Monday, April 9, 2012

Dawn Watch - Week 2 (Notes on Mad Men's accidental affirmative action hire)

Mild spoiler ahead.

Last week I worried that Don Draper's new secretary, Dawn, would be mere window dressing--a black face to signal the changing times. But in the April 8 episode of Mad Men we learned more about Dawn. She has a brother, who wants to enlist in the Army, and a mom, who worries about sending her boy to fight in Vietnam. She has been secretly sleeping in the Sterling Cooper Draper Price offices on late nights, because cabs won't take her "north of 96th St." into Harlem and, given the civil unrest in 1966, her mother worries about her taking the subway. She's happy as a member of the secretarial pool and has no desire be the black Peggy Olson.

And here we come to my beef about the Dawn character--at least as she has been presented thus far. Yes, we learned more about Dawn last night, but we learned about her through Peggy's point of view. This is a too-common way that Hollywood tackles race: Issues like the shifting civil rights of black people are presented through the eyes of white protagonists. (Think Mississippi Burning. Think The Help.) Characters like Dawn become a Rorschach test for the goodness of white folks. We watch to see how individual white characters react to "the other" in their midst. Will they make race-based jokes like Roger Sterling or the buffoonish Harry? Or will they be smugly benevolent like Peggy? (I don't know, my girl Peggy seemed a little too satisfied with her own broad-mindedness. And methinks that bit about how "we need to stick together" is going to be tested sometime soon.)

Mad Men's handling of gender issues is engaging because we're not learning about 60s housewife malaise through, say, Henry Francis, but through the eyes his wife (and Don's ex) Betty, a "house cat" according to her father, who is learning that a gilded cage is still a cage and that sitting on a pedestal for too long can be a pain in the ass. We also have Peggy, a young woman breaking the glass ceiling, and Joan, who last night made the decision to become a single, working mother. Race, also one of the primary social issues of the era, deserves as much creative justice as gender.

Will Matt Weiner bring the 60s racial upheaval to life through Dawn? I'll be watching.


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