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How ‘Mad Men’ Got History—And Its Characters—Right In Expanding Its Focus On Race

By Alyssa Rosenberg  

"How ‘Mad Men’ Got History—And Its Characters—Right In Expanding Its Focus On Race"

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Race has always hovered around the edges of the storytelling in Mad Men, though the racial politics of the sixties have usually served to illustrate characters’ personalities, rather than driving the storytelling. When Pete Campbell notes the emergence of a distinct black market, it’s an illustration of his sharpness as an advertising executive, and his inability to push the insight forward through conversations with the office building’s elevator operator serves as a reminder of his social deficits. Paul Kinsey’s decision to go on a Civil Rights organizing trip with his girlfriend is more about demonstrating his desire to simultaneously ingratiate himself and prove he’s on the cutting edge than about him actually having particularly evolved racial attitudes. Lane Pryce’s dalliance with an African-American Playboy Bunny was an act of fairly childish rebellion against his father, as much as his wife. And Peggy’s willingness to take Dawn, her replacement as Don’s secretary, home for the night, only then to worry that the more junior woman might steal from her, is an illustration of the struggle between her desire to be kind and her self-interest.

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s been actively resistant to the idea that he has to tell stories about the Civil Rights movement on the show in the past, even though he’s obviously made a choice to depict a segment of Madison Avenue that’s whiter and more male than the industry was overall. So Sunday’s episode of the show, in which we both learn more about Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris), Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first African-American employee, and see racial and gender strife come to the firm not through a racial incident but through the kind of petty office politics that have driven so much of the show’s drama for the past five years, feels both like a response to long-running criticism of the show and a rebuke to the critics, Weiner showing us that his show would get to a key subject in what he determined to be good time, and in his own way.

What Weiner decided to do was make Dawn’s race a factor in a conflict that was simultaneously larger and smaller. While Dawn wasn’t willing to skip out on work to help Scarlett (who must be named for Miss O’Hara, in a great nod to pop culture’s influence even on these pop cultural characters), she did agree to punch her fellow secretary’s time card. When Joan found out, she fired Scarlett for effectively stealing wages from the company, setting up a confrontation between her and Harry, who resents that Joan is a partner, while Harry’s work on television hasn’t earned him the same thing—”It’s a shame my accomplishments happen in broad daylight,” he spits at her in public, ignoring that what earned the partners that title was sacrifice and investment, not personal accomplishment—and bringing up the question of Dawn’s race as one factor, along with her lower level of complicity in Scarlett’s offense, in the decision about whether to fire her.

Once again, the characters’ reactions to the question of whether to fire Dawn, and how to treat her in relation to Scarlett, tells us a great deal about them. “The Commission on Human Rights is continuing to investigate our industry regarding the employment of Negroes,” Pete, the trend-spotter, tells the other partners. He’s referring to a real and long-running investigation of the New York City Commission on Human Rights into hiring practices in the advertising industry, which began with an open forum in 1966 that was attended by representatives of 31 agencies, continued with a 1967 investigation that found that five percent of the city’s advertising agency employees were black or Latino, though they made up 25 percent of the total workforce, and in 1968, resulted in ten agencies being charged with discriminatory hiring practices. That same year, John Elliot Jr., Roger Sterling’s old nemesis, would call the industry’s lack of diversity a moral issue, and acknowledge “our record is not even average. We bring up the rear.”

Don, looking to the personal and ignoring larger forces as always, particularly when it benefits him or suits his whims, notes “She’s a good secretary.” Harry, aggrieved by his subordinate position in the office relative to say, Pete, misses that there’s a racial component to the debate at all, bursting into the partners’ meeting to declare “I don’t know what she said, because I’m not privvy to these conversations, but I would like to defend myself…It’s this simple, Scarlett works for me and Joan fired her…It’s either me or her.” Joan, canny as always while she seethes about Harry’s treatment of her and not seeing Roger and Bert defend her in private, treats Dawn like she treats Peggy, the last girl who wouldn’t fall smoothly in line with Joan’s view of the world and who isn’t going to escape Joan’s rule by marrying a partner: she finds a way to isolate Dawn by holding her to higher standards, but also giving her a chance to excel. “This is the key to the supply closet and this is the key to the time cards,” she tells the younger woman. “You will be responsible for monitoring both.” It’s a move that guarantees that the other secretaries will be irritated with Dawn, and Joan has to clarify that it’s punishment. But Dawn seems to recognize the opportunity here. “I don’t care if everybody hates me here. As long as you don’t,” she tells Joan. And Joan tells her “We’ll see,” with just the faintest hint of approval.

But while Mad Men repeated many of its familiar beats in old characters’ reactions to Scarlett’s sacking and Dawn’s involvement, Mad Men made its boldest move yet in giving Dawn a context outside Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and scenes that suggest the show understands that it isn’t only white characters’ feelings about race and Civil Rights that are important. While these subjects may be useful for signaling racial attitudes, relative hipness, or business acumen for the white main characters, they are the substance of Dawn’s life, and I’m glad the show is treating them that way, even if it took six years for a character of color to get to speak about them in her own setting, rather than in an office elevator or Betty Draper’s living room. It’s even better because Dawn, in certain ways, seems to be set up to be an inverse Peggy. Like Peggy, Dawn is, as she puts it to her friend at their first meeting “never going to meet someone at that office,” though for reasons of race rather than the temperament issues that meant Peggy would never have gone the Jane route. Where Peggy was willing to sleep with Pete in part to prove her gameness, Dawn’s a bit of a prude, telling her friend that “Church is impossible. You can’t stand out in that crowd of harlots.” But where they converge is in their assessment of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and their decisions to put their personal security before politics. “Everyone’s scared,” Dawn explains when her friend accuses her of Uncle Tomming. “Women crying in the ladies’ room. Men crying in the elevator. It’s like New Year’s Eve when they empty the garbage there. There’s so many bottles…I’m going to keep my head down and keep my job…You don’t have to. You’re getting married. And dinner.”

It’s all well and good to tell Dawn and Peggy that they ought to fight for their rights from the comparatively comfortable vantage point of the future. But in the meantime, someone has to pick up the check and make rent.

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