in the lives of his white protagonists. The issue of race throbs beneath the narrative like a tell-tale heart. It may often be unseen, but you can always hear the thump...thump...thump. It seems an honest handling by a show that distinguishes itself by knowledgeable, delicate and nuanced analysis of humanity and 50s/60s society within a fictional context. But generally, these days, discussion of race is anything but knowledgeable, delicate and nuanced. And that is the rub. Mad Men does not have a race problem. We do. Read more...

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