Why Mad Men’s treatment of black Americans is a problem

The show not only repeats the historical marginalisation of black people, but enacts their current marginalisation. FOXTEL

Why Mad Men’s treatment of black Americans is a problem

The show not only repeats the historical marginalisation of black people, but enacts their current marginalisation. FOXTEL

Matthew Weiner, the creator and “showrunner” of Mad Men, is famous for his pernickety attention to detail. The office furniture, clothing, and hairstyles of Mad Men must change, faithfully, with each year, with each season. Appearance means so much, especially for advertisers. Even the fruit in the platters that accompany client meetings must be small; apples were apparently not as big in the 1960s as they are now.

Not big in 1960s Manhattan was the visibility of African Americans, or Hispanic Americans, or Asian Americans, or any Americans other than the white, waspy workers of Madison Avenue advertising agencies. This is what Mad Men indicates.

It took until the current season, eight years into the show’s march through the 1960s, for a significant conversation to take place between people of colour.

The conversation between Dawn Chambers and Shirley (no surname given), the two African Americans employed by Sterling Cooper & Partners, neatly enacts the invisibility of and blindness towards people of colour.

“Hello Dawn,” says Dawn to Shirley, playing out the interchangeability of these two token hires in their white workplace. They are silent when a white worker enters the tearoom. Their conversation holds nothing for this worker, and vice versa.

Shirley gets to grips with Sterling Cooper & Partners. FOXTEL

The episode finishes with Dawn receiving a promotion. Dawn is closeted away from reception because of the avuncular (that is, pernicious for its apparent harmlessness) racism of one of the agency’s partners, Bert Cooper:

I’m all for the national advancement of coloured people, but I do not believe they should advance all the way to the front of this office.

Dawn was initially hired as the result of a prank gone wrong. The agency advertised itself as an equal-opportunity employer in response to another advertising agency’s executives being shamed for water-bombing African American protestors; the agency was inundated the next day with African Americans looking for work.

This is a smart use of history. While the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, colour, or national origin, racism is firmly entrenched in the fabric of American society. Change was effected by accident, even if the formal barriers to inclusion needed to be torn down in order for these accidents to be possible.

In the comments section of a recent Huffington Post article bemoaning the absence of Latinos in Mad Men’s depiction of Manhattan, a man by the name of Phillip B. wrote:

It is a fictional television show that is set 50 years ago. There is no social message or need to look for any sort of ethnic validation.

Shirley and Peggy exchange glances. FOXTEL

Must the show be as focused on the racial history of the period as it is to the seductions of mimicry found in décor, clothes, and sexual mores? This question becomes pressing if Mad Men is held to be authoritative.

This authority already emerges from the assertion that it gets these things “right”: the train schedules from Ossining to Grand Central; the colours that were in, Spring 1964; the terrible treatment of women in the workplace. This authority, once recognised in these registers, cannot help but apply generally. How, then, does Mad Men exercise its authority?

Surely the absence of a social message is also a message, if a mixed one. It might indicate that the show’s producers don’t have a position on the prevailing sexual, racial, and class inequities that motored much of the 1960s, and how that decade is remembered.

This is not the case. We get to shake our heads at doctors smoking in their clinics, and smirk at the sexist banter that would have you tapped on the shoulder for an intervention by HR nowadays. The past is being judged by the present, and by the standards of the present.

This relationship of the present to the past clues us in to how history is used by Mad Men. A postracial sensibility justifies the exclusion of persons of colour from the show. Postracism brackets off racism as existing elsewhere, in another America, in another time, not ours.

That’s why we notice the absence of Americans of colour at all. It gives meaning to the brief reaction-shots of Carla, the Draper family’s black housekeeper, when she is the victim of racist assumptions. We understand. We’re on her side.

Viewers recognise the injustice faced by Sam, the first man Don Draper interacts with in Mad Men’s pilot. Perhaps named for the most famous African American Sam – the help that played it again for Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca – he is described as “chatty” by a white co-worker. Tellingly, he hasn’t even said a word.

Dawn prepares to take notes. FOXTEL

Don, exercising a postracial sensibility, responds that they were merely having a conversation: “Is that OK?” He then sends the white waiter off to fetch him a drink. Both black and white are equal: of equal service.

But Don then uses Sam as unpaid market research. He presses him on his smoking habit, asking him how he could change his mind, how he began smoking in the first place. Sam received cigarettes during the war.

Working as a waiter with an overbearing boss or co-worker, it would seem the access to cheap education, mortgages and start-up business loans guaranteed by the GI Bill were not extended to Sam. (While federally legislated, the bill was administered by the states, and so subject to their segregationist impulses.)

The legacy of slavery and segregation continues in the everyday lives of African Americans. “Black men are six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons,” reported the Pew Research Center last year, on the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech. This figure is up on the same statistic from 1963, when they were five times as likely.

And while life-expectancy has increased for African Americans, so too has the income gap between black and white America.

Is it “good history” for Mad Men, in its slavishly exact recreation of Manhattan in the 1960s, to repeat the marginalisation of the past? Does fidelity to period mean that a statistical reality – the small number of African Americans in white-collar jobs in the 1960s – must become the reality of the show?

As much as it strives for historical accuracy, the show is not real. It tells a fictional story. Its characters are, mostly, fictional. It is centred on a man with an incredible (that is, hard to credit) back-story.

By keeping people of colour out of the frame, the show not only repeats the historical marginalisation of those people, but also enacts their current marginalisation.

How many television shows portray “significant” people of colour, characters that exist as more than foils for the central white characters? (I’m looking at you, Raj Koothrappali, from The Big Bang Theory.)

Who controls or provides the means for representation of people of colour? Matthew Weiner? Don Draper? Definitely not Dawn Chambers.


Mad Men Season 7 airs on Mondays on Foxtel’s Showcase channel (finale on May 26). Mad Men season 7, The Final Episodes, will air on Showcase in 2015.