Three years ago, slightly depressed and living in New Mexico while I got my M.F.A., one of my friends said, “Oh my God, you haven’t seen Mad Men? You must see Mad Men.” Or something like that, something compelling enough that I started illegally downloading the first and second seasons.
The first year of the show, I actually had watched a few episodes, in real time with my sister while I lived in NY, but then missed some episodes and failed to pick it back up. When I began watching again, I got hooked for good. The clothing and the furniture of the 60s are kind of my thing, so that was easy enough to be pulled in to start, and the story did the rest. Don Draper was a terrible husband, a distant father, and an altogether fascinating human being. I couldn’t get enough and have waited for each season’s return, excited for what the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, would have in store for the ad men of Mad Avenue. And with that I measured my feelings about the treatment of race in the show. I hoped like a lot of viewers (and complained along with some non-viewers) that they would get to race and handle it deftly. Weiner had deftly handled gender, representing the sexism and repression present for women of that era, while also creating nuanced female characters. He showed the boot on every woman’s neck and then never hesitated to take the camera in close to show the bruises there too.
This year promised, according to its timeline, to change that. It’s 1968 and Martin Luther King is assassinated, and like Kennedy’s before him, his death helped to define that era. My heart kind of broke then when the event I had expected finally happened and Matthew Weiner proved the answer to this question so aptly asked by the writers over at The Atlantic: can Matthew Weiner do as good a job on race as he did on gender? My answer, minus some of the profanity included when I watched the April 28th episode of Man Men entitled The Flood: absolutely ______ not.
Some critics called the move by Weiner to treat race lightly, to focus the characters inward rather than outward struggle, as “brave.” Uhhh, yeah. Sure. Brave would have been allowing these characters–white, well-to-do or at least well-enough-to-do, and too ensconced in their own privilege to recognize the lack thereof for black people–to be more narrow-minded and glibly racist. Weiner allows one character to be that, one that viewers have come to expect to be ham-handed on just about everything. But what about Don or Roger? Joan gives an awkward hug to THE black secretary when she comes in late having struggled to get to work through the rioting in Harlem. It’s about the only moment in the show on race I thought was interesting. We all cozy up to our own privilege, our lighter skin, our skinnier body, our better house, our white collar job, and I can’t escape the idea that in the 1960s there would have been very little to stop these characters from cozying up to their privilege that much more. It’s New York you say, it isn’t Mississippi. Tell that to the Central Park Five or Amadou Diallou. Privilege is privilege and no one likes the people who threaten it.
Some would argue that this glancing treatment of race is Matthew Weiner working hard to be true to the era. It’s the same response people give when someone comments on how sexist the show is. But, remember that boot I talked about earlier? In the course of this episode, I realized that Weiner probably has no idea how to show the bruises on the neck of black people. Get me David Simon, stat! The only two real black characters on the show are mostly absent. I won’t necessarily quarrel with that creative choice, but why must one woman call the black people rioting in Harlem fools? Why does the other black woman practically beg to stay at the office for fear of what she would find in Harlem? How could a writer who made Don Draper so greatly three-dimensional, so tender and terrible, how could that writer not have known or allowed those characters to express some joy at the rioting? How could he have not understood that those women would have hungered, just like any of the “fools” in the street, to let the world know how angry they were? I didn’t need this episode to end with We Shall Overcome, the thought of that makes me ill. But no one can tell me that Weiner’s failure to be bold in some way, in any way, in this episode was brave. It was actually out and out cowardly.