Tokenism v. Pigeonholing On This Season of ‘Mad Men’

If you wondered why Mad Men bothered to open its fifth season with a Civil Rights protest and to make the arc of the first episode the arrival of the first black employee at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, only to assign Dawn, the new secretary, a single substantive sequence for the entire rest of the season, Matthew Weiner has words for you:

One issue some thought would be explored more thoroughly this season was race. The premiere featured a civil rights protest and a black secretary was introduced, but after that, the topic was largely ignored.

“I feel like the expectation that introducing a black character means you have to tell the civil rights struggle is in a way racist,” said Weiner. “I use her character the same way I use all the characters on the show. She is there. I’m sorry if people were disappointed. Do I regret there wasn’t more of it? Yeah. All I can say is, it’s early. We have 26 episodes left. I don’t feel like in the history of the United States that 1966 was the year of civil rights; it’s early.”

This strikes me as somewhat disingenous. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to pigeonhole black characters, but it’s not as if Weiner’s Dawn anything close to a substantive role that fleshes her out as an individual. In seeking to avoid making her a stereotype, he’s largely treated her as a token, an acknowledgement that the world around SCDP is changing but that the characters within it are not always adapting successfully. That’s a fine point to make, but it feels like Dawn exists solely to serve other characters’ development, she’s a device, rather than a person. Weiner and the Mad Men staff have a lot of other tools at their disposal to illustrate Don Draper’s aging, Pete Campbell’s dissatisfaction, Roger Sterling’s lost touch. To me, introducing Dawn only to reduce her to one of those tools is not actually more impressive than telling her a Civil Rights story that gave her humanity and an inner life would have been.