Mad Men and Race
I’ve been following the conversations online about the way that race appears and, more often, does not appear in AMC’s brilliant Mad Men. It has been a very intriguing debate that reveals just how central television remains in our lives, and how people of color still long to see themselves represented in full on television.
But Tamara Winfrey-Harris’ terrific analysis on Change.org is, by far, the one that I think best captures what I think the frustration with what Matthew Weiner and his team are doing with race on the show means:
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.
It is the knowledge of the nation’s racial immaturity that plagues me when I watch Mad Men. And I suspect it is this that bothers those who have criticized the show’s handling of race. It is not that I cannot hear the thump, thump of race in the show’s narrative. It is that I know many other people aren’t as attuned to the sound.
I think we’d like to believe that everyone in the 60s was down South participating in Freedom Rides and sit-ins. And I think because we like Don Draper and these characters, we’d like to think that they’d be the types who would put everything aside and fight for African-American civil rights. But what we see is that they are only slightly aware of the changes that are afoot in the country. And that, in and of itself, says something powerful about race in this country at that time.