|Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC|
I’m a Mad Men fan, and over the years I’ve patiently waited for race and racism to play a bigger role in the popular AMC show, which is set in 1960s America and revolves around the personal and professional lives of an advertising agency staff. I’ve been able to understand why race (and people of color) has been left in the proverbial margins—after all, this is a story about white characters living in a predominantly white world where their only interaction with black men and women is when they take the elevator or are firing their maids. There is no cognizance of the wide political world around them—the immensity of civil rights is treated as a throwaway luxury and personal anxieties and dramas outweigh the emerging movement. Of course, I like to think the creators of Mad Men have exposed this lack of awareness with intention —after all, it remains ever present today, when everyone from newscasters to politicians turn a blind eye to the violence and injustice perpetrated against black men and women in America.
But at long last, after four seasons of drama, we’re seeing race (and racism) at the forefront of Mad Men. We’re enjoying talking about it almost as much as watching it on television—and there are some amazing and insightful things being said, especially around sex and the sexuality of women. Yet in the midst of conversations, I’m wondering why no one seems to be taking note that Mad Men characters (and viewers) are being confronted with the racial political climate through the introduction of black women.
Season 5, which premiered on Sunday night, began with two young white men throwing paper bags filled with ice water from their building window onto the heads of black men and women protesting for the enforcement of the Economic Opportunity Act.
A group of female protestors, one pulling on the arm of her young son (drenched in water), show up at the office to report the act, where a white female secretary tells them that their accusations are ridiculous, that no one in their office would do something like that. The presence of a child in the scene reminds viewers that these women are protestors and also mothers and that black women in the movement having to juggle multiple roles simultaneously. When the young boys barge through the doors, paper bags in hand, the camera turns to the protestors. “And they call us savages,” one of the women remarks. It’s a powerful and significant moment in which all of the hypocrisies and injustices of white privilege are consolidated into a poignant phrase. It’s powerful because it’s true and because it’s real and because this attitude creates repercussions in our culture even today.
The black women showing up at the water-bomber’s office results in negative publicity for the guilty Y&R agency. When executives at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce take out an ad in the paper to jab at their competitors, claiming to be “equal opportunity executives,” they don’t expect it to be taken seriously. But at the end of the episode, their lobby is flooded with young black men and women looking to apply for jobs.
It forces the SCDP execs to make a critical decision—while they don’t have the money to hire and they don’t actually care about black people getting jobs, they’ll be damned if they get shown up by a competitor. Pride takes its toll and we see Lane greet the group of applicants, telling them that they’ll only be hiring secretaries, so all the men are “free to leave”—a phrase that he stutters to correct as soon as he says it. We’re left with a group of young black women, any one of them a possible new hire at the agency and a new character on the show. Here it is black women, not black men, who have the potential for employment, for economic mobility, and for access to that coveted Madison Avenue. Here it is black women who are reminding audiences that while one of the Mad Men protagonists is struggling with postpartum depression and unsure if family leave will protect her job, there are others who are struggling to be employed in the first place, to overcome institutional oppression, to shift culture so it can catch up with the law.
Here’s hoping that we see this plotline grow and stay central.
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