On ‘Mad Men,’ Race — At Long Last — Comes to Madison Avenue

I haven’t yet decided if we’ll be doing a regular Mad Men open thread — the response here may help determine that. And this post contains spoilers through the March 25 season 5 premiere of the show.

Several weeks ago, Tanner Colby wrote in response to manifold charges that Mad Men has done poorly in addressing the role of race and the lives of black Americans during the period it chronicles, “Mad Men isn’t cowardly for avoiding race. Quite the opposite. It’s brave for being honest about Madison Avenue’s cowardice.” I don’t know if that’s quite true. It might be more accurate to say that Mad Men is best understood as a show about the sixties told through the stories of the people whose lives were among the last reached by change in that tumultuous decade. The limitations of those characters, by necessity, become the show’s — there are no meaningful black characters with sustained story arcs in Mad Men because none of the show’s main characters have meaningful and sustained relationships with black people that recognize the full humanity of African-Americans.

It appears that could change in Mad Men’s fifth season, though not because the show’s characters are any less solipsistic or any more inclined to reach out beyond the limits of their own experience (unless it’s to add new power dynamics to their sex lives). Rather, it’s because the African-Americans who live in New York and Connecticut, and whose communities and worldviews have been evolving beyond the notice of the people at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, have decided to finally take these powerful men in their gorgeous buildings at their stated words.

That change begins when SCDP’s rivals at Y&R; decide that it’s hilarious to taunt a group of, as they describe them, “cops and negroes and kids” demonstrating to ask the Office of Economic Opportunity, founded in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, to fulfill its promise. The advertising executives, who have already put up hand-lettered “Goldwater ‘68” signs and hollered at the demonstrators to get jobs, pelt them with paper bags filled with water. But they find the tables are turned on them when a number of women and children, accompanied by a white, male reporter march up to Y&R.;


There’s something fitting about the fact that they confront an aging secretary first — the most vulnerable person in the firm has to turn away the vulnerable people calling the firm to explain its conduct. God forbid an executive actually have to account for himself when he can pit members of disadvantaged groups against each other. It’s entirely too on the nose when one of the women tells the secretary “Don’t call us ridiculous! Is this what Madison Avenue represents?” and then spotting the guilty parties remarks, “And they call us savages.” The point isn’t that they’re savages, it’s that they’re raging children, afraid of anything they find unfamiliar or threatening. They’re pathetic, but no less dangerous for it.

The men of SCDP get that their rivals are in a fix, but they don’t understand why their behavior is shameful rather than simply unstrategic. And that misunderstanding is why they trip themselves up when Roger insists it’ll be a delightful joke to take space in the advertising section of the Times announcing the their firm, unlike Y&R;, is an equal opportunity employer.

First, it sets off Joan, who marches into the office with her son to make sure her job is safe — once again, it’s women and people of color who feel pitted against each other by men who are certain their positions are secure. And then, it welcomes in a flood of black job applicants who have decided to take the advertisement at its stated word, and ignoring what Roger believed to be its archness and sophistication, have decided to come after the jobs SCDP thought it didn’t actually have to offer to gain points. This isn’t Don’s letter swearing off cigarette company business. It’s not a game, and it’s not another act of branding. And you can’t joke, as Roger and Don earlier joked about not hiring Jews, when the people you aren’t hiring show up at your door and put the question to you directly so your answer won’t stay private, and confined to the realms of people small enough to find it funny. The rapid-fire conversation when the partners see the neatly-dressed, patient applicants is revealing. “I don’t know why we can’t just hire one.” “Because we’re not hiring.” “Fire that receptionist.” “We can’t have one out there.”

And an inability to refer to black people directly isn’t the only way the partners don’t know how to talk to or about people who were previously so far distant that they have no language or conversational experience to draw on, no sense of what’s appropriate or respectful. When Lane tries to at least halve their problem by announcing that they’re only hiring secretaries (oh, the conflicts that are past, and passing, and are yet to come), he struggles to find the words to address the men, saying: “You are free to leave. I mean, you are welcome to leave. You may go.” It’s a funny, uncomfortable moment, and one where the show sees Lane in a way he can’t possibly clearly see himself.

Would it have been nice for Mad Men to move race to the center of its narrative sooner? Absolutely. But I’m not entirely convinced it would have been realistic for these people, who even as they sell the world of tomorrow to their clients cling resolutely to the privileges awarded by the past, to have been quick to understand and explore the way racism shapes their lives, decisions, and reactions. That’s a flaw of Don Draper and his peers, and yet another signal of how far they may be left behind and the things their backwardness will deny them. “We’re going to the Statue of Liberty,” Don tells Sally, Bobby and Eugene during their weekend with him and Megan. “You always say that,” Bobby reminds him, “but we never do.”